Jason Toon


quality posts: 19 Private Messages Jason Toon

Now that all of our friends are tired of hearing us talk about our kids, we’re taking our parenting thoughts to the Kids.Woot blog. Sometimes it’ll be me, sometimes it’ll be another Woot staffer with offspring, and sometimes we might even rope in a guest or two.

As I’ve hinted at in some of the Kids.Woot copy I’ve written, I’m of two minds on the concept of educational toys. On the one hand, sure, who’s against education? The children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Science/exploration devices like today’s Discovery Megaview Indoor/Outdoor Digital Microscope merge the halves of that dual mission into a whole that usually seems fun for kids inclined that way. LeapFrog stuff is generally impressive, too (and I thought that before we sold any of it). But you can’t just graft an educational mission onto a dull game or toy and expect kids to enjoy it. And if they aren’t enjoying it, they probably aren’t learning much, either...

I also take issue with the assumption that certain things, and only certain things, are “educational” – like times tables or Spanish – and everything else is fluff. When the educational stuff turns out to be tedious, as it often does, it turns kids off the whole idea. Spending your childhood having fun becomes kind of a guilty pleasure. But here’s the secret: when kids are doing those things that seem like pure fun, they’re learning, too. Maybe even more.

No, I didn’t learn anything about phonetics or chemistry from Bugs Bunny. But did I learn wit, and imagination, and comic timing, and how distinctive characters are built from a few telling details? Does Elmer Fudd have a speech impediment? And this isn’t even getting into the numerous Looney Tunes references to the Western Civ canon. Everything I know about opera, I learned from Chuck Jones.

Likewise, from ages 8-13, I probably spent as much time playing baseball as I did reading, which for a nerd like me is saying something. And I learned just as much, too – no book can really teach you how to work with a team, or how to find the role that suits you best, or how to accept your own limitations. (I had a lot of practice with that last one.) And the hours I spent poring over baseball cards taught me a little geography (so where is this Dominican Republic that Joaquin Andujar was born in?), a little Spanish pronunciation (Joaquin Andujar again), and a little math (you had to figure your own on-base percentages in those days).

I could name any number of childhood enthusiasms whose hidden educational value stood me in good stead in later life, from D&D to coin collecting to Risk to riding my bike to Little People. I’m sure you could, too. And what we learned stuck with us because we were engaged, or, dare I say it, entertained. My 13-year-old daughter didn’t learn who Mansa Musa and Peter the Great were in history class; she learned it by playing Civilization IV.

American parents are anxious to give their kids every advantage in life from birth, lest their spot at Harvard be stolen by some rival tot who watched a few more hours of Baby Mozart. There’s a whole industry built around exploiting that anxiety. As psychology professor Alison Gopnik points out in this New York Times  op-ed, we wind up with a situation where babies and children sit passively staring at flash cards or videos showing all the things just outside their door - things they could actually be learning about through active experience. “Babies can learn a great deal,” she writes, “just by exploring the ways bowls fit together or by imitating a parent talking on the phone. (Imagine how much money we can save on ‘enriching’ toys and DVDs!)”

Now, I’m not saying throw Junior any old crap because everything’s good for him. But kids have better taste than we think. My own daughters might gravitate toward some vacuous My Little Pony video because it pushes certain psychological buttons of theirs. But once that sparkly sheen wears off, the things they come back to over and over have a little more substance to them, whether it’s Spongebob Squarepants or Lincoln Logs. As in everything else, the good will out. And the quality batting average is no higher for designated educational products than for their nominally non-educational competitors.

Play and experience have their own lessons to teach. And when done right, those lessons are more deeply understood than anything you can get by shooting some generic aliens down with your lethal multiplication skills. So yeah, educational toys and games and TV, sure; but most of all, good toys and games and TV, “educational” or not.

That’s how I feel about it, anyway. What about you, parents? Tried the whole Baby Einstein/flash card routine? Do your kids get more out of educational toys than regular old fun ones?

Photo credits:
Kids asleep at symphony: Flickr user midiman
Mansa Musa: public domain image from Wikipedia
Lincoln Logs: Flickr user eren | thisvintagechica

dave bug


quality posts: 14 Private Messages dave bug

I was just reading about Reading Rainbow losing funding and it reminded me of this. "Today, educational funding favors programs that teach kids how to read, rather than why to read."

So we'll end up with dry programs explaining phonics and spelling. I'm sure that'll get the kids excited to pick up a book.

Snapster


quality posts: 16 Private Messages Snapster
dave bug wrote:I was just reading about Reading Rainbow losing funding and it reminded me of this. "Today, educational funding favors programs that teach kids how to read, rather than why to read."

So we'll end up with dry programs explaining phonics and spelling. I'm sure that'll get the kids excited to pick up a book.


it's interesting to the extent that capitalism has moved to fill the edutainment niche... enough so that I'm definitely in agreement of Jason's piece. But I wonder if evidence of that marketplace leads people to think that public funded stuff ought to be more lame in contrast - like it needs to prove it's need for funding by sheer lack of entertainment value.

olderbrother


quality posts: 0 Private Messages olderbrother

This reminds me of a fantastic book, Playful Parenting, that dovetails nicely with this blog post. Kids learn the most important things by doing, especially playing, and particularly playing with other people. I highly recommend it to all parents:
www.playfulparenting.com
(I'm not affiliated with the author, publisher, etc., just a happy reader.)

fait


quality posts: 16 Private Messages fait

Excellent blog. In fact, I'd even say that it was educational. I just learned why I've already wooted a ridiculous number of times this week from this site alone.

We spent a great deal of time, effort, and money on reading prep for our son. I won't say that the money wasn't well-spent - he was reading by age 3, but we got the most milage out of day-to-day activities - reading labels at the grocery store, reading signs on the roadside. Heck, we even had him sounding out words from junk mail (may as well put it to good use, eh?).

Learning tools are great, but I really believe that people don't understand their limited value. They're an excellent starting point, and they're good for working through difficult concepts, but they're not the do-all and end-all of learning.

BTW, I loved the "learning via baseball card" theory. If you want get into some really complex math, I'd suggest calculating Joaquin Andujar's batting average. Only he could pull off a point-zero-somthing-or-another average with multiple home runs. It's amazing the man didn't land himself on the DL more often.

aberdeen57


quality posts: 1 Private Messages aberdeen57

I am absolutely agree with the post! Some of my most formative educational activities were Legos, 3D computer games (Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), and Magic the Gathering (talk about developing memory. I had thousands of cards memorized and understood how they all worked together!). Perhaps it is not surprise that I work as a Mechanical Engineer spending a good portion of my day doing 3D cad design.

What we play with often teaches us and equips us with the skills to enjoy a vocation much more than we realize. And last time I checked, there are no job openings for "human calculator."

LBeria


quality posts: 4 Private Messages LBeria

Whatever happened to just playing with the box??? I remember as a kid so many times sitting in a box or pushing it around or drawing on one to create whatever I wanted. And, no, we weren't dirt poor that old boxes were all I had (but my husband jokes that his family was barely able to have rocks and they were thankful for them). I remember thinking if I could sell boxes for kids I'd be a millionaire 'cause that's what they want -- something to create into their own.

My kids have had the "educational" toys and the "fun" toys and they've learned equal amounts from both. My oldest son is autistic and he loved nothing more than to watch something that spun or had funny noises. Now, he's in college majoring in art and graphic design and using the fun things he loved to play with as examples of engaging art.

I love the people that are on the "Your Baby Can Read" bandwagon right now. If they only knew that the hundreds of dollars they're spending on scaffolding that actually has them simply sitting down and spending more quality time with their children (which is free, by the way) is what's helping their son/daughter learn faster to read than plopping them in front of a TV hoping something will sink in.

Purchases: Too many to track anymore but only 2 Brigadier of Carolling since 2006.

Only the good die young.... But most people are morally ambiguous which explains our random dying patterns....

HardwareJEJ


quality posts: 1 Private Messages HardwareJEJ

Great post, and I love the classic Lincoln Logs. Everything is wood, and the roof slats are somewhat faded.

James

mrileyatwoot


quality posts: 1 Private Messages mrileyatwoot

Staff

HardwareJEJ wrote:Great post, and I love the classic Lincoln Logs. Everything is wood, and the roof slats are somewhat faded.

James



I'm just waiting until when and if we sell those Lincoln Logs on here and then it's perfect Christmas gift for my 30 year old brother who has no kids. That'll turn the clock back a few years for him.

soochee


quality posts: 0 Private Messages soochee
olderbrother wrote:This reminds me of a fantastic book, Playful Parenting, that dovetails nicely with this blog post. Kids learn the most important things by doing, especially playing, and particularly playing with other people. I highly recommend it to all parents:
www.playfulparenting.com
(I'm not affiliated with the author, publisher, etc., just a happy reader.)



Thanks for the link. I've been looking for something like this. I think my kids do learn the best when they think that it's play.

mattlscc


quality posts: 34 Private Messages mattlscc

Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys... that's where it's at! My daughter asks me to play with the Tinker Toys almost every day. Unfortunately, the small pieces mean we have to keep them out of the way of my younger son for now, but we still get some good building going on.

iiowyn


quality posts: 1 Private Messages iiowyn

My youngest kid's fav toy was a bucket of rocks- she loves to build things and blocks were too "easy" at three she could make a foot high wall with driveway rocks *that stuck together*