What are your children learning from their toys? Toys and play are as important as food and rest for a child, Sudarshan Khanna, India’s pioneer in traditional toy design.

If gadgets are all children consider as toys these days, we may be in for some serious trouble. Children have much to learn from toys, from the experience of playing with them, and a lack of good toys is giving rise to children who do not know how to deal with their surroundings. Some toys from North East India, made of bamboo, can be played only if the child is fragile and gentle — their purpose is for a child to learn to be gentle. “But today’s toys push consumerism — it involves fast play and getting rid of them,” says Sudarshan Khanna.

The founder-chairperson of Toys for Tomorrow, an international vision action forum, Khanna also says it is a myth that only technological toys are popular. “It is not true. Barbie is a sociological toy, but it’s not more profound than the traditional dancing doll!”

Sudarshan Khanna and his daughter Surabhi Khanna, a toy designer in her own right, were recently in Bangalore at Kavade, the traditional games store, to conduct a workshop for children and adults in toy-making.

The real problem, says Khanna, is that children have not been given perspective. “They have only been given this mono-vision of mass-produced toys from China and elsewhere.” Sudarshan is democratic, and does not dismiss anything that’s new just because it is new. Neither is he all-embracing of all that is old, simply because it is our culture. “The question is ‘Do people need heritage/old ideas in today’s time? Have kids been given opportunities for both or have they been loaded in favour of one and loaded against another? If heritage is presented with perspective, and then you give them technology…” he trails of hoping the connect sinks in. “You need to redesign, upgrade, have new thematics. There’s no denying digital media is powerful, and we should respect it. This with that is good. I’m not against hi-tech systems.” He stresses again that knowledge we create today is the heritage of tomorrow. “You have to contemporise or modernise heritage. Unfortunately, our traditional craftsman is not trained for it; so the customer doesn’t like what he makes.”

What then, is a good toy? “A toy must bring out norms that are not communicated through talk — can you bring out compassion? Non-verbal communication? A child should be able to experience it. Most traditional toys have this quality,” says Khanna. For a child, a toy is not ‘pastime’. “But in case of hi-tech toys it’s like junk food — they don’t get much out of it,” says this past president of the International Toy Research Association.

The purpose of experiential play is not pastime — which is the focus of toys today — but to imbibe a value system. “New-age toys are mostly irrelevant; the aspect of social norms is missing. For a child, play is as important as food and rest. But as a society we are completely ignoring it. And I emphasise, this is not the case in Scandinavian countries.”

Educationists are now finding that the actual use of skills and manipulation, and the use of hands, is fundamental for a child’s development. “Because of this inability to use motor skills, kids cannot connect with surroundings; we are disconnected with society,” he emphasises.

Khanna has been associated with the National Institute of Design (NID) for over 35 years now, and has set up the post graduate programme in toy design and development. His next batch of students will be the 12 to graduate. The students who attend this course are diverse — engineers, artists, people from cities and small towns — who go back to work either with NGOs, or digital or board game companies. It’s mostly the government that supports such a programme, not the toy-manufacturing industry, he points out.

“There was a proposal that government schools must allocate an amount for toys sourced from indigenous communities; then you’re able to bring in knowledge about indigenous art and craft like Kondapalli and Chennapatna at the school level.” Such programmes, of course, remain on paper. Teachers need to be made interested and confident to use simple materials to bring in creative and innovative activities, he says. “In European and Scandinavian countries there is a realisation that the fundamental way of education is experiential. In our society we still haven’t reached there.”