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Educational Toys

Hundreds of toys promise to help babies read, learn, do math and walk earlier than expected. For example, one product, a rubber ring that a baby chews on to relieve sore gums, says on the box that it promotes oral motor and language development. Typical modern parents — worried more than previous generations about their child falling behind — might buy the product without thinking. In fact, there is little scientific evidence to back up the claim on the packaging. And the claim is just one example of the disconnect between the research and marketing of child development.

The very idea that the purpose of a toy is to give your baby an advantage in their early education fundamentally misunderstands what is happening in development. Even if experts could devise such products, we would have defeated the whole point of childhood, which is for the child to build himself or herself. Whether it is a black-and-white mobile that supposedly catches a baby’s eye or a caterpillar that teaches your toddler to write code for computer programs, toys that say they promote child development are everywhere. But there’s little proof that they work.

Yet the educational toy market is worth billions and growing rapidly. Experts say that this is possible because of a deep insecurity in parents. Parents worry that their children are not keeping up with their peers, and toy companies exploit these doubts. The truth is that scientists are still trying to understand how the human brain develops and how to help babies and young children who are truly falling behind. Despite this uncertainty, though, many toy makers seem to suggest you can boost the intelligence of the average child by offering them the right playthings.

Mental stimulation for young children is like vitamins — enough is important, but more is not better. Yet thousands of apps are available and the average 18-month-old has at least seven DVDs. Susan Neuman of New York University ran a study comparing 61 babies who were exposed to a reading programme aimed at babies called Your Baby Can Read against 56 who were not. She found no difference between the two groups. Well, almost none. She did record that, although the children using the programme did not advance beyond the others, their mothers and fathers were convinced they had.

There is pressure from ambitious parents to make sure toys are educational. They want their child to go to a top university eventually and believe educational toys can help. That viewpoint may be unrealistic, but toys can still be an integrated part of learning. Toys in general can be helpful and every child, no matter their age, can get some benefit from playing with them.

Just as food nourishes the body, play promotes mental abilities. It appears that children who build stuff with bricks and Lego have a better ability to judge the size and position of objects; that is, spatial reasoning. According to experts, sometimes unsophisticated options are most beneficial, such as balls, dump trucks and ramps. These can teach children about the physics of gravity, shape and movement. Watching a baby fall to the floor or stumble into a closed door is terrifying, but these are just their physics experiments to understand how gravity operates and whether two objects can occupy the same space.


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