Making Toys Too Educational

In her Wall Street Journal article, Lenore Skenazy asserts that by making toys more about sensory development, early intervention, gross and fine motor skill improvement and more, we’re making toys less fun. Furthermore, she believes we’re minimizing the real learning experiences of early childhood. What's the deal?

mom and toddler playing

Isn't a ball…just a ball?

In her Wall Street Journal article, Skenazy asks what happened to a plain old ball. It's a good question, really. Instead of a ball being a ball, she remarks, "Now it is a tactile stimulating sensory aid that helps develop gross motor skills." Is that an exaggeration? Sort of, but not a huge one. Next time you're in the toy aisle, look around. Even the most basic of toys for children are usually deemed to be some sort of learning aid.

Purposeful naming

I can see where toy manufacturers are coming from when they market toys -- even the most basic -- as amazing educational tools. Skenazy spoke to Susan Linn who wrote The Case for Make Believe and asked her why toys are sold in such a way. Linn's answer was simple: "Because otherwise, no one would buy them."

Is this what we want?

As the parent of children who lived in foreign orphanages at the beginning of their lives, I absolutely appreciate the value of a "learning toy." My son dealt with Sensory Integration Disorder that was very marked and needed addressing.

At the same time, at 10 months old, he had no idea how to simply play with a toy because he'd never had one. Equally important as using toys to teach, help or aid him in his sensory development was using toys as…well…toys.

We sat on the floor together and rolled balls, stacked blocks and pushed cars. I took him to occupational therapy for the sensory issues and while we used some very specific tools to help in those areas, we also used many toys like good old-fashioned toys.

Do all parents agree?

The comments following the article are varied. Some commenters disagree with Skenazy, at least somewhat: "Good parenting is tops. But a child may not have a good set of parents. And that's where these toys can help," noted one person. Others felt similarly to Skenazy. "The word 'marketing is – [in my opinion] - what's at the bottom of it," someone said.

More than just toys

One commenter made a very interesting point. Perhaps we're trying to make everything related to our kids' consumption more about education than entertainment. "If you think toy marketing is bad, look at what has happened to kids' TV," a reader said. "At certain times of day, a great deal of it consists of slow, witless attempts to impart academic knowledge. I believe a child's mind is better trained by things like old Looney Tunes, where imaginative, unexpected things happen, than by a plodding process culminating in, 'Good! You picked B!'"

He certainly makes an interesting point, as many parents start their kids with programs such as Baby Einstein before they even turn one.

>>What do you think? Are we taking the fun out of toys? Or is it necessary to add an educational component to play?

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Comments on "Are parents really “taking the fun out of toys?”"

kerry March 21, 2011 | 12:03 PM

Yes we are! There is no reason to be so hyper obsessed with how 'educational' toys are. It's ridiculous. Simple, wood, messy finger paint and going OUTSIDE to run and explore.

laura March 21, 2011 | 10:23 AM comment "good lord if you're not..." is mostly sarcastic, but with the sad fact that for some people it really is their children's chance to a decent education. :D When I re-read it (after posting of course) it seems to have come off differently :D

Kristin March 21, 2011 | 10:20 AM

While I value a toy that has some learning potential, I tend to gravitate toward kids toys that are simple and allow the child to do the exploration. Toys with tons of lights and sounds and electronic interactions just don't have the same value as good old fashioned puzzles and blocks that make a kid actually figure it out!

Laura March 21, 2011 | 10:20 AM

I don't remember when it was, but it became actual law that children's TV programming HAD to be educational. I think the big issues is more that as adults we must have a NAME for something. A ball does the same thing regardless of what you call it, but the way grownups interact with it changes...if it's educational we try to TEACH with it. If it's just a ball we toss it and catch it and kick it because it's a BALL and that's what you do with it. And good lord if you're not teaching your child something how will they get into selective enrollment public schools (and honestly, depending on where you are, that can be the difference between a decent education and falling between the cracks). There was another article, I don't remember where, describing research into TEACHING children about objects vs letting them explore objects and that while both groups of children learned about the object, those who were allowed to explore it (i.e., the toy was introduced by the researcher who "knew nothing" about the toy and happened upon some of the cool things the toy could do in front of the kids before it was turned over vs. introduction by a researcher who showed the kids how the toy worked.) The kids who were in the explore group continued to explore the toy and found more of its hidden attributes than the taught group who stopped once they found all the things their teacher had identified. In the end the exploring group consistently came up with more effective solutions and more creative solutions than the taught group. I think this goes a long the same line. (This is ALSO the reason we have very simple toys at home vs the intricate loud fancy ones. Those blocks can be any number of things, but that car loading truck and deck is somewhat limited. (although...they can ALL be used to stack to get something off the :D)

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