We also don't buy the flashy stuff, and only have a few things (that mostly live in the kitchen cabinet and the kids have forgotten them) that other people have given us. I, too, don't see the value in a garbled voice teaching my children the alphabet. I pull them out for "me" time as well...but only when I'm really desperate. I'm much more likely to pull out my hair curlers and turn them loose, or to dump the silverware drawer on the floor for exploration.
My children are allowed to play with everything. I don't take small/dangerous things out of the baby's hands. I just stay RIGHT there. (okay, they don't play with containers of bleach, or...). But, ds (who is 1) has played with a knife. I stay with them and explain the different parts. If he finds something tiny on the floor, I don't take it away. I explore it with him until he's done with it. (or if he insists on carrying it around, I just watch him until he puts it down.) Our kids have free reign of my husband's woodworking shop...dd rides her tricycle around his work bench, and ds carries around dowel rods, tape measures, screwdrivers, etc. They push the buttons on the alarm clock, the flush the potty over and over, they dump the clothes out of the laundry basket (and then I take them for a ride). If one of them takes a fancy to "go exploring", I follow them, pointing things out along the way. Sometimes I stay back just enough to prevent them from knowing I am there...just to let them feel free and unencumbered.
That said, including brightly colored infant toys, of which we have a small collection, I try to get as much into their hands as possible. Let them fully explore anything they desire. Shiny bright rattle, daddy's watch, mama's necklace, shoe laces, anything. I make it a point to sort things on the floor in front of them...money, buttons, my ribbon box, electronic stuff (phone cords, batteries, extension cords, computer parts, etc.). They can learn so fast...I think this is the time to show them all I possibly can...and not limit them to "things for children". My children expect to be with me, and they expect to be free to do what I am doing and to learn about it in their own way at their own pace. I hand them all sorts of stuff, but if they put it down without even looking at it...fine. Maybe I'll give them the same thing next week.
I agree with the idea that children need routine and repitition, but I believe that they largely supply that for themselves. Sure, mealtimes, bedtimes, and a rough outline of our day follows the same pattern, and they DO love to know what comes next. But I think the important part is knowing your child, and in what sort of environment they do best. DD was very flexible, and as long as I gave her a bit of warning was very happy to do whatever, whenever. DS needs it pretty much the same or we deal with lots of meltdowns. That doesn't mean the same exact thing everyday, but it does mean he needs to be in bed by 8p.
DH and I have discussed that until about age 5 or 6, we are defining what our children view as "normal." Children playing in the other room out of touch with adults with flashy fake things is NOT normal. (Please understand, that I, too, think moderation is key. These parenting styles are not mutally exclusive). I'm not raising my children to be children...I'm raising them to be adults. So, I have no desire to create a preschool subculture. They are just part of my life, and when they are grown, will continue to live their own lives. Sure, I add lots of interesting bits to their day...they have a lot to see and encounter, having never had these opportunities before...but I do reject greatly the idea of socializing and herding children.
I have no studies to back up where I stand, but feel that I have a ton of antedoctal evidence to support my plan to continue as I am. As opposed to their playmates (not all...but all of those who don't parent the way we do), our children are FAR ahead developmentally...physically, emotionally, mentally, and yes, even socially. They don't neccessarily play well with other children, but they can converse beautifully with an adult. And if the other children are willing to move out of their "dora brain" and really play, my kids can do that, too. And we've not forced them one bit. We sing, we play, we explore, and they are thriving. I come from a large family, and one that follows these same philosophies, and the bit I was reading from a pp about how 5 year olds in our culture barely measure up to 3yo 60 years ago I think is probably very accurate. In our family, 3 is the big year. Across the board, with rare exception and with no pushing on the part of the grown-ups, kids in our family figure out how to read, ride a bike, tie their shoes, do simple math (maybe even some multiplication and division), make a swing go, etc at 3 years old. Things that children typically learn in kindergarten. Note I said "figure out", not "are taught". We make casual observations that let the children put it together on their own. Like, see, I read "too", because when two o's are side by side they say "ooooo". Look at that tree over there...I think maple trees are so pretty. See how this one has 5 parts on it's leaves? We're just talking, thinking, and noticing out loud. Our children do the same thing. People are always floored what dd knows, but really, I spent very little time "teaching", and a lot of time "exposing" and "including" and answering HER questions about things she's seen. Just last night she said (after several days of going down the street to watch some constuction), "Mama, when you swim your hand does the same thing a backhoe does when it scoops. Except a backhoe is in the middle. See, I can be a backhoe!" And she proceeded to demonstrate. That was with no prompting from me, except our daily trip to watch the backhoes this week and last.
I don't value, by the way, early learning for the sake of early learning. And I don't think that it makes better, smarter adults, per se. BUT...I do think that the opportunity to learn so easily, naturally, and quickly gives children a self-confidence that struggling to learn through artifical means can never do. My kids EXPECT that they CAN figure things out. They know they just have to look at it a little longer, twist this piece, ask someone a few questions. And they are not stuck "inside the box". So, I know that when they are doing advanced math later and have to struggle through a book...they'll be confident that they CAN do it...they are smart, they are strong, etc. I've given them the chance to prove themselves to themselves.
So, what do small children NEED developmentally? They need to be shown everything real they possibly can. They need to be gently guided and exposed to things they didn't know existed, and then be free to explore them at their own pace and in their own way. They need someone to sit beside them on the swing outside and comment on every passing car (blue truck, gold car, oooo...look! a fire truck!), etc, and to share the excitement and thrill of an exploration and an adventure. They need plenty of things they can touch and explore (and even break). But flashy toys and tv and preschool programs and socialization with other children in a school setting (or even playgroup)...absolutely not.