As a typical modern, nurturing parent, I understand the importance of giving my two preschool age children every possible opportunity for growth and education (by which I mean: toys). Sure, there was a time — right around the development of the wheel — when toys were just supposed to keep kids occupied while their parents were busy hunting woolly mammoth.
But that was then. Nowadays we're more enlightened and recognize that toys are, at least according to the packaging, "Critical Learning Tools" that have been "Scientifically Designed" to help kids develop "Key Cognitive Skills" and as a result are "Not Exactly Cheap."
For example, this past Christmas my 2-year-old son Dashiell received a highly educational toy called "Fridge Phonics." This item features 26 plastic letter magnets that, when placed on the refrigerator in another magnet with a speaker, play songs about the sounds the letters make (or at least I think that's what it does). Frankly, Dashiell has more fun scattering the letters all over the kitchen floor, but this toy has nevertheless proven beneficial to his language acquisition, if only because of all the colorful expressions he gets to hear whenever Dad slips on one of the magnets and cracks his head on the countertop.
Call me old-fashioned (or just old), but when I was a kid, toys didn't have such a lofty agenda. It's not as if G.I. Joe aimed to teach you a few phrases of conversational Mandarin Chinese while also featuring Kung Fu Grip. Today, of course, marketers would put a whole new spin on the merits of some of my childhood's biggest time-wasters. They'd refer to the popular game Operation as "The wacky doctor game that also teaches your children how to perform complicated surgery!" The kid at the end of the well-known Connect Four commercial might say, "Pretty sneaky, sis, and educational too!"
Don't get me wrong. We did learn a lot from our toys back then. But, typically, we had to take the lead in turning them into educational tools. I fondly remember whiling away many childhood hours conducting such impromptu science experiments as "What's Inside That Makes Him So Elastic?" or "Stretch Armstrong Meets a Pair of Hedge Clippers" and "Are Army Men Flame Retardant?" (turned out that a cigarette lighter and some gas siphoned from the lawnmower reveal the surprising answer). Back then, all we needed for a quality, toy-based educational experience was a vivid imagination and a dismaying lack of parental supervision.
The latest educational craze to hit the marketplace is baby videos. Companies have discovered that, when shown to young children, these videos have proven remarkably effective at creating something magical: profits. But do the videos have legitimate educational value? Well, a big company suggesting that you prop your precious infant in front of a TV screen for hours on end would need pretty strong evidence to support their claims, right? Well, not exactly. It turns out that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children watch no television at all prior to age 2.
But what do a bunch of pointy-headed doctors know, anyway? It's more important to recognize that, by watching these videos, even the youngest children will get an early start on developing a critical life skill: the vacant stare they'll need to sit through the untold number of geometry classes, church services, business meetings and aircraft safety lectures that the future holds in store for them.
Just to be safe, I'm not letting my kids watch any of these videos. But that doesn't mean no TV. Instead, I've decided to monitor their viewing habits myself and offer instructive comments to guarantee that the experience is also educational.
"No, sweetie. Look at the replay. You see how the quarterback's hand is moving forward when the ball comes loose? That means it's not a fumble. So what is it? No, not a lateral; it's an incomplete pass. Come on, pay attention! This is important!"
Ultimately, of course, what matters most is that children develop a love of learning. That's something that will undoubtedly last the rest of their lives, which is more than you can say about even the most educational of toys — particularly if there's a lighter anywhere in the house.