When I was a wee lad, those ubiquitous little green army men were my toy(s) of choice. Just give me a bag of Captains (holding the .45 cal), flamethrower men, and lay flat shooter guys, and I was one happy camper. I'd create battle after battle, fantasy world after fantasty world, for hours on end. I'm sure plenty of parents and pundits debated the good and bad of playing war. Suffice it to say I have not grown up to be a violent offender who likes to torch things with a flamethrower. I did have my magnifying glass/focused sun rays/bug phase, but that was long ago.
Today's young consumers can choose some of the same type toys I played with decades ago, but in addition they can take their young and creative minds online for some daily fantasy camp. Today's New York Times has a great article called Web Playgrounds of the Very Young, detailing the accelerated efforts of entertainment companies to build virtual worlds for children. From the Times article:
Second Life and other virtual worlds for grown-ups have enjoyed intense media attention in the last year but fallen far short of breathless expectations. The children’s versions are proving much more popular, to the dismay of some parents and child advocacy groups. Now the likes of the Walt Disney Company, which owns Club Penguin, are working at warp speed to pump out sister sites.
“Get ready for total inundation,” said Debra Aho Williamson, an analyst at the research firm eMarketer, who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.
The article says Club Penguin, where members pay $5.95 a month to dress, accessorize and play games with penguin characters, attracts seven times more traffic than Second Life. And Webkinz, where kids care for stuffed animals that have an online and offline existence, had some six million unique visitors in November. Visitors to a beta version of Disney.com's Pixie Hollow have created four million fairy avatars, and the site won't officially launch until the summer. Apparently, your fairy avatar leaves trails of fairy dust when it moves across the screen. How fun is that. But the article says the critics are "sharpening their knives":
“We cannot allow the media and marketing industries to construct a childhood that is all screens, all the time,” said Susan Linn, a Boston psychologist and the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.
I am not a parent, but I have a number of nieces and nephews, and two very special youngsters (ages 4 and 6) whom my wife and I are godparents to. We visited them on Christmas Eve, and one, Cupcake is her nickname (the 6 year old), showed us her Webkinz pet and how she plays on the site. The site really wowed me, very interactive and a great teaching tool. She was having a blast, but had no problem pulling away to resume our 'real world' activities, like chasing each other around the house and looking at her handmade ornaments on the Christmas tree.
Susan Linn is concerned about the media and marketing industries "'constructing a childhood that is all screens, all the time". I'd argue that it is the parents' responsibility to make sure their kids are well rounded, and not glued to the TV or computer. I'd also argue that because we are now living in the digital age, it would be smart for parents to seek out the best and most wholesome sites, like Club Penguin and Webkinz, where their kids can learn to explore and create and interact online. Today's children will spend huge chunks of their time learning online, at school and at home, and in the future, huge chunks of their time at work using software and Web tools. Why not give them a head start with some fun, safe, creative online environments?