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Etch-a-Sketch
Every year Richard Swerdlow's young students ask him what was his favorite toy as a kid.

By Richard Swerdlow

As an elementary school teacher, students love to hear about what life was like when I was their age. Every year I hear, "Mr. Swerdlow, what was your favorite toy when you were a kid?"

I liked my Louisville slugger baseball bat and Lincoln Logs. But the toy that comes to mind is Etch-a-Sketch. Growing up in the sixties, the Etch-a-Sketch was our iPad. It even looked like an iPad, with its sleek gray screen, and it pre-dated tablets by 50 years.

It was an era in which toys were single function and gender segregated: boys played with guns, girls played with dolls. But the Etch-a-Sketch was open ended and gender neutral. Two knobs, one horizontal, the other vertical, to draw gray-tone pictures, write words or just doodle strange shapes. The possibilities were endless. Etch-a-Sketch artists produced images of the Mona Lisa, the Taj Mahal, the faces of Mount Rushmore. And the best part -- to erase -- all you had to do was shake it.

I learned a lot from that Etch-a-Sketch. I learned to look at things differently, that two knobs working together could accomplish more than one working alone, that the complicated could be reduced to the simple, that the best work required hours of concentration and many attempts before it was just right, that you can always erase it and try another way.

Etch-a-Sketch was even an election metaphor, a Romney staffer comparing the campaign to an Etch-a-Sketch, shake it and start all over again.

One hundred million Etch-a-Sketches have been sold since it was invented by Andre Cassagnes in 1959. So when Andre Cassagnes died last month, I felt like a little bit of my childhood died, too.

Today, my students have different toys. Remote control virtual soccer, Play Station 2. The Etch-a-Sketch would be so low-tech as to be laughable.

But I wonder what is lost when toys do the hard work of play, all creativity pre-programmed on the hard drive. That small square Etch-a-Sketch required more thinking outside of the box than any Xbox ever did.

But, the students pointed out, the Etch-a-Sketch is still around. All you have to do it download the iPad app.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches at Sunset School in San Francisco.

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