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Teach Your Children Well MAG
I love running. Some days I struggle up Mount Everest and other days I sprint across the Great Plains. It’s how I learned the names of streets. It’s how I exercise. It’s how I stay sane, or at least try to. It’s an endorphin therapy, my lactic acid antidepressant. As I ran around Lake Arlington for what seemed like the five thousandth time, nearly stepping in yet another pile of goose poop, the song “The Pretender” by Jackson Browne blasted in my headphones. Realizing that I had grabbed my dad’s MP3 player instead of mine, I navigate around a pair of walkers, almost tripping over a stroller the size of my bed, and begin listening to the words. “I’m going to be a happy idiot/And struggle for the legal tender/ Where the ads take aim and lay their claim/To the heart and the soul of the spender.” I couldn’t help but wonder, where have all the pretenders gone?
Although I occasionally played on the computer (when I could unseat my older sisters), I spent the majority of my childhood outside. I was a princess; the backyard was my kingdom, the swingset my castle, and the neighbor’s dog a fire-breathing dragon. Today, pretending gets cut from the team. Dress-up clothes, dolls, and building blocks that served as toys since before King Tut, have been tossed aside. Zapf, creator of the pooing-peeing-crying-sleeping-teething Chou Chou dolls, states on its website, “Playing with dolls also addresses and supports social skills such as loving, caring, empathy, and accepting responsibility.” Apparently, parents no longer possess the ability to teach such lessons.
LeapFrog provides an in-depth and profound explanation of its products: “Interactive toys that teach children basic skills.” My seven-year-old cousin could supply a more sophisticated definition! Scientists have discovered that during the first three years of a baby’s life, the brain forms many synapses (intersection points between neurons). Proper stimulation contributes to better brain development.
As a result, companies like LeapFrog have created learning toys specifically for children under three. They include learning laptops, interactive puzzles, and lifelike dolls. Fisher-Price sells the Songs & Smiles Discovery Gym (when did two pieces of plastic, a mat, and a few stuffed animals constitute a gym?), the Laugh & Learn Learning Home Playset (saying it twice doesn’t make it more educational), and the Smart Bounce & Spin Pony (preparing children for their first drunken mechanical bull ride?).
Despite the ridiculous names, parents sprint toward these toys. According to Fortune, Americans spent $2.5 billion on “learning” toys in 2005. Corporations simply put the word learn in the name and the toys fly off shelves. Walmart and Target sell them at relatively low prices, so even Joe the Plumber can afford them.
The learning toy producers deserve a prize for their online advertising methods. In addition to statistics, diversions, and testimonials, their websites include a plethora of information about the benefits of their products, the Howard Gardner model of Multiple Intelligences, reviews, and articles. Companies convince parents that in today’s fast-paced society, learning toys provide the only way for parents to work, cook, or even relax for a few minutes. Before parents realize it, they’re convinced that their child needs one (or the parent needs a Valium).
Fisher-Price groups its toys into educational categories like Laugh & Learn (infant role-play), Fun 2 Learn (preschooler role-play), Smart Cycle (active learning), and Computer Cool School (computer-based learning). The company describes the Smart Cycle as “a stationary bike, a learning center, and an arcade game system – all rolled into one!” The child pedals and moves the handlebars to steer a car onscreen, stopping at locations such as Math Mountain, Shape Lake, Number Fields, and Letter Creek. (Why wait until 16 when kids can have their first driving lesson at age three?) The unit costs $100 (of course, batteries aren’t included), which might seem like a good investment if it benefits the child. No pain, no gain.
However, cheaper and more effective methods of exercising children’s brains exist. Parent and child can take a walk together and count the number of speed limit signs in the neighborhood, or point out the colors and shapes of road signs. This encourages parent-child interaction and, for the environmentally aware parents, doesn’t involve the manufacture of toys in pollution-producing factories.
I have a confession. I fell for the marketing ploys of the toy companies just like those gullible parents. In fifth grade, I became convinced that the LeapFrog iQuest would help me with my schoolwork, improve my grades, and make me the smartest girl in my class. The handheld electronic game, the size of a disposable camera, had study guides and quizzes for a fifth grade curriculum. I spent $60 of my own money to buy the iQuest and an additional $5 million on cartridges specific to the textbooks I used at school. While it initially entertained me, it didn’t do anything except increase the amount of time I studied the information. My test scores didn’t break any records or even improve. Me is a happy idiot.
Recent studies show that no lasting damage occurs if parents neglect to “properly stimulate” their child’s brain before the age of three. Sara Mead, a senior policy analyst with Education Sector, states there is no evidence that the first three years “are a singular window for growth that slams shut once children turn three.” A government-funded two-year study by the University of Stirling found that electronic learning toys had no recognizable benefits, inhibited creativity, and even led to shorter attention spans. Not really sterling results. Additionally, children often had trouble transferring the knowledge gained in a game to pencil and paper at school, which led to confusion and more time spent on basic concepts. Electronic toys short-circuited the learning process.
So why do parents buy learning toys? They want their kids to have a successful future and by purchasing these toys, they hope to give them an advantage. So they spend hundreds of dollars on Chou Chou dolls, Fisher-Price Learning Kitchens, and LeapFrog merchandise. Einstein didn’t have Baby Einstein tapes but his theories did relatively well.
But what really motivates parents to buy learning toys? Maybe they simply wish to avoid the responsibilities that parenting entails. A flashing-blinking-sparkling-spinning-beeping-singing educational toy gives the parent a break for a cup of coffee, a chat on the phone, or a date with Jerry Springer. Do parents hand off the baton to LeapFrog just as GM, Chrysler, and Ford want to hand it off to U.S. taxpayers? Perhaps they secretly desire Chou Chou doll children with on-off switches. Maybe these toys assuage parents’ guilt for not spending time with their children. An educational toy compounds the relief of this guilt. But ultimately the responsibility of teaching young children lies with parents – not toys.
The song continues as I round the final curve of the lake. Browne sings, “And believe in whatever may lie/In those things that money can buy.” If learning toys fail, look for something else. Maybe a steroid-charged baby formula that ensures a 36 on the ACT, or fortified carrot sticks that morph children into the next Barack Obama.
Are learning toys the PowerBars of education, or the steroids of parenting? I’m not sure, but right now this is a social experiment without a control group. And we’re running on empty.