Educational Toys Can’t Teach What Connection Does

When you look into the face of your new baby you are more than likely overwhelmed by many things: love, excitement, hormones, inadequacy, insecurity, fear, a sense of timelessness… You blink your eyes and your baby blinks back at you, the moment sacred and magical. The scene is beautiful but another force sees something altogether different than beauty. It sees: spending possibility. The educational toy market alone is estimated at more than $4 billion in North America and you became its target the moment you even thought of having the baby that you now hold in your arms. These companies don’t care about you and your baby’s well being, no matter how endearing their advertisements are, and they will stop at nothing to keep growing, no matter how cluttered your house has become. You, your baby, your bank account, and the planet will all be better off if you block your ears against the siren song of toy companies who tell you that the answer to everything is to buy more toys.

You pull out your phone and snap a picture of your baby in an attempt to capture the holiness of this moment. Then you tuck the little one into the crook of your arm and open Instagram to post the picture so the world can share it with you. But what’s this? A new advertisement which you have never seen before. “Stage-based play essentials for your child’s developing brain,” the website says. With their products you can “make the most of playtime” and “take out the guesswork” so you will have the right toys at the right time. The kits are delivered every two months and come with a tailored selection of toys starting with what your baby needs from birth. You’ve already been gifted a pile of toys from loving family and friends and you’ve made a few impulse purchases yourself, but maybe those ones aren’t right? Maybe they are too flashy or the paint isn’t safe. 

On the other hand, as microchips have gotten cheaper other toy makers have incorporated them into more and more of the products they pump out of their factories. No matter what you are shopping for you can find options which rock, vibrate, flash, and play music and sounds that are supposed to be educational and enriching. There are multimedia training potties that reward the child who is innocently trying to learn how to do his business with various flashes and fanfare after a successful “deposit.” Companies don’t even wait for babies to be born to target them with products. There really is a product that can be inserted vaginally to play music that is supposed to improve your baby’s brain development in utero. Whether you go with the all natural, minimalistic, Montessori or Waldorf type theme for your baby’s nursery or you let well-meaning grandparents express their love through whatever is the latest that the Target toy aisle has to offer, it will not take very long before your home is littered with toys.

As a doula, nanny, educator, and parent of five, I urge you to put the phone down. Ok, post that picture to Instagram first because I want to see how cute your baby is too. Great, now I’m seeing ads. But here’s the thing: “Most toy companies design toys to meet marketing needs, but very few design (toys) with the child’s developmental need in mind,” says psychologist Yael Katz, Ph.D. Some do have a team of specialists consulting on product design, but if they don’t reference them, then they are probably relying more on hype than evidence. Furthermore, the evidence is not conclusive that these products really are as good for babies as they claim to be. 

Meanwhile it has become impossible to ignore the effects of human caused climate change. I grew up in the shadow of a mountain that was covered in glaciers year round but now juts into the skyline bare and gray all summer long. That mass of plastic in the middle of the ocean has become such a permanent fixture that sea life like anemones and crabs have been found surviving on it miles away from their natural habitats. You have to wonder how much of the 14 million tons of plastic that enters the world’s oceans every year comes from that $4 billion educational toy market. As Paul Elrich says in The Atlantic, “Today’s situation is wholly unprecedented. Whereas it took our species hundreds of thousands of years to reach a population of 10 million, we are now adding (net) 10 million people to the planet every six weeks. Whereas in the past human impacts on the environment were local, reversible, and escapable through migration, they are now typically global, irreversible, and inescapable.” Of course what you buy for your baby is the tiniest fragment of the problem and it’s hands down the responsibility of these big corporations and the governments that have the power to regulate them that should ultimately be held accountable. But you don’t need their products. You don’t need to give them your money. You don’t need to add your fuel to the dumpster fire that is global warming.

Let’s return to the moment. You, full of feelings, are looking at your baby and your baby, also full of feelings, is looking back at you. This is what it’s all about, always has been, and always will be. Yes, the first two years are critical in your child’s development. Yes, you want to do everything you can to set your little one up for success in life. But you don’t need to have a houseful of products for that to happen. What your baby needs is playtime. You know this, Grandma knows this, and every toy company eying your wallet knows this. But play for babies is very simple and can often be done best using common objects around your home. As your baby is stacking, dropping, rolling, toddling, and falling what is really happening is they are learning the concept of gravity. They don’t need a subscription box or a flashy product to make them learn it faster. After all, an apple worked for Sir Isaac Newton. Anything babies put up, will come back down, and they will test it over and over again like the little scientists that they are. 

Another key concept babies have to experiment with until they get it is time itself and research is being done to find out if their sense of time can get skewed or disrupted. Leapfrog and Baby Einstein and whatever is the latest greatest in children’s TV may not have ill-intent, but many of these programs are getting faster and faster paced. At the same time, children’s toys are doing more and more for the user, turning the child into a consumer, not an experimenter. No matter how educational, TV and toys are never a good substitute for another human being who interacts with the baby at a normal pace.

The toy industry and their army of advertisers latched onto the studies that show that earlier speech may lead to high IQ later in life. They barrage you with this information and pressure you into believing that if some is good, more must be better. But it doesn’t actually work like that. In fact, when some of those studies went a step further and controlled for stresses in the home like poverty, food insecurity, and violence that can delay speech, the link between higher IQ and early speech disappeared. We don’t need billions of dollars being poured into toy production. We need those billions of dollars to go towards longer (or any) family work leave, higher wages, and quality childcare options. But that’s an argument for another day.

According to the brilliant researcher, professor, and scientist Dr. Maria Montessori, infancy and childhood are not just phases of life that precede adulthood but rather they are a different form of human life altogether. The babies and children that exist among us have as much to teach us as we do to them. Babies learn to walk and talk and eat and sleep because nature compels them to. As your baby’s primary caregiver, you get to witness this process as it unfolds moment by moment. If you let the world sweep you up in its relentless flow you run the risk of missing it. Society is massively disserviced when governments and companies, those who actually have power, don’t do everything that can be done to give children the time, space, and support they need to develop into the people they are meant to be. When we stop selling and buying with no regard for the human and the environmental costs, and turn our attention and energies instead to “the discovery of the child and the development of the great potentialities of the human personality in the course of its construction”, then we might begin to have some solutions which lead to peace and unity. 

Not only is toy production harming the environment, the money that is sucked up by the industry could be spent on social infrastructure which would allow families to spend time together without worrying about where their next meal is going to come from or long work hours which keep parents away from their children. It really doesn’t matter what toys you have in your home. It doesn’t matter what music your baby listens to or if you use flashcards or if you play educational TV programs instead of silly cartoons. What matters is the connection that exists between the two of you. What matters is what your baby sees when they wake up hungry in the morning and what they feel when they are sleepy at night. Being born is probably the scariest thing any of us ever do and then after that we have to deal with all that being alive means. It’s not easy and each of us deserves kindness, support, and love as we figure it out along the way. Don’t let the toy industry get in the way of that.

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