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Trouble in toytown

 

Times Online (UK)

December 20, 2007

 

There is something about the range of toys sold under the brand Brainy Baby that leaves me cold. They include My Left Brain Book, and My Right Brain Book and the 123’s DVD. That last item, in particular, strikes me as £17.99 down the drain, given that most babies have ten fingers and ten toes, love having them wiggled and revel in the personal attention of a carer.

And don’t get me started on the left-brain, right-brain thing: neuroscientists reject the idea that we must bisect our children’s heads to make them cleverer. Yet, according to a survey published last week, 91 per cent of parents believe that educational toys will propel their progeny to the top of the class.

It’s reassuring to have my cynicism endorsed by the psychologists Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards (Rodale). “Research out this year showed that babies who watch videos that are supposed to teach them language have smaller vocabularies than kids who don’t watch them,” says Hirsh-Pasek, who runs the Infant Laboratory at Temple University, Philadelphia. “We already know how children learn language – it’s by talking to their parents.” Golinkoff runs the Infant Language Project at the University of Delaware.

They say that there are certain toy-buying principles that can steer parents towards enjoyable, stimulating and cheap choices for their children. The commonsense guidelines include such nuggets as buying a toy that is 10 per cent toy and 90 per cent child (ie, is not too prescriptive in how a child should play with it) and something that can be enjoyed by two children at once to promote social interaction.

And the great news – if you are panicking over your failure to join the throng of harassed parents in toyshops – is that you don’t have to fork out for some of this year’s expected bestsellers, which The Times asked a panel of children, parents, Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff to review. Despite being labelled the Dream Dozen – the 12 toys most likely to top children’s Christmas lists, as predicted by the Toy Retailers Association in October – many appear to be the stuff of parents’ nightmares. One toy, the GR8 Art Bindeez Super Deluxe Studio Centre, is the subject of a safety recall. Ten of the remaining 11 are included in our review. (Golden Balls, a board game based on the TV show, was dropped on the grounds that the parent/child testers found it too boring to bother with.)

These playthings are not modestly priced: the cheapest is £19.99, and the costliest £49.99. Many have already sold out. One parent’s verdict of one toy was: “I would weep if this was all Santa gave me.”

Our table, as well as containing comments by children and parents (plus a parental star rating out of six), also includes our experts’ rating – this shows how many of Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff’s six toy-buying principles it adheres to. Choosing the right toy is about more than making a child happy at Christmas, says Hirsh-Pasek: “In Britain and the US, we need to think about how we train our children for the future through toys and books. Do we want kids who sit and do what they are told, or creative thinkers? If the latter, we need to look at the toys we are selling.”

Parents think that “structured play” – where play is directed, such as a pretend mobile phone that teaches an infant phonics, or a child’s lap-top – is just as valid as “unstructured play”, in which the child dreams up things to do with the aid of props, such as crayons or building blocks.

“Fifty per cent of mums think structured play is just as valuable as unstructured play,” says Hirsh-Pasek.

Researchers in child development don’t agree. The passivity induced by toys “telling” children what to do doesn’t compare with the opportunities offered by blocks and paints. Building blocks, she says, expand spatial awareness, while art materials encourage symbolic representation and language skills. “How many parents have heard their child say, ‘I’m bored’? If kids are bored, it may be because we have fed them with toys that tell them what to do all the time. Unstructured play encourages them to think for themselves.”

And techno toys, even those of an educational nature, are not a panacea. Hirsh-Pasek notes that recent research at the University of Washington shows that some electronic toys appear to induce aspects of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in young children. As for all that left brain-right brain stuff, she notes that the first journal in the field of the application of brain science to education was inaugurated in March, a lag of several years behind the establishment of the Brainy Baby brand.

“How is it that toy manufacturers can be ahead of the science?” she asks. There is no hard evidence for the Mozart effect, the popular idea that playing classical music to tots, even while baby is in the womb, turns infants into child prodigies.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff make an impassioned case for the value of “retro toys” – traditional playthings that charm generation after generation, such as colouring pencils, a dressing-up box, train sets and building blocks (see box). Puzzles and board games rate highly too – even though kids need guidance to use them, the benefits include social and logic skills. While there is nothing wrong with indulging in a child’s whim for a trashy toy, parents who want their children to learn through toys could do a lot worse than rummage through a grandparent’s attic.

“We need to help parents see the amazing value in retro-toys,” Hirsh Pasek says. When she meets successful business people, she asks them what they used to play with. “If you say, did you build things, such as castles made out of sofas and sheets, or did they read with their parents, they raise their hands. But ask how many of them did worksheets and no one raises a hand. Why do we give kids electronic worksheets in the form of toys that teach them phonics?

“This is the Google generation, kids have facts at their fingertips. Futurists and business people say that tomorrow will belong to those who can socially network, those who can work in teams, think flexibly and come up with creative solutions. Is the world we are giving them, in terms of play, going to build those skills? We have reason to believe not.

“We have created a generation of toys that are unsocial, inflexible and tell our kids what to do. Kids become unable to manage their own time and space. We’ve done exactly the opposite of what we need to do.”

Everyone these days, Hirsh-Pasek says, is suffering from “manic compression”, in which our rushed lives prompt us to outsource play opportunities. We find a toy, or put on a video, to take over parental duties while we prepare dinner or catch up on work. “What we should be doing is including our children in making dinner. It’s harder, but think what they are learning: measurement of ingredients, chemistry in the cooking, plus you’re talking with your child.” The same principle, she says, makes a trip to the supermarket “the best liberal arts education for preschoolers”. It involves reading labels, looking at aisle numbers, seeing how the cans are stacked, weighing skills, plus conversation while shopping.

Hirsh-Pasek says: “There’s not a toy out there that compares with that and, even better, it’s free. We’ve been made to feel inadequate by toy manufacturers. There is a culture of fear that our children are going to be bottom of the heap. But we forget our own childhood, which prepared us so well. There’s also this belief that, in a generation, evolution has transformed children into techno toddlers, who are happier in a virtual world. It isn’t true. Children haven’t changed, just the marketing hype.”

Those among you who have held out against the marketing muscle of Mattel and Hasbro et al might have the upper hand this Christmas. You will not have to face your children’s disappointment as they realise that the board game they craved turns out to be overpriced, badly thought-out tat. If you have stumped up already, I hope you kept the receipt.

The psychologists’ six toy-buying principles

— Look for a toy that is 10 per cent toy and 90 per cent child. A lot of toys direct the play activity by talking to children or asking them to press buttons. Find a toy that doesn’t command the child.

— Toys are meant to be platforms for play – they should be props not directing play.

— If it’s a toy that asks your child to supply one thing – such as fill in the blank or give one right answer – it is not allowing the child to express creativity.

— Look for something that can be taken apart and remade – to build imagination.

— See if the toy promises brain growth. If it’s telling you that your child is going to be smarter or bilingual it’s a red flag.

— Does the toy encourage social interaction? It is fine for your child to have alone time, but it is great for them to be with others.

 

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