A Mind Is A Great Thing To Play With

by 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