How to make your presents felt

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am

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Like many children, Kathy Wong Kin-Ho dreamed of finding a gleaming, new bicycle under the Christmas tree. So when a red two-wheeler made its glorious appearance - a joint Christmas and Lunar New Year present - her joy knew no bounds.

'At the time, our economic situation wasn't great. I knew how expensive bikes were, and that it wasn't something my parents could easily afford,' remembers Wong, now executive director of the Playright Children's Play Association, a group focused on social and policy issues affecting young lives. 'I didn't expect it, and as a result I was so happy, because I knew how much care and love had gone into the gift.'

Care and love, sharing and giving; it is what Christmas is all about. Or is it?

'Giving gifts at Christmas used to be a process - the buying, opening, and then the appreciation and enjoyment of the gift itself,' says Wong. 'Now, all busy and over-stressed parents think about is what's trendy. They buy it, and after a week the child has lost interest and never plays with the toy again. But what is important is the process and the people involved; that families play with the toys together.'

Wong recalls an experience last July, when Playright members visited a kindergarten in Wales as part of an international play conference. 'They set up lots of different play corners, including one with computers, but the children actively preferred the other games,' she says.

She concedes, however, that if children are handed an iPad, they will play with it, but she says youngsters gravitate towards computers when there are no other people or children to interact with. 'Give them the opportunity, and they enjoy - prefer - playing with others. It's all about giving children a better choice.'

Like Wong, Lucy McLennan, a mother of three, feels Christmas and the tradition of giving presents is about spending time together as a family.

'My older two, Yasmine [seven] and Max [four], love bikes and scooters, and our youngest, Mia [18 months], loves the ladybird Wheely Bug to whizz around on. Yasmine also likes anything arty or creative - something to bead, colour or make. And I always make sure I buy a new board game or puzzle so the whole family can join in.'

Children's expectations are often guided by their parents, says Katrina Walker, the founder of Bumps to Babes, a store for mothers and babies. 'The advances in technology and increased brand awareness of multimedia toys have led children to dream of owning more electronic toys at a younger age.'

So she suggests including different types of toys, mixing some of the well-designed wooden classics with brightly coloured, stimulating plastic toys, along with some that have lights and sounds.

'Parents will remember when the wish list for Santa was only ever for toys like train sets, non-battery operated cars, dolls, tea sets, knights, castles, skipping ropes and yo-yos,' Walker says. 'Nostalgia will always play a role as manufacturers recognise parents want to share toys and memories with their children. Toys help children explore the boundaries of their imaginations and creativity, making learning fun and helping them grow into happy, confident people.'

Joan Szeto, general manager of retailer Toys Club, agrees. It is extremely important children learn through play, she says.

'Kids imitate familiar events in their lives, and act out their emotions during play. For instance, reassuring a doll mummy will return, or imitating roles - like a doctor - help them make sense of how the adult world works,' she says.

'Some toys will never date. In both developed and developing countries, kids enjoy dressing up, hand puppets, doll's houses, kitchens, playing at pirates or doctors, tool kits, marbles, beads, toy soldiers, garages and fire stations.'

Andy Neilson, founder and owner of city retail store King & Country, which sell miniatures of soldiers from different periods in history, believes there will always be a place for classic toys.

'Old-fashioned quality toys still appeal to children of all ages,' says Neilson, a passionate collector of toy soldiers since he was four years old. 'They echo history, culture and are a good tool for teaching.'

Despite their simplicity, toy soldiers can stimulate a lot of imagination in children, Wong says.

'They think about how they play with them, and create scenarios, not just by themselves but often with other children. There is a fundamental value in old-fashioned toys, which in some cases, is even being translated into modern technology. For example, iTouch and Nintendo DS use software which incorporates these themes, such as cooking or driving cars.'

Nevertheless, Szeto has noticed a huge jump in the demand for electronic toys over the past decade, with electronic elements being incorporated into traditional toys.

'Classic wooden doll's houses have added electronic elements to appeal to children, with working lights and flushing sounds for the toilet,' she says. 'Or there are baby dolls that are anatomically correct that can eat, drink, speak and poop. But parents should be very careful, as electronic toys generally require very little movement, and limit imagination.'

One problem with electronic games is their potentially addictive quality and the child's inability to self-limit, Wong says.

'They keep you playing because you have to win, and the child gets used to instant gratification. I'm not saying these games are evil, but they are hard for children to control, so they should not play too much.'

But there's no getting away from the fact that two decades ago no-one had heard of electronic toy manufacturers such as Leap Frog and VTech, which now rival Mattel and Hasbro.

At the same time, there are other ventures that started as online games and have bridged the cyber-reality gap. Club Penguin or Moshi Monsters, for example, started as providers of multiplayer games on the web and have expanded their product range to plush toys, books and trading cards.

Whatever your views, there is little doubt today's children can be demanding consumers.

'The glut of advertisements and newspaper reports mean children are always thinking about what sort of gifts they want, and they compare the monetary value with each other,' Wong says. 'If they get a trendy toy they can show it off to their friends, instead of appreciating the present itself. Children now receive so many gifts all year round; if they like their gift they're happy and show it around; if they don't they openly show their discontent.'

Some parents try to counteract these materialistic influences by introducing their children to charities helping people in need. Cordelia Dyer, a mother of three, hopes her children's involvement in good causes has taught them to think not only of themselves, but also to manage their demands a little less greedily.

All the same, she says Christmas should be fun and toys do not have to be educational to be enjoyed. 'Sometimes kids just need to be immersed in their own little space and relax as we adults do, when we play sports or watch television shows. My children still love soft toys and dolls and figures of their favourite characters. Instead of seeing the world visually through computer games, play allows them to get closer to that world, and marvel at it in a tangible way.'

Gifts to please all ages

It can be tough selecting an appealing Christmas gift for your child. Katrina Walker from Bumps to Babes says one of the most important considerations when choosing toys is the child's stage of development and what will engage them.

'Babies will begin to learn from play from a very early age - their senses are stimulated by toys that encourage looking, smiling, touching, reaching, sitting, babbling, exploring, standing, walking and investigating,' she says. Later, other toys can be selected to stimulate different developmental areas including creativity, problem-solving, hand-to-eye co-ordination, imagination, social skills and reading and writing skills.

Toddlers

Toddlers need to exercise their hand muscles to develop fine motor skills. Toys Club's Joan Szeto suggests Play-Doh's magic swirl ice cream shop, with extras to make hamburgers and more, as it also exercises the imagination.

Children

Younger children love garages, kitchens and imaginative play items. They could go to work in wooden country-style kitchens - complete with oven, hob, sink, shelves and slide-out worktops - or could get active on the Raleigh Molly girl's bike or a mini-micro scooter, or even challenge each other on the BCE Junior football table. A two-sided wooden easel with chalkboard and whiteboard might appeal to both boys and girls.

Tweens

At this age, many girls enjoy arts and crafts, from pottery and paper making to weaving. Szeto says tween boys also like to be creative using construction kits, such as Lego. They are also keen on spying gear such as night goggles, watches and lie detectors - anything that makes them feel cool and heroic. Aside from Nerf guns, Lego Star Wars is a hot toy this year, as are Hexbugs - robotic creatures that behave like real bugs.

Teens

Teens are independent and curious about their surroundings. So consider micro-chemistry sets, hands-on science kits for growing crystals, rocks and minerals, and kits for electronics, alternative energy, engineering and construction, and even perfume making. Scalextric car-racing games, and football and pool tables - which are great for Hong Kong's tight spaces as they fold upright for easy storage - remain big hits with dads as well.

This year, cool toys to please teens might include Paper Jamz guitars, (ultra-thin guitars that play pop tunes), Bop It (a fast and fun reflex game), and Mindflex, which uses brainwaves to steer a ball through an obstacle course.