Call me an old fart, but I'm not a fan of new-fangled, ring-ding-dang educational toys. My recommendation to parents always is, don't easily trust the (sometimes wacko) things that our culture takes for granted are great for kids. Err on the side of "First, do no harm." Trust your inner knowing and common sense, not the zeitgeist.

I guess this began decades ago in R.I.E. groups with both my children, as I saw how creatively engrossed they became in simple objects that most people would never characterize as toys, let alone educational: plastic soap drainers, colanders, pieces of cloth, and the round, soft-edged metal tops from frozen O.J. cans. (Do those even exist anymore??)

The crawlers and toddlers would work their imaginations around these objects like crazy, and who knew what was buzzing inside their bustling brains as they did so! But neurons were firing and wiring, there is no doubt about that.

Elizabeth Memel, our teacher at those R.I.E. classes, taught us over time a simple set of criteria for choosing playthings for our children that would foster rather than thwart their motor skills, imagination, and healthy will (the sense of "I can"). All these playthings shared one quality: simplicity. I'll share some of this wisdom with you in a moment.

What Builds Brains?

The research is clear: the healthiest psychosocial development of the young brain is achieved through:
  • close and near-constant human relationship
  • hands-on interaction with the world through imaginative play
  • connection with nature
Alas, in our hyper-accelerated culture we've lost an understanding and appreciation for just how critically important these simple experiences are for the healthy development of our children. We tend to see them as a waste of time. A toy cannot simply be a toy -- it has to be an educational toy. Play cannot be for its own sake, it needs to be organized, improved upon, and packaged as "enrichment." And the biggest market in the "enrichment" game these days is screens.

But sitting in front of a television (or gazing at a screen of any portable kind) runs counter to those three brain-nurturing pursuits above, and is in fact a highly unnatural activity for a young child: sitting motionless for thirty, sixty, ninety minutes at a time, watching the flicker of electronic signals play across a back-lit screen, was never part of Nature's plan for the unfolding of social or cognitive intelligence.

Can We Dish About Screens…Honestly?

I have a snarky side to me, especially when it comes to companies trying to leverage parents' insecurities and fears (Will my child have what it takes to succeed in this ever more complicated world?) into a frantic market for baby-improvement "info-tainment" that flies in the face of everything science knows about what infants and young children need for healthy development.

Do you remember the big kerfuffle a few years ago over the "Baby Einstein" juggernaut? University of Washington researchers made quite a media splash with their assertion that exposing infants (8-16 months) to baby DVDs/videos such as "Baby Einstein" and "Brainy Baby" was strong associated with lower scores on a standard language development test. The most memorable, viral soundbite from one of the researchers was, "Parents hoping to raise baby Einsteins by using infant educational videos are actually creating baby Homer Simpsons."

I'll admit I was giddy over that comment. But my greatest devotion, beyond any particular agenda -- even one that I believe serves children -- is to the truth. So I want to update here what the most recent upshot of this case was (which happened after my book was published). Baby Einstein founder Julie Aigner-Clark and her husband -- together with the Walt Disney company, who meanwhile bought the franchise -- entered into legal wranglings with the University of Washington.

The last significant development in the saga came in 2013 after independent scholars reanalyzed the data from the U of W study. They concluded that "depending upon how the statistics were manipulated, the dataset could have been used to suggest that baby videos increased, decreased or had no effect on language development. The reanalysis concluded that it was safest to suggest that baby videos had minimal impact on language development and that linking baby videos to decreased language development was not well supported by the data."

As the controversy first surfaced in 2007, here's what Aigner-Clark had to say about her "Baby Einstein" creation, perhaps defending how it thumbs its nose at the American Pediatric Association's guideline that children under two shouldn't watch any television, period: "I'm proud of what I made. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Most people have televisions in their houses, and most babies are exposed to it. And most people would agree that a child is better off listening to Beethoven while watching images of a puppet than seeing any reality show that I can think of."

I guess I found it bizarre that those were the two choices.

Toys That Build Brains

Here are three questions to ask yourself when choosing a plaything for your child:

Is it kid-powered? A truly educational plaything doesn't do something of its own accord, or even at the push of a button. It relies on the child to produce a result that has meaningful cause-and-effect relevance to the child's action. (I see the jack-in-the-box is a really non-respectful toy, since the action of the child -- turning the crank -- creates a startling, even scary, result not related to his action. I suppose for an older child, cognitively aware of the whole process, it could be a hoot.)

This criterion eliminates a huge swatch of current popular children's playtime fare, which is becoming faster-paced by the decade. While babies and toddlers will stare at the bright colors and motion on a screen, their brains are not yet capable of making sense or meaning out of the sped-up sequences of images and surreal stimulation of most screen-based programs.

Is it versatile? The optimally brain-building plaything doesn't have just one dedicated use or action, but through imagination it can be or do many things. This is where the Parenting for Peace principle of Simplicity serves you and your child well. When a piece of wood becomes an alligator or a doll, when a spoon becomes a great flag or a king's scepter, the neural landscape fires up robust new connections. When anything can become a toy through wonder and imagination, a child's mind is enriched immeasurably. Also, you both experience such freedom to stay off the purchase-go-round!

Is it beautiful? The young child naturally seeks an atmosphere in harmony with his natural impulse to celebrate beauty and feel reverence and awe about almost everything. There are many ways to support this need, including our choice of objects in the home environment. As far as playthings go, this can mean opting for wooden over plastic... handmade over factory-produced... natural fibers over synthetic... gentle colors over neon -- you get the idea!

No, But Really…

Of course you're not going to meet all three criteria all the time. If a good number of your child's playthings were to meet any two of them, that would rock! Let me give you a few 2-For-3 examples:
  • Brio trains are beautiful and kid-powered, even though they're pretty much dedicated to being pushed along the track to their destination!
  • The aforementioned RIE objects (rubber soap strainers, metal OJ can tops) aren't particularly beautiful, but they're kid-powered and infinitely versatile. Ditto big cardboard boxes as they get a bit older.
  • A beautiful wooden box that plays Bach when opened could be enchanting (and versatile to a point) for a child over the years, despite its self-powered musicality.

A Grand Slam (Shhhh) Educational Toy

Dmitri Christakis, a leading researcher on the effect of toys, media and learning, cautions parents about the over-stimulation of digital media, pointing out that there is now a solid base of evidence suggesting it is "not good for children." His research spotlights the need for "real time" experiences for young children and zeroes in on one of the most classic "educational" toys ever (but shhh, don't let him hear you call them that!): wooden blocks!

Blocks -- child-powered, limitlessly versatile, and beautiful. And unlike the digital sped-up-mash-up videos that bear his name, Einstein himself my easily have made some of his earliest inventions with them!

I'd be just tickled if you'd share some of YOUR 2-For-3 plaything ideas with me. And if you happen to know of other 3-For-3's besides blocks, then you'll be the bees' knees in my book! (I guess I am indeed an old fart.)

John-Morgan | Flickr / Creative Commons
stevendepolo | Flickr / Creative Commons