Retro toys: Back to the future

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D.

Roberta Golinkoff, Ph.D.

(appeared in USA Today in December, 2004)

They’re Taking Away the Building Blocks?!

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff.

(appeared in Wilmington New Journal in January 2004 )


Retro toys: Back to the future

‘Tis the season to be jolly. ‘Tis the season to join the pilgrimage of parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles visiting toy stores in search of the perfect Holiday gift. This year, like last, we will be dazzled by gizmos and gadgets designed to offer educational fun. Electronic books will read to our children. Video games offer lessons in shapes and colors. Newer robotic toys even promise to teach social skills. Pinocchio sits alone on the shelf like the Velveteen rabbit replaced by technological toys that crowd out imagination and leave little time for creative reflection. Play is under siege.

Our appetite for early learning is inspiring designer elves who are turning the educational toy market into a multibillion-dollar business that continues to grow by leaps and bounds. In this climate of academic “accountability,” even infant toys are designed to “stimulate the brain” and to give our youngest children “an educational head start.” Our children are becoming passive consumers of toys and entertainment media. The Kaiser Foundation reported that two-year olds are spending an average of two hours a day in front of a television. Zero to Three suggests that these same children spend an additional 40 minutes each day on the computer, playing video games and on the Internet. These figures don’t even account for the use of electronic toys that occupy much of their, “downtime.” It is little wonder that educators and physicians are warning well-intentioned parents. Let the buyer beware.

Researchers in child psychology spend countless hours studying how infants and preschoolers develop and really learn. This does not happen by filling children’s heads with facts or by encouraging babies to passively watch videos or to answer questions from demanding toys. To view children as empty vessels who need to be rushed towards adulthood under our educational supervision is tiring and demanding for well-meaning parents. Children are being taught that there is only one right answer, a track sure to breed conformity rather than ingenuity. We are raising a generation of children who have no idea what to do when they are not being entertained.

Mounds of evidence suggest that children learn through active play not through passive feeding. They learn math when they play “chef,” and set the table for four. They learn physics when they build a fort and carefully balance the cushion atop the roof. They learn language by talking with excited friends when they jump through the leaves or build an igloo. Research on young children has shown time and again, PLAY = LEARNING!! The world is a virtual classroom filled with opportunities to stimulate the brain and to encourage intellectual and social growth. In this Google generation, our children will have plenty of time to look up facts. To succeed in the global marketplace of tomorrow, they need to be creative problem solvers not robots equipped with prewired answers to yesterday’s questions.

So what is a parent (or an aunt) to do? Take refuge in the scientific findings of today and reinvest in the toys of yesteryear. The recipe is clear. Toys should be 90% child and 10% toy. They should be props for children’s fantasy not directors for their every behavior. In the zero budget category, think about pots and pans that make rhythm instruments. Think about appliance boxes that become taxis and fire trucks. And if you are willing to spend a bit more we recommend the following: 1) Construction toys, that allow your child to build castles and coves; 2) Play-Doh, little figurines that allow for imaginative play; 3) books with glorious illustrations that inspire bedtime discussion; 4) drawing tools like crayons and paints with a BIG white pad that becomes filled with images of their hopes and concerns; 5) red rubber balls, that promote their physical development and lust for activity; 6) props that turn your family room into a grocery store or a playground; 7) old clothes shortened for little bodies that allow them to be soldiers and brides; 8) puzzles that create images and designs and feed children’s growing attention span Each of these gives the child a chance to build a world and to make decisions about how to fill that world.

Together we can rescue play and give childhood back to our children. This year, go to the less traveled (and much quieter) aisles in the store. Think back about what was fun for you when you were a kid. It was probably trains, forts and dolls rather than glorified workbooks and flashcards. These are the memories that fueled a Shakespeare and an Einstein. These are the memories that will help us choose toys that inspire creativity in the children who will build our future.

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They’re Taking Away the Building Blocks?!

I applaud the possibility of moving to all- day kindergartens in Delaware. All day kindergarten is a superb proposal because it provides the continuity of care that many children of working parents don’t have. Since over 65% of families with children under 6 are in the work force, many parents are forced to make arrangements to have their children transported to another site. And since most of our nation’s day care facilities (unlike other western industrialized countries) do not employ people with college degrees or even with training in child development, how wonderful it would be for parents to know that their children were being cared for in a school by qualified teachers. And how terrific for the children, not to have to adjust to two different settings, to two different teachers, and to two different sets of playmates. So what’s wrong with this picture? Apparently, in an effort to leave no child behind, there is a serious possibility that all-day kindergarten will turn into a “drill and kill” environment. As one teacher put it, “they’re taking the blocks away!” What is replacing the building blocks? Desks and workbooks! But wait! This is kindergarten! What happened to playdoh and coloring and duck-duck-goose? What happened to time in the dress up corner and hearing stories?

Thirty years of science in the field of child development tells us unequivocally that force-feeding academics to young children is not how they learn best. Thirty years of science tells us that play is the best teacher and PLAY = LEARNING. Yet “play” has become a 4-letter word in our society! This is not to say that children shouldn’t be taught and should be left to roam about the classroom on their own. But pushing preschool and kindergarten children to sit at desks and do workbooks is not the way to teach them – even for those children who have not been fortunate enough to be read to and worked with at home. Underlying the notion that children should be pushed to learn are three myths that are perpetuated in the media and the marketplace.

First, we hold that faster is better. We have put children on the same treadmill that many of us are on! If children learn to read in kindergarten, the thought is that they will outpace their peers as they transition into school. Ironically, however, the research shows that children who are pushed are more anxious about learning and school than children who do age appropriate activities. Children who are pushed often worry that there is one right answer and that they have failed if they can’t find it. This is the way to turn children off to learning, to make them dread coming to school. The educational toy business has capitalized on parents’ anxiety about their children’s achievement. This billion dollar industry works hard to perpetuate the myth that the early introduction of school learning (through various expensive electronic toys, of course!) is critical for children’s developing brains. There is no evidence to support that claim. When we pressure our children to learn, all we are doing is confusing memorization with achievement.

Second, if we engage in “drill and kill” in all-day kindergarten it will be because we act as if our children are empty vessels, passively waiting for us to fill them up with learning. This popular view contrasts sharply with the portrait painted by researchers who spend countless hours studying how young children develop and learn. To view children as empty vessels who need to be rushed towards adulthood under our educational supervision saps children’s ingenuity. In fact, children are active and creative thinkers, explorers, who are constantly investigating the world around them. We know that young children are like sponges, eager to learn and arriving at school already knowing much about their world. In our interactions with them we need to capitalize on their natural curiosity and present new information in a fun and playful way. As just one example, consider reading. Rather than forcing children to memorize letter names, and trying to get them to learn to read in kindergarten, children need to be exposed to the wonders of books and writing. They need to be read to, to talk about what they are hearing, and to see lots of books and pictures. Learning about letters and words should be done playfully. Old standards like the alphabet song work, as do rhyming games like removing the initial letter of a child’s name in that old rock-and-roll song, “Nathan, Nathan, bonathan, re-ri-ro-nathan, Nathan!” to give the idea that words are composed of sounds.

And finally, there is the myth that social and emotional developmentare not important, that they can take care of themselves. To the contrary, evidence from laboratories around the world shows that emotional intelligence (EQ) is central to academic success. Children’s ability to get along with peers, to follow directions, and to empathize with others is crucial for their success in school. In the rush to fill their heads with facts and make minutes count academically, we rob children of the playtime they need to learn to negotiate with others and to interact with adults. Remember the category of “works and plays well with others” from our old report cards? Having these skills is the difference between success and failure in the real world! Emotional intelligence is just as important as IQ! Learning how to enter social groups, how to take turns, and how to cooperate are all part of what young children must accomplish to be successful in school and in life.

With the best intentions, and if we are not vigilant, all-day kindergarten will not be a garden where children can grow and thrive but a hothouse where children are forced to sit still and made to feel pressure to perform. Yet scientists have learned a great deal about how children grow and learn. We know how to raise happy, healthy, and intelligent children – even when both parents are in the work force - and it’s not by forcing little ones to sit in chairs and listen. President Bush has put children on center stage and has spurred us to make sure that “no child is left behind.” As we explore how best to educate our nation’s youngest citizens, we would be best served by using science as our guide. Young children do not learn through workbooks and flashcards. They learn best through meaningful exploration and play. It’s time to return childhood to children and bring back the building blocks!

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