It's that time of year when we spoil our children garbage-rotten with toys, toys, and more toys. It's the reason for the season! In fact, right before I signed off from my last shift before Christmas, I gchatted my boss "Merry Christmas! Now I gotta go buy some educational toys my nieces will hate!" However, when entering the toy store, I found that even the educational toys didn't look that educational. There were friendship bracelet making materials and kits to make their own makeup. Which, OK, might be kind-of cool but they're not actually making their own makeup, they're just stirring pre-made colors into pre-made lip balm.

I was annoyed — where's the volcanic explosion kits of my youth!? Turns out that those sorts of things no longer exist.

"Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit," said Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, who recalled learning the names of chemicals from his childhood chemistry set, which contained substances that have long since been banned from toys.

Some scientists lament the passing of the trial-and-error days that inspired so many careers. "Science kits are a lot less open-ended these days," said Kimberly Gerson, a science blogger who lives outside Toronto. "Everything is packaged. It's either ‘yes' or ‘no.' If you don't get the right result, you've done it wrong and you're out of chemicals."


I think, like anything, it's simply a reflection of changes in society. When I was a kid (grumble grumble broad statement time), if you got bit by a dog, you were told to keep your damn face out of the dog's face while they were eating, sleeping, playing, etc. Today, if a child is bit by a dog, everyone freaks out, the dog isn't good with kids!, and the dog is killed.

Today, if there's any chance that a toy could or will or did injure a child, it's recalled. On one hand, that's great, fewer kids are getting poisoned, hurt, or killed by dangerous toys. In an ideal world, it would push toy manufactures to dream up creative play things that won't potentially maim little Sally.

But also, with these prescriptive toys, the elements of trial and error, the ways in which we really learn, are much more limited. I guess we'll see if the next generation of chemists are able to innovate in new ways — or if they spend all their time mixing sports drinks to come up with a new flavor of Brawndo*.


*It's what plants crave!

Gifts That Keep Giving (if Not Exploding) [NY Times]

Image via Raywoo / Shutterstock.