We've all seen the advertisements for toys, videos, even teaching programs for babies promoting to give your child an academic edge. Maybe we've been moved to purchase those toys that teach colors, counting, and ABC's in English and Spanish. Maybe we've been consumed with guilt because we did not give our children these toys, and we'll always wonder if we are the reason they might turn out to be something other than rocket scientists and neurosurgeons.
Is there anything wrong with these toys? No, nothing at all. They are often cheerful, colorful, and include a catchy tune your toddler or preschooler will enjoy. And they do, in fact, give kids early exposure to those basic academic skills. The lights and sounds are delightful rewards for your little one who is exploring the buttons, dials, and sliding levers. All that exploring improves their eye hand coordination and hand strength, aka "fine motor skills."
So what's the problem? Well, frankly, the problem is parents expect the fancy "teaching toys" to live up to the hype, and give something back for all the dollars paid to get this toy or gadget. After all, do not the toy companies know what they are doing? Does not the app teach a very obvious skill, like matching? It sets parents' mind at ease, and they may feel the kids are getting a superior education. Some may feel the toys are better teachers than moms and dads. Some may feel that adding extra "teaching time" with the child would be unnecessary. This is a very dangerous way of thinking.
We have to ask ourselves to think – how do kids learn? Toddlers and preschoolers are not ready for lectures and power point presentations any more than they are ready for these kinds of "lessons" the so called learning toys are trying to provide. This may seem like comparing apples to oranges – lectures are obviously for teen and up, but those learning toys are fun and kid friendly, right? Wrong. How could they be likened to a lecture? Because of one key ingredient that is missing in both instances, the very thing that makes it inappropriate for a child – it is not attached to a meaningful personal experience or social interaction.
Lectures are one sided. A speaker presents information, the listener soaks it in. Sometimes the audience is invited to participate somehow, but it is usually limited. The learning toys are only slightly better. They make their noises, and some of them try to get the child to press a button to respond. The child is cheered for or asked to try again depending on how they respond. Does this count as a meaningful personal experience or social interaction? No, not at all. The child simply listening to a computer. They are not holding and working with real objects. No one they care about is sitting with them to provide the encouragement or praise. Instead they hear a computer voice that is empty and repetitive. Sometimes the machine responds inaccurately, like when the child sets on the toy and the toy cheers for the child who incidentally sat on the button that was the correct the response. Like a lecture, these toys are impersonal, use representation instead of real objects, and may even give inaccurate feedback.
Do you still think those learning toys are superior?
Let's take a look at naturally occurring learning now. You can call it the unplugged version. Junior is in the sandbox with Grandma sitting nearby. His fingers are covered in sand, providing delightful sensory input. (If you are not familiar with "sensory input" just think of all the stuff kids like to touch because it is so varied – sand, paint, jell-o, beans, rice, water). Whenever you add sensory input, you are activating more parts of the brain, which aids in memory and learning in general. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, the light breeze is blowing, all the more sensory input that makes outside so much fun for kids. Junior is busy pouring and scooping sand. He plays pretend with a dump truck and uses it to transport sand to the "construction site." Grandma and Junior chat while he plays, and she gives him words to learn like empty, full, big, little, wet, dry. Junior is in charge of the play scenario. He fills up that dump truck himself. He shows how and when and where to dump it. Grandma smiles and encourages him. She challenges to make "a great big pile" of sand and applauds when he does. Junior beams with pride.
What just happened out there in the sandbox? Meaning happened. That sand was in Junior's little hands, not pixels on a screen. He scooped by using his little hands and muscles, not with a stylus tapping on a screen. He learned about physics out there, as he learned how hard to push the truck to make it go through the sand, how much pressure he needed to lift up the dump truck, what happened to the sand when the bucket was already full, how far Water splashes when he dumped it all at once. He was encouraged to keep going when the bucket was not full yet and Grandma helped him understand that full meal up to the top. He accomplished an actual physical task that he could see, touch, and be proud of. He got lost in the joy of make-believe play, which is critical for child development. Grandma's praise was genuine and accurate, and he loves that lady to pieces so he did not give up until he got it right.
So now we have seen how a real task, like sandbox digging or block tower building, with real people, is obviously better than tasks on a computer screen. But what about the ABC's, you ask? What about the counting in English and in Spanish? Times have changed drastically, and the pressure is really on once kids get to kindergarten. You want your future neurosurgeon to be ready!
OK, here's the truth. You can teach a toddler letters. You can teach shapes as complicated as "cylinder" to a two year old and she will be able to name it when she sees it a few weeks later. You will beam with pride. She can learn to count to ten, too. The question here is, should you?
It comes back to meaning. A child can count to ten, but does she understand what the numbers mean? Does she know that 8 is twice as many as 4? That 4 is one less than 5? That there are five cookies on the plate but when she eats one, that there are now four cookies? And what earthly purpose does a toddler have for adding the word "cylinder" to her vocabulary? She can learn letters, but she will not learn to read any faster. And without regular re-teaching, your child will quickly forget these things – for the simple fact that they do not hold any meaning for her. Our memories work by sorting and associating concepts with familiar things or in a way that makes sense. And all that academic mumbo-jumbo you gave her does not have a "storage drawer" inside that developing little mind. She has not got any place to store it that makes sense, so it fades quickly. So if it is not going to stick, why waste her time with it? Why not go outside and play in the sandbox? We know the lessons learned out there are going to last.
As your child approaches kindergarten, you will want to ensure he is "ready." Today's standards mean he should know a great many things, including letters and how to hold a crayon, his full name, and how to hop and skip. But starting to teach academies in baby and toddler years is not necessary. In fact, it may rob children of the time they could have spent filling and dumping a bucket of sand.
Still not convinced? Consider the child's growing mind. At one year of age, your child still thought he was an extension of you, and that he could control you. He fought, you fed him. He was bored, you played with him. You left him, he hinded until you returned. He tantrums because he can not control you any more. And he is mystified! He can not sort it out. Now fast forward to age 2. He's still tantrumming regularly. He cries because his meatballs are "all gone" even though you look in his bowl and see meatballs still there. Was that even the issue? Nobody knows! Now I ask you, is he ready to learn the complicated sound / symbol relationship of letters and begin to read? Is he ready to count in Spanish? Probably not. Research suggests kids are not ready to recognize and remember letters until … ready for this? … age five . That is shocking considering today's grueling pace. There is also some evidence that early exposure to letters and learning to read does not matter at all. A child can learn to read, and learn in a matter of months, if you wait until the child is developmentally ready to do so. That's around age seven. Of course, in America we do not wait until a child is seven to get started, the point of this is remind us that child development happens in a predictable, linear fashion. It can not be rushed. Development happens on child's schedule, not due to parental diligence with flashcards and learning videos. However, your child still has loads of things to learn. He is ready to play with you, listen and learn from a real person who loves and cares for him. He wants to please you, and wants to interact with you.
You do not have to "try" to teach a young child. Simply interact with him, talk with him, and ask him questions. Let him try things on his own and help him be successful. Learning happens in play, not on a screen or with a computerized toy. You can play pretend, build, paint, dig, hop and run, and even sort and categorize familiar objects like food in a toy kitchen. You can bake cakes and wash the bowls afterward. You can play catch and make up a simple game. You are all your child needs. Computerized toys can never replace the invaluable learning that happens when you simply play with your child. Choose toys that allow for problem solving, building, pretend play, or dress-up outfits. Do not forget about things like blocks, balls, and books. These classics never fail to entertain and to teach, too. Best of all, it is easy to join in and play with your child!