Column #41, posted October 15, 2007

Sometimes a Drum is Just a Drum

My grandson Milo visited again. He is nearly two. His visit started me thinking about the toys I had bought him for the last visit and what they tell us about the current view of education and parenting that in our society.

Simply put, most of the toys I bought him are absurdly stupid. He loves a truck that he calls the digger because it is just a big toy truck. But he doesn’t much care for the drum, the computer, or the phone that I bought him. He does like the house’s hose a lot, as well as the water guns and the sand toys.

I am with him.

The drum, the computer, and the phone suck. It is obvious why. They were designed for parents not for kids. They are meant to teach instead of to be played with. But what they actually teach and what they purport to teach are different things. The real question is “what the heck is going on here?”

With this question in mind I visited the web sites of three toy companies to see what they think they are doing. I started with LeapFrog.

Brightlings Builders hold fun surprises that encourage exploration! Nine pieces fit together in different ways, motivating babies to create endless combinations. Different shapes and sizes develop spatial awareness. Colors, textures and sounds stimulate all the senses. It teaches Motor Skills and Creativity.

Until I read this, I wasn’t really sure how to teach creativity, a subject I actually do know something about, but now I know how. You get a LeapFrog toy with nine pieces that fit together in different ways and voila! Do you think LeapFrog has done the long term study that shows that babies who use this toy get more Nobel Prizes? I guess they haven’t had the time. Here’s another from LeapFrog:
The Learn & Groove™ Activity Station introduces infants to learning through music and play. A flip of the jukebox page transforms the activities on the table from learning activities into musical discoveries. In Learn mode, activities on the table help develop fine and gross motor skills while teaching infants the alphabet, number names, counting 1-5, colors, language development, and cause & effect.

Wow! Kids learn cause and effect because they push buttons and something happens! Don’t they learn this from falling down and throwing food as well? And gross motor skills! Hoo hah. I thought you learned those by moving around. Well, what do I know?

One thing I was beginning to see from reading these ads is that there must be a lot of parents out there worried that their kids will grow up color blind. I never met anyone who couldn’t recognize and name colors. Maybe it is because everyone has had these wonderful teaching toys!

Maybe it is just LeapFrog that is insane. They were the ones who made the drum I bought for Milo that names letters when hit instead of making the drums sounds I had expected. So I looked at some others companies’ sites.
Bring out the genius in your pre-schooler by enriching his play time. We combine colorful characters and advanced technologies to get a child’s attention. But, as a parent, you’ll love the fact that he’s getting ready for school by learning letters, numbers, writing and counting. Entertain your preschooler and a lifetime of learning will begin. Your little one will be ‘wired for learning’ with Baby's Learning Laptop! The colorful keyboard interacts with a bright light-up screen to teach shapes, common objects and feelings.

And suddenly I was beginning to get it. These companies (this time it was Vtech) are catering to a game that parents think they must be playing. They are bringing out the child’s genius because all children are potential geniuses. They just don’t make average kids any more. The non-geniuses are those are that didn’t get genius building toy computers.

Your kid can’t just go to school one fine day when he is five. He won’t succeed without preschool. But wait. What if he isn’t ready for preschool? He must be “wired for learning” and he must be taught shapes, because the names of shapes will get him ready for geometry which will get him the high SAT scores he will need to get into Harvard. So make sure he starts practicing for those standardized tests when he is two.

Whoops. I forgot it also teaches feelings. He is going to learn feelings from a toy computer! At least they have right. He will learn frustration, irritation, and boredom. Can’t start too early on those.

But wait. It gets worse.
The V.Smile™ Baby Infant Development System goes beyond passive developmental videos with a breakthrough, interactive approach to learning. Select the Play Time mode on the panel and watch your baby play and use colorful, easy-to-press buttons to hear fun, educational phrases. Select the Watch & Learn mode and your baby can watch educational animations complete with baby sign language. Finally, as your baby grows, select the Learn & Explore mode where he can actually direct the play on the screen by choosing the subjects he wants to explore. Each Baby Smartridge features learning games with five different baby signs, and teach important skills like colors, numbers, sounds, animals, music and shapes.

In other words-- it’s a TV. And your baby will learn even more colors and shapes from TV. Plus there are “educational phrases!” Oowee! And its “interactive!” Just like TV! There are those interactive on, off, and channel changing buttons and everything.

Do people really buy this junk? Yes, they do. Even I did. But I didn’t know what I was getting. This is what is available. What else is out there? It is hard to find a drum that is just a drum.

Finally there is Baby Einstein. I even hate the name of that company. Here are two of their products:
Baby Einstein Eat & Discover 9-oz. Insulated Straw Colors Cup. Baby Einstein makes mealtime easy for busy toddlers. From the non-spill top with a fun straw to the secure bottom, he gets to take charge of feeding himself -- just the way he likes it! Makes mealtime an opportunity to discover colors, shapes and nature.

Since learning about food and how to eat it is so unimportant, let’s distract your possibly color blind child with more nonsense. No time for a break from all those educational toys. Now even the cutlery is educational.

This next one is my favorite however:
The Baby Einstein Color Kaleidoscope introduces your little one to color in three languages.

Mode One (3-6 Months) introduces your little one to primary colors. Grasping the brightly colored handles, baby activates color-coordinated lights in red, yellow and blue accompanied by enchanting melodies for an engaging light show.

Mode Two (6-12 Months) introduces your little one to three languages. Grasping either of the red, blue or yellow handles, babies will hear the name of each color in English, Spanish and French.

Mode Three (12+ Months) introduces baby to secondary colors. By grasping more than one of the multi-colored handles, your little one will mix the primary colors into three secondary colors of green, orange and purple for an entertaining show of light and music.

In addition to the continuing color obsession, now we have some new idiocy. While your child is trying to sort out the language that his parents speak to him, let’s add some stuff that even his parents won’t recognize. Because, it has certainly been shown that children grow up trilingual if only you remember to say some words of another language to them from time to time. Colors are so important for mental development because it has been shown that people who are color blind are also incapable of functioning in society especially if they don’t know how to say the names of those colors in three languages.

All right. Enough sarcasm. What is going on here?

Clearly toy companies are trying to cash in on two things. One is the fear that your child will lose the competition and not get into Harvard and the other is that the schools are incapable of teaching the basics.

This is all very sad. Not that many people actually get into Harvard, after all, nor is Harvard so darn important. I have actually known successful, happy, people who have not gone to Harvard. (OK, I used to teach at Yale, I admit it.)

And, the schools are capable of teaching the basics. Your child does not need to go to preschool unless you need the day care. And he does not need these silly toys at all. A child needs a safe environment, loving parents, and a world that stimulates him and allows him to practice skills he needs. What skills are those? Talking. Listening. Navigating the world around him. Seeing what the stuff in his world does. Seeing what the adults in his world do and trying it out.

I had hoped the phone I bought him would let him pretend to talk on the phone, but the phone makes so much racket that you can’t pretend anything. Real phones don’t say letters when you hit their keys. That’s not what they are for. Toy phones are for fantasy play about talking to someone, I bought him the computer so he could pretend to send e-mails and copy what his mother does. But instead he hears about pretending to download a screensaver and excluding other kids from the conversation. Fortunately he doesn't understand any of this. When he does I will throw the damn thing out.

The schools, I am afraid, have achieved in the public’s eye, the status of a place that is so broken that your kid is better off learning from toys. Now, I do think the schools are broken, but parents are broken too. (This is one of the reasons why the schools are broken.)

Parents: Stop buying educational toys. Sit down and talk to your child and teach him to do what you do by letting him try it out when he is ready. “No,” to interactive toys. “Yes,” to interactive parents.

By the way, Milo knows the alphabet. He didn’t learn it from a drum.

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