For all mankind

For the past 43 years, perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions Americans have asked one another is “Where were you on July 20th 1969 when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the Moon?”

Few can argue that the Apollo 11 mission was one of the most courageous technical achievements America has ever undertaken. Equally remarkable was that the objective was accomplished months before the turn of the decade deadline President John F. Kennedy had established back in 1961.

Seconds before the Lunar Excursion Module (or LEM) touched down on the lunar surface, the mission was almost aborted because the decent had burned more fuel than anticipated. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin carefully guided the LEM closer to the landing site, Houston began counting down the seconds before an abort. If the LEM were to run out of fuel, the delicate spacecraft would have slammed into the lunar surface killing Armstrong and Aldrin instantly. However, Commander Armstrong was a brilliant and experienced pilot and masterfully maneuvered the craft to a safe landing with fumes to spare.

The rest, as they say, is history.

After approximately three hours of exploration and experimentation on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin re-boarded the LEM (code named “Eagle”) and blasted off the landing base to rendezvous with the command module (code named “Columbia”) piloted by Michael Collins who was orbiting the Moon. They left behind an array of scientific instruments, an American flag, hundreds of footprints and a metal plaque mounted on the LEM landing base that read the following:

Here Men from the Planet Earth First Set Foot Upon the Moon, July 1969 A.D. We Came in Peace For All Mankind”.

The plaque was signed by the three Apollo 11 astronauts and President Richard M. Nixon.

In my opinion, what made the Apollo program special along with the NASA programs that preceded it was that the entire nation was behind them. After sending seven men into orbit in 1961 (the goal of Project Mercury) President Kennedy wanted to go farther by sending human beings to another planet within nine years. With the bitter memories of Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin still fresh in our minds and a Cold War raging on, America finally realized that it needed to beat the Soviets this time. While the Soviet Union also undertook a manned lunar program, it ended with a series of heavy launch vehicle failures in 1976.

For me, the recent passing of Neil Armstrong at age 82 along with other heroic American astronauts marks the slow conclusion of an extraordinary era of achievement in America. The recent Space Shuttle “flybys” reminded me of a funeral. The modified NASA 747 Jumbo Jet acting as the pallbearer with the Shuttle Orbiter mounted on its back as the casket. Indeed, it was time to give America one last viewing before the Shuttles were “buried” in museums throughout the United States. It is now abundantly clear that manned space flight is no longer a national priority instead giving way to NASA partnerships with private industry.

When Astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt blasted off the lunar surface on December 14th 1972, it was the last time a human being ever set foot on the surface of the Moon.

When Neil Armstrong was asked in 2005 during a 60 Minutes interview what it was like to walk on the surface of the Moon, Armstrong replied: “It’s an interesting place to be. I recommend it”

God speed Commander Neil Armstrong.

Neil Armstrong’s lunar footprint on July 20th 1969.

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Camp Attitude

My wife and I just returned from an amazing family camp in Oregon called Camp Attitude. What makes this camp unique is that it is specifically designed to serve families with special needs children. High school volunteers (or Buddies) are carefully vetted and properly trained to serve and handle the disabled children campers. This service gives parents a much needed respite from the day to day challenges of raising special needs children. It is an amazing camping experience that does not cost families a dime. All expenses for the camp are paid through generous donations.

One of the best parts about this special camp is that it was envisioned by and is run by people who completely understand the special needs community. There are so few places families with mild to profound disabled children can go and feel completely accepted, understood or accommodated. This is a camp where people like us totally belong. This is our camp home.

Occasionally during a talk or announcement, a non-verbal camper might let out an intelligible scream or utterance. No worries, it’s all part of the camping experience. Every activity is carefully thought out and is adapted for a different type of physical disability.

In the words of one of our friends who told us about this wonderful camp two years ago and whose family camped with us this past week: “This camp is heaven on earth”.

If you would like to know more about Camp Attitude or would like to make a donation, please visit their web site at: http://www.campattitude.com.

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The disastrous consequences of poor communication

It was an unusually chilly morning at the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986 as the countdown expired. Within seconds, two enormous solid rocket boosters ignited and slowly hoisted the 4.5 million pound Space Shuttle Challenger off the charred launch pad from Launch Complex 39B. Among the seven crew members selected for Challenger’s 10th NASA mission (STS-51-L) was a 37 year old high school teacher named Christa McAuliffe from Concord New Hampshire. McAuliffe would become the first teacher in history to be launched into orbit.

As the orbiter accelerated and gained altitude, a breathless nation watched with pride and enthusiasm for this historic mission to unfold. Mission activities would include the first high school science lesson ever taught from space using live specimens.

73 seconds into the launch at an altitude of 48,000 feet, the orbiter rapidly began to disintegrate into a massive fireball. The two solid rocket boosters still burning at full throttle disengaged cleanly from the shuttle’s ruptured external fuel tank and continued to fly independently like out of control missiles. Within seconds, everything became completely quiet. Suddenly, the majestic imagery of a shuttle launch had been replaced by a horrific image of a gigantic spider cloud with thousands of shrapnel chunks spiraling into the Atlantic Ocean.

The wreckage zone from the accident was overwhelming. Debris was spread out over 350 square miles of Atlantic Ocean with some still falling from the sky up to an hour after the accident. The massive salvage and recovery effort conducted by the US Navy involved 11 naval vessels, 41 deep sea divers and one nuclear powered submarine.

In March of 1986, the remains of the Challenger crew compartment were discovered at the bottom of the ocean in 100 feet of water and approximately 15 miles east of the launch site. Experts believe the crew compartment remained intact after the shuttle broke apart and continued in a forward and upward trajectory to 65,000 feet before falling and smashing into the ocean at a speed of greater than 200 miles per hour. It was quickly determined that the crew had died instantly upon impact.

On February 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12546 to assemble an investigative commission of 14 individuals tasked with identifying what destroyed the Challenger orbiter. On June 9, 1986 the Rogers Commission Report was submitted to the desk of the president concluding that the root cause of the accident was the failure of a sealing joint known as an “O” ring joint located inside the right solid rocket booster. This failure allowed pressurized hot gasses to leak into the adjacent external fuel tank which eventually led to structural failure of the Challenger shuttle.

Other findings concluded that NASA’s rocket propulsion contractor Morton Thiokol had known about the “O” sealing joint flaw as far back as 1977 but failed to properly communicate this defect to NASA engineers. Information designer Edward Tufte concluded that Morton Thiokol failed miserably by omitting critical details in its NASA presentations about the risks of the “O” ring. Furthermore, Tufte continued, had Morton Thiokol made the effort to plan and design better slides showing meaningful and persuasive details, NASA might have reconsided future launches until conducting its own investigations. Because this scenario represented a perfect example of poor design and presentation of information; Tufte has used it as a case study in his teachings at Yale University.

Upon digesting the Rogers Commission Report further, it was clear another massive failure had brought down the Challenger-a failure to communicate.

In my opinion, communication is one of the most important functions human beings conduct on a daily basis. Successful communication requires two ingredients: an engaged audience, willing to listen or read what you have to say across from a presenter or writer who can be trusted to deliver accurate information in a coherent and meaningful manner without a personal agenda. Communication and documentation is more than just an afterthought or a nice to have; it’s essential. In the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, it was a matter of life and death and the violent destruction of $1.7 billion space vehicle.

Imagine the dangers of pharmaceuticals or surgery without proper documentation or communication. Imagine the chaos and unimaginable death and destruction that could unfold without proper communication at an Air Traffic Control facility. You get the picture. The list goes on and on.

If you don’t agree, ponder it later as you sit cursing over a disassembled bicycle at two in the morning on Christmas Day.

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Thanks Steve

Last night I watched Steve Job’s 2005 Stanford University commencement speech on YouTube. For me, what stood out most about his speech was a story he recalled about an unexpected fascination and passion for typography he developed during a calligraphy class he enrolled in after dropping out of college. I immediately connected with this story because I completely understood what he was talking about. As a college student studying graphic design, I also studied typography. At its core, typography is one of the most aesthetic and technical art forms imaginable. To most people typography is meaningless due to the fact that typefaces have become so ubiquitous in our society. For Steve Jobs, however, this brief college experience would give birth to something huge that would forever change the world of computing and personal technology.

Steve Jobs was more that a visionary genius, he was also an aesthetics genius. While other companies ignored how products looked or made a consumer feel while using them, Jobs did the opposite. The result was a stunning array of glorious creations. Elegance, simplicity and perfection were the finger prints Steve Jobs left on every Apple product. Apple products changed the way human beings interacted with technology forever. No longer were computers intimidating or frightening to use. They now became our friends. Using Apple products have become as comfortable as slipping on a pair of worn jeans right out of the dryer or a big fluffy pillow to lay ones head on when sleepy. When you see an Apple product, you want to hold it and play with it right away and never put it down. In my opinion, that’s at the heart of what aesthetics is and how it influences human beings. For Steve Jobs, looks were just as important as functionality. The presentation of every curve, every button, every mouse, every light, every color and every sound mattered. Everything. Steve Jobs got it big time and it paid off big time.

So thanks Steve for caring about how products look and feel to us and how they make us feel about technology. Thanks for caring about how we interact with technology before we even knew it ourselves. Thanks for creating elegant and extraordinary products worthy of a buck instead of cranking out mediocre products just to make a buck. Thanks for forever pronouncing functionality and looks husband and wife and never letting them divorce. Thanks for “thinking different” and in doing so set the world on fire.

Thank you for everything Steve. You will be greatly missed.

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The erosion of professionalism

I was recently contacted by a recruiting organization based on the East Coast about a job opportunity in the Los Angeles area.  After a brief conversation followed by a review of the basic qualifications sent to me via e-mail, I replied back with  interest including an attached copy of my current resume and answers to a few basic questions.

Several moments later, I was contacted by the same recruiter asking for a more customized version to better address some additional keywords in the job requirements. Not a problem. Within a span of ten minutes, I quickly re-reviewed the job description and added the necessary keywords to my resume. Within five minutes, the recruiter called a third time explaining to me that he could not find the requested information on my resume and that I needed to quickly add this and send it back to him pronto. Confused, I engaged in a polite dialogue requesting more clarity on what his expectations were while explaining how and where I added the keywords. During this discussion, the recruiter hung up on me.

About fifteen minutes later, the same recruiting organization called me back. This time, however, I spoke with a different recruiter who proceeded to request the same information on my resume as the previous recruiter. I politely explained that while attempting to satisfy the original recruiter’s needs, I was promptly hung up on. I then declared I was no longer interested in doing business with his organization. At this point, no apology was offered. No explanations were given. Nothing.

I thanked him for his time and hung up.

There are plenty of stories I could share. In fact, at this point in my job search, I could probably write a book about it. The bottom line is this: the lack of professionalism in today’s marketplace is more than annoying, it’s downright appalling. Unreturned phone calls, attitudes of superiority, unanswered e-mails, mismatched placements and hanging up on people are becoming more and more common in today’s job market frenzy.

Whether we like it or not, part of our success as unemployed professionals working diligently to become gainfully employed is tied to the efforts of recruiters. Those lacking strong established networks or internal connections to companies, are at the mercy of these people.

Within unemployment circles, it has affectionately become known as the black hole. Much like the cosmic variety, this dangerous apparition sucks in every possible form of communication imaginable never to be seen or heard from again. Voice mails, e-mails, everything. This particular black hole is formed with an introductory phone call advertising a particular job opportunity. Once the resume is electronically transmitted, the black hole rages into life. It is an amazing phenomenon that cannot be explained by man.

Hang in there fellow job seekers, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. And if you hear a giant sucking sound, run to the next opportunity as fast as you can.

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Putting hell out of business

This morning, I was both encouraged and inspired by the sermon that addressed the overall condition of the church. More specifically, today’s message centered on these two important questions: how is the church going and what does God expect of us as a church?

The Bible offers a profound glimpse in the Book of Matthew:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. –Matthew 16:18

During the sermon, our teaching pastor recalled a discussion with a church member about his corporate position in today’s marketplace. What unfolded was a description of a company that publically advertised service, excellence, quality, values, etc. but while in private, strategized how to put the competition out of business.

Here’s another question to ponder: what do you think the church’s main competition is? If you think the main competition of the church is other churches, think again.

If we understand Matthew 16:18, the main competition of the church is hell itself.

Think about this: Every time a child is physically or emotionally abused or discarded, every time someone spreads lies or cheats upon another, every time a marriage is completely destroyed, every time a workplace becomes dehumanized and wrought with fear and politics, every time people are marginalized or discriminated against, hell is prevailing.

When I ponder my present frustrations, it’s so convenient to want to blame God. However, the more I think about it, I find that the core issues overwhelmingly point to the shortcomings and behaviors of human beings like me.

So, how is the church going? To simply answer with an OK is unacceptable. We can and must do better. God expects better because the stakes are simply too high. Hell is the competition, its CEO is the devil and its IPO occurred back in the Garden of Eden.  Simply doing OK isn’t going to cut it.

The church’s CEO is Jesus Christ and its mission is not to let the gates of hell prevail against it. We might not have all the answers now (I certainly don’t) but it’s imperative that we eventually figure this one out.  Make no mistake, the church’s objective is clear: we need to put hell out of business.

Fortunately as a church body, we all contribute and make a difference. We are a collection of educated, compassionate and willing believers who want to make a difference. This is our time. This is our moment.

Saddle up Brothers and Sisters; it’s time to bankrupt the gates of hell.

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Zero or hero

They approached the $1 million compound in specially designed MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters loaded with decibel reducing modifications and advanced stealth technology. The expected crescendo of thumping rotor blades was nowhere to be heard as they touched down.  Once boots hit the ground, it was all by the book with every maneuver guided by unprecedented training and split second instincts.

Osama bin Laden’s security posse was about to rendezvous with one of the most highly trained and deadly military forces on the planet-the United States Navy SEALs.

40 minutes later, when the gun battle was over, several people lay dead including the 54-year-old bin Laden shot at close range with single a bullet hit above the left eye.  After an almost 10 year manhunt, the most wanted terrorist was finally eliminated. His body quietly deposited into the North Arabian Sea.

Another mission accomplished for the elite Navy SEALs.

The Navy SEALs (short for SEa Air and Land) were first envisioned during a speech by President John F. Kennedy to congress on May 25, 1961. Becoming more aware of the escalation in Southeast Asia and the need to strengthen unconventional warfare capabilities to combat guerrilla warfare, Kennedy announced spending $100 million to enhance special operations forces. The first major deployment of Navy SEAL units was to Vietnam in March of 1962.

A majority of SEAL Teams (Teams 1-5 and 7-10) are unclassified units except Team 6. Team 6 is considered the elite of the elite or the “All-Star Team” and was the Team selected to take out Osama bin Laden. Members of Team 6 participate in the most dangerous and covert missions imaginable. In fact, Team 6 is so secretive that even the President and Defense Department deny its existence. Successful Team 6 missions are not acknowledged before the public with parades or ceremonies. Because they are military personnel, they’re not eligible for the $25 million bounty placed on bin Laden’s head.

SEALs are unique units because they are highly trained to conduct missions under water, on the ground and in the skies. Navy SEAL preparation involves years of highly unconventional and extremely brutal training. After the first round of training, about 20% of the candidates make the cut. For those who succeed to the next round of training, about 50% make the cut.

SEAL training exercises involve parachuting out the back of an aircraft at 30,000 feet with an oxygen mask strapped to the face, underwater demolition training and swimming in frigid ocean waters for days on end with little or no sleep.

I recently read an article on the Navy SEALs in the San Jose Mercury News. The article involved an interview with a 49-year-old former Navy SEAL named Don Shipley who now runs a private training school in Chesapeake, Virginia called Extreme SEAL Experience.  Shipley, like all former SEALs interviewed, believe the shooting of bin Laden was the proper decision.

Shipley states: “It’s dark; there’s been a lot of bullets flying around, a lot of bodies dropping; your mission is to capture or kill bin Laden; who knows what he’s got tucked in his shirt? It happens in the absolute blink of an eye for these guys and there’s that target in front of you. Second chances cost lives”.

Shipley concludes with this: “If that thing had gone bad, the conversation you and I would be having would be completely different. There’s only two ways to go in these operations-zero or hero”.

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Written in ink

There is a profound scene in the movie The Social Network where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (brilliantly played by Jesse Eisenberg) attempts to reconcile with ex-girlfriend Erica Albright (played by Rooney Mara). Having been scorned by Erica earlier in the film, Zuckerberg took revenge by engaging in a drunken binge of reckless blogging meant to humiliate her. In this scene, however, Erica appears to have the upper hand.

As Zuckerberg nervously requests he and Erica settle the blogging matter in private, she calmly insists in confronting him in the presence of friends seated at her table.  During the confrontation, Erica repeats to his face all the words that were written about her, words originally composed hastily by Zuckerberg behind the safety and convenience of his computer keyboard.

At the close of this scene, one of the greatest lines in the movie is delivered: “the internet is not written in pencil Mark, it’s written in ink”

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the age of digital communication and social media.

I am passionate about communication and consider it to be one of my strongest assets in the workplace. While I have at times failed miserably at it, I still value doing it properly and effectively. The bottom line is this: words matter to me. If used responsibly, they can build up and inspire. If used recklessly, they can cause great damage. Let’s face it; we have all said things we wish we had not said. Unfortunately, electronic communication has allowed this to occur more frequently without consequences.

We can all agree that the internet has changed communication forever. E-mail and social media portals have made communication convenient, efficient, and widespread. Likewise, the internet has also made communication safe, distant, and anonymous. The more we play in the “digital sandbox”, the bigger our digital footprint becomes on the internet. That’s the price of admission for participating on-line.

What if someone developed and produced a huge “digital eraser” application (perhaps one already exists). Do you really believe you could successfully capture and eradicate every bit and byte of your on-line presence? Think again. Just like writing something in pen then attempting to erase it, there is a faint trace that remains on the paper.

Imagine receiving a scathing e-mail from someone you may never meet in person. How would you feel or respond? What if you were about to send a scathing e-mail yourself to someone? Would you first think about the content of the e-mail or just hit send? Imagine if you printed the e-mail instead of sending it then read aloud the content to yourself. Better yet, what if you met face to face with the intended recipient (if possible) and read the printed e-mail to their face? What would their reaction be as they slowly digested the words?

I think Erica Albright had it right. The internet is written in ink. Let’s all enjoy the “digital sandbox” together without slinging the mud.  And if you got a flamer of an e-mail ready to go, hold your fire and hit that print button first my friend.

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Homework 2.0

It has become a daily grind much like rush hour traffic. For parents, it is an exhausting, humbling, and mind numbing experience. For children, it is an academic ritual that must be accomplished before any enjoyable activities. It is often consumed by man’s best friend and frequently gets lost. It’s called homework and it never ends.

If you are a parent of a typical child, you know how challenging homework can be at times. Now imagine the additional challenges of assisting a child with intellectual disabilities struggling to learn the same academic subjects as their typical classmates.

In short, children with intellectual disabilities learn differently than their typical peers and require an innovative “out of the box” approach in order to grasp academic material. They are visual learners who absorb information best from stimulating, engaging, and participatory experiences rather than the traditional lecture delivery of instruction. Their learning progression is non-linear and often bypasses an expected mastery of a specific subject.

The parental responsibility in teaching their special needs children could not be more critical. With an overtaxed and financially strained public school system, children with special educational needs barely receive the minimum accommodations needed for success in an inclusive classroom environment. Therefore, parents with special needs children can no longer expect any further assistance beyond the minimum requirements mandated under current equal education laws. Parents with special needs children must own and ensure the academic success of their children. There is no other way.

Daily homework sessions involving children with intellectual disabilities are often exhausting and frustrating. Parents struggle to invent clever or creative ways to explain concepts or answer questions. This requires parents to search educational web sites, draw illustrations on whiteboards, cut and paste letters and numbers on poster boards, role play, etc.

At some point, an important question needs to be asked: is there a better way to accomplish this?

Finally, there appears to be.

Enter the Apple iPad tablet device. Since its introduction to the public on April 3, 2010, the Apple iPad has become a revolutionary teaching tool embraced by both the K-12 and higher educational markets. With thousands of educational applications currently available and accessed through a simple user platform, the iPad represents a paradigm shift in teaching academic material. No more cutting and pasting. No more whiteboards. Who knows, homework might even be fun for a change.

Most parents of special needs children agree; the iPad device has the potential to be a “game changer” that will level the playing field and elevate understanding of academic material to a whole new level. The iPad returns power to the special needs parent and enables them to focus on teaching instead of improvising. The possibilities of the iPad are endless.

Here is a list of some applications designed for special education purposes. Click on the application name for more information.

Communication Apps:

iCommunicate

Expressionist

iPrompts

iSpeech

In My Dreams

Sentence Builder

WhQuestions

Reading Apps:

abc Pocket Phonics

See Read Say

Stories2Learn

StoryKit

Writing Apps:

Chicktionary

iWriteWords

Word Magic

Math Apps:

Freddy Fraction

KidCalc Math Fun

Math Drills

Money-Learn to Count

Pop Math

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The value of play

Back in the day when I was a kid, I can still vividly remember playing with my best friend in the back yard. We would assemble something from Lincoln Logs or an Erector Set, commence a rapid countdown from 10, and proceed to blow it up. While these explosions did not involve live ordnance, we made darn sure they were as real as possible. This usually involved throwing dirt, sand, and other debris into the air in slow motion along with producing loud explosion sounds with our mouths.

As we got older, our play episodes involved the destruction of model airplanes and cars with firecrackers. Quality and craftsmanship did not matter as we quickly slapped parts together. Before the glue even dried, these sloppy creations would eventually be blown to smithereens in the back yard.

We would run around the house playing Batman and Robin in costumes we made ourselves while creating our own dialogue and episodes. In our teen years, we produced short movies and interviews with other friends. We wrote our own scripts and made our own props. We wore outrageous costumes and invented ridiculous accents. We would produce cassette recordings of hilarious situations involving odd family members complete with sound effects in the background.

If my best friend and I were kids today, we would probably play with the same imagination and creativity as we did back in the day. Back then, we were in charge of our own play. We invented everything because there was nothing predesigned for us to engage in. Our imagination was out of control.

Today, video games and other electronic gadgets provide the imagination while kids simply react and engage in the activity. It’s become cause and effect without the imagination. The explosions and special effects have now been created by adults and not the kids.

Sadly, the culture of imaginative play today in the United States is vanishing. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that today’s kids spend an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes per day in front of a screen.  Another study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discovered that only one in five children live within walking distance of a park or playground.

Children’s lives consumed with adult organized and structured activities such as soccer, baseball, tae kwon do, dance, homework, etc. have little room left for playtime. According to Temple University Developmental Psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek: “Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of kids”.

Scientists, psychologists, and educators who have become advocates for the importance of imaginative play all agree on these important facts:

  • Most social and intellectual skills one needs to succeed in life and work are first developed through childhood play.
  • Children learn to control their impulses through games, learn to solve problems, negotiate, think creatively, and work as a team. 
  • Play is defined as a game or activity initiated and directed by children, not an electronically predesigned or programmed medium.

Since starting her Discovery Toys business in 2005, my wife has become an evangelist for the value of imaginative play and selling toy products that make a profound difference in children’s lives. At her company’s recent convention in Chicago, the keynote speaker was Dr. Jane Healy, a teacher and educational psychologist who has written several books on childhood development. On the subject of play, Dr. Healy states: “Unlike the play we experienced as kids which was driven by the imaginations of our friends and siblings in the back yard, today’s play has evolved into adult-led play”.

Almost 80% of the toys sold today are electronic in nature. Many of these toys are licensed based products tied to television shows, movies, pop stars, or books. Many are programmed and do not offer an open-ended play experience. While these toys are entertaining, they do not place children in charge of their own play or in control of their own play experiences.

We are not doomed, however. We can change this. We just need to shut off the computer and television, power off the Xbox, take a baseball bat to the Zhu Zhu Pets, and cut loose with duct tape and a cardboard box.

Personally, I recommend making some short movies wearing outrageous costumes and using ridiculous accents. All filmed in HD of course.

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