CHRISTMAS is early this year. At least that is what it may seem to the hundreds of thousands of children making their way to the Kwai Chung Sports Ground this week. For that is the venue for the '94 Toy Festival organised by the Regional Council - a 'toy-studded' heaven displaying an array of playthings guaranteed to dazzle every youngster.
The first exhibition of its kind in Hong Kong and south China, the festival brings together some 100 booths of toys. But, more importantly, it tries to send a special festive message to parents: besides being fun, toys can be used to enhance relationships with their children.
Unfortunately, most toys available are designed to be played alone, which can hamper the child's social growth, said Anna Hui Na-na, executive officer of the Centre for Child Development at the Hong Kong Baptist University.
'Toys should have the value of promoting creative, conceptual, cognitive, language and social development,' Ms Hui said.
In an earlier study of 50 toys produced by a 40-year-old company in Hong Kong, the centre found that over 90 per cent of the sample involved motor and cognitive skills. Only a quarter of the toys tested youngsters' language skills and another 25 per cent their creativity.
'This imbalance shows most buyers, whether teachers or parents, put a lot of emphasis on the cognitive and psycho-motor development of children. There is a lack of concern about areas such as language, creativity and socio-emotional growth,' Ms Hui said.
As children grow, they should progress from solitary play to group activity in which they learn to build social relationships, she said.
But is there any harm in having fun with a portable Gameboy or a miniature set of Polly Pocket? Ms Hui acknowledged that those toys can enhance children's physical and cognitive skills. However, they are too small to be shared and discourage social interaction.
Barbie dolls and cartoon characters designed to whet children's appetite to collect more and more follow-up items from the range can also be detrimental if allowed to dominate their attention, said Mak Yung-sung of Parents Education Promoter, a volunteer group screening toys for the festival.
'The average Hong Kong parents lacks awareness about what toys to select for their children, and they are willing to spend to satisfy children's increasing desire to possess toys,' Mr Mak said.
But what toys can offer also depends on how they are used, he said, which is where parents come in. They could play together, showing the children how to turn the multi-functional toy heroes into different objects.
While toys that enhance physical co-ordination are suitable for the very young, problem-solving board games and computer games are popular with teenagers.
For example, 11-year-old Osman Kitchell is hooked on Oceans Below and Theme Park games. 'It is exciting to be taken to places to explore the fascinating underwater world and be in control of the land-buying and park-building business,' he said.
But Ms Hui warns against violence-inclined playthings such as air-guns or toy weapons.
'Many toy shops in the US have stopped selling toy guns recently. While such items can be for defence, they can also be used for attack,' she noted. 'People say boys naturally love guns, but why not replace it with another harmless toy among boys' favourites, like a lorry?'