Wandering through the toy aisle of Target in Watertown, Massachusetts, with 17-month-old Marcus, Kristin Botnen shakes her head at the packages promising to make her toddler smarter and keeps walking. “My paediatrician recommends free play, not toys with gadgets,” she says.
For the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is taking a stand on toys, drawing a line between those that lead to healthy development and learning, and those that don’t.
“Here’s what I tell parents,” says Deborah James, Botnen’s paediatrician: “It’s better for a child to tell the toy what to do than for the toy to tell the child.” Her waiting room is stocked with traditional toys, from Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head to big, fat crayons and rolls of paper, from a tool bench to a tea set.
The AAP is not going so far as to tell parents what toys to buy young children. “We like simple toys that encourage imagination. That’s when learning occurs,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, a paediatrician at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia and lead author of the AAP statement on the importance of free play. “It’s not that we think educational toys are dangerous,” he says. Rather, competition and commercialism make parents anxious and vulnerable to marketers’ claims that a toy will give a child a leg-up academically. New parents are most susceptible, he says.
James was flabbergasted when the mother of a one-week-old asked how she could stimulate his brain. “He doesn’t need products,” James assured. “Hold and cuddle him, smile and coo, talk to him when you change his diaper.”
“The claims that a toy can boost your child’s IQ—these claims do seem to be proliferating,” says Kathleen Kiely Gouley, an assistant professor at New York University Child Study Center. A mother of young children, even she feels the pull.
“I create educational opportunities and facilitate learning in every interaction,” she says. When the mail arrives, she gives some to her 19-month-old, who transports it in his dump truck. She might ask for the red envelope. He might colour an envelope green. “Maybe there’s a mail toy with buttons or lights, or a video about postmen, but that’s not the same. If all he had was a pot from the kitchen to put the mail in, it would still be better than an ‘enriched’ toy.”
‘Chime With Rhyme’, by Purple Pebble Games, is a toy whose package claims to “jump-start reading success” and help “master pre-reading skills”. The packaging for ‘Sorting Shapes Cupcakes’ by Learning Resources says the toy “teaches shape recognition, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination.”
“There’s no question, some adults look for toys that make these claims,” says Sally Lesser, owner of Henry Bear’s Park, an independent toy store. She mostly carries toys that allow children to interact with the world using their senses, like the toy kitchen utensils that line a wall of shelves, but she has ‘Chime With Rhyme’ and the ‘Sorting Cupcakes’. “I don’t mind selling them,” she says. “But can I say with certainty that the claims on the box are true? No. In fact, some of the claims are ridiculous.”
Claims like these feed into parents’ fears that their child will be the one “left behind”, says Tufts psychologist David Elkind, author of The Power of Play.
“Parents increasingly are getting the message that good parenting is defined by ‘enrichment’, and enrichment is defined by videos and a string of formal activities,” Ginsburg says. “It worries us to see parents thinking enrichment is a substitute for the kind of play that we know makes children smart.”
Psychologist Susan Linn of Harvard Medical School urges parents to avoid toys that promise to speed up learning. “The human brain is built on scaffolding,” she says. “You need one step to get to the next. A two-year-old may be able to count from one to 20 from a video, but that doesn’t mean he’s learned as much as the child who counts to three because he’s played with 1-2-3 blocks.”
In her office last week, James says, “A nine-month-old had the time of her life playing with the exam table paper.” She learned about cause and effect (crinkling caused a noise); trial and error (gentle crinkles made a less satisfying sound); constancy (crinkling produces some noise every time); and limits: Mom said “No,” every time it went in her mouth. “Now that’s an educational toy,” James says.
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