Brainy Toys: Barbie Versus the Wood Blocks in the Toy Aisle

Wreath of Misfit Toys
Before you rush off to that hip, pricey purveyor of educational toys, forget it, the Magna-Tiles are already sold out and anyhow chances are your kid isn't going to be an aeronautical genius anyhow. My hyper local toy connection, totally on the spectrum but rocking an obvious above-average knowledge and appetite of all things play, sold me on the must-have building set as the smooth sensual shapes went from jumbled pile to skyscrapper in 30 seconds. I want them so bad my son has offered to get them from Santa for me.

So with the season of gift-giving in full stress-inducing swing, I read Gina Bellafante's The Great Divide, Now in the Toy Aisle in the New York Times with baited breath. Seems the gizmos and gadgets that induce fantasies of enviable SAT scores and unbounded curiosity aren't exactly flying off the shelf of Walmart or Toys "R" Us.  It's not because the parents shopping there prefer the mind-numbing procession of plastic princesses and dart guns. The brainier products often aren't there at least not the mega hot ones like the the Magna-Tiles.  The big boxers simply don't offer the same cache as their more rarified kiddie counterparts.  Bellafonte likens the toy divide to the urban food deserts:

In the way that we have considered food deserts — those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi — we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.
True, the phenomenon of food deserts in urban environments has been questioned in recent years but what about the hole in the toy aisles?  While there has been a persistent message that the right toys make a difference, as Bellafante rightly adds it's unclear to what extent the supposed educational toys actually impact a child's development:
The obvious counterpoint to these arguments is that there is no clear proof that toys intended to bolster cognitive abilities actually do so. At the very least, though, they signal to a child a parental investment in ambition and accomplishment, in active absorption over passive observation. It would take a very expansive view of the iCarly Truth or Dare Bear to believe it might do the same thing.
No clear proof.

You can say it again, girlfriend.  Snark plus a slight, ever so slight nod to dare I even think it, empirical evidence? While there is no study of the cognitive benefits of specific toys or really, to my mind, any subset of toys, scientific claims behind some educational products purported to instill smarts simply have not held up (e.g., Baby Einstein).  However there is a growing body of research on the value of unstructured free time (i.e. play) and relevant to the toy aisle, the kinds of playing per se that might encourage critical and creative thinking.   

You might be familiar with Alison Gopnik, the Berkeley Psych professor and author of The Philosophical Baby, the baby brain guru who believes babies got a lot more going on than we imagine - basically they're mini-scientists testing and discarding hypotheses about the world around them.  Gopnik recently penned an article in Science magazine perusing a decade's worth of evidence and arguing the type of play a child engages in does matter.  Take for instance a study she described for the New York Times: 

In another study, an experimenter held a toy that had four tubes. Each tube did something different — for instance, one lit up and one made a squeaking sound. 
In one case, the experimenter accidentally made the toy squeak by bumping into it and then left the room. The children experimented with the toy and figured out the three other features. 
But when the experimenter made the toy squeak on purpose and then handed it to a child, he or she simply repeated what the experimenter did and never explored the toy’s other features.  Scientific Inquiry Among the Preschool Set, New York Times, October 2012

Now I'm not exactly sure how this child-as-scientific explorer maps onto the Barbie versus Fat Brain Toys choice.  I am not convinced the smart toys make kids any smarter or anything else. Barbies around the globe have been subjected to all manner of inhumane scientific experiments.  Personally I've found her playing the role of lab rat in the freezer.  I don't even ask anymore.  

In my estimation kids employ toys for their original intended purpose for about ten daysand some of the more educational fare strikes me as actually less open to reinvention and frankly more like the kind of classes that make you worry about the educational system.  The growing crystals set for example. Gotta follow the directions. Play becomes more like school, like following someone else's lead and not an opportunity for independent observation and discovery.  In other words, precisely what Gopnik says stinks in our preschools and I have to imagine, all levels of education when test-taking triumphs over learning.

So if Barbie turns your child into a junior explorer, go for it. Her hair will be frazzled in two days, her ball gown lodged underneath those hand-painted wooden puzzles nobody touched, her body tightly encased in plastic wrap and body lotion infused with essentials oils from the yard.  You wanna buy the science kits and oversee the "activity", then go for it.  I'm sure your kid will find a way to put his or her twist on it.  I just don't think we can easily divide Toys "R" Us and the brainy boutiques on the basis of promoting more creative or intellectual growth.
The Toy Divide and the discussion of educational toys reminds me of the books in the home study, the 2010 study showing kids who owned books ultimately stayed in school longer.  I bet those same researchers would have found similar results if they'd looked at educational toys.

The favorite item from last year? A box.  The six-foot reinforced cardboard container that housed my new fake Christmas tree.  Box made us the most popular house on the block. No kidding. The best gift purchase of all-time? The Flip Video camera.  Years of pleasure and amateur film-making.  Dropped, smashed, submerged and it's still going. Best kid gift ever. Hear it's no longer sold.  Too bad, worth every penny.  

Is it just me or is it slightly ridiculous to talk about play as an opportunity for cognitive enhancement, even in its more open-ended free-wheeling, hypothesis-generating manifestations that lead to bursts of discovery and creativity and curiosity? Seems we might have lost the plot here and are  possibly in danger of draining all the fun out of play.  Love to know when playtime became an educational opportunity.  Anyone know? Let me know if you find the one person who's writing about this topic.  There's a study somewhere out there.

Pardon me if I've sucked every last ounce of joy out of the gift-giving season but I am hardly the first or last culprit.  I've coped by assembling an homage to the material by-products of yore (see photo above).  It was either that or light a huge likely toxic bonfire in the backyard because no one wants my old toys or yours especially the useless gift-bag dreck that clogs up my junk drawer.  

How you coping? What's the beloved gift in your home? 

PS: Have lost control of the fonts on my new computer, new to Mac, mea culpa.


Awesome Mom said...

You would not believe some of the crazy things Barbie did when I was a kid. We had plenty of open ended creative play with her. I am in the process of thinning out our massive toy collection pre Christmas. I actually feel less is more. If there are too many choices all you get is a big mess and the kids playing with boxes. For us the constant favorite toy is small matchbox/hotwheel cars.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Less is more, so true. Yes on the hot wheels/match box. Hours upon hours.

Becca said...

I think there might be a divide in how adults look at toys vs. how kids look at them.
Over Thanksgiving we took a picture with myself and all my adult friends playing with the brightly colored gears toy grandma got my 3 year old. The 3 year old is sitting in the middle, happily playing with a cracked smartphone.

And magnatiles? They.Are.Freakin.Awesome. I didn't want to get them for home cause they're crazy expensive and kiddo has them at daycare but my partner got a bunch and... I love them so very much. I don't wanna play with stinking barbies or hot wheels! (well, someday we'll likely get some of those tracks for the hot wheels. I swear, I've never bought a single hot wheels and we still have a dozen around the house- how do they breed? Where do they originate? From what dimension do they come??)

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Obviously we parents are mesmerized by the brainiac toys. As for the mysterious appearance of Hot Wheels and Barbies, blame your neighbor/friend/sister who pops over with an unmarked bag that disappears into the toy room and she's so glad to unload it on you.

Awesome Mom said...

I was silly and when my eldest was a toddler bought a box of 100 cars for $10 off of Craig's list. Even since then they have been breeding. I keep throwing out ones with broken wheels ect. but two more seem to that it's place. They do make amazing bribes for potty training ect. and great emergency birthday party presents so I keep a few new ones in boxes around just in case.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Not so silly!