Friday, August 14, 2009

Educational Toys

As a boy I lived in a lot of places -- Missouri, Connecticut, Texas, Greece, Oregon -- but the place I consider my childhood home is 134 Wembley Street, a suburban cul-de-sac in Columbia, South Carolina. That was where I lived from the age of 4 until the middle of my 4th grade year.

There were a lot of kids on our street, Johnny and Chuckie Beale, Pheobe and John Azar, the Wieble girls, the Cozart boys, big John Sain who could run right over us smaller kids in a game of tackle football, little Thomas Ballentine who we could talk into doing things the rest of us were too timid to try. We spent our free time ranging up and down the street having pinecone wars, playing kick ball, making forts in piles of recently cut tree limbs that had been piled along the curb for the garbage truck.

As we got older and bikes made us mobile, we roamed the wider neighborhood, building damns in the roadside ditches, laying down skid marks on asphalt, and hunting in the woods on "Hampton's Land" for lizards, frogs, and turtles that we would then put in boxes or jars. We met the kids from Christopher and Winston Streets, quarreling with some of them and befriending others.

Some of our mothers had actual dinner bells they would stand on the porch and ring when it was time to come home. It didn’t really matter whose mother was ringing, we all went home when we heard the first bell.

Throughout all of this outdoor play I don’t remember many toys. There were balls and shovels and the various slides, swings, and jungle gyms we had in our backyards. And I suppose bikes could be classified as toys, although they were equally transportation.

Inside, in our bedrooms, we had toys like cars, blocks, stuffed animals, and later dangerous things like hot plates for melting lead (that we poured into molds to make figurines), bows and arrows, and wood burning sets. We had a pair of heavy cars called SSTs that looked like dragster rockets that could be made to travel at very high speeds by yanking a rip-cord. They left perfectly round bruises on ankles, and girls had to be careful not to get their long hair caught the flywheel or it would have to be cut off. We had a game called “Skittle Bowl” that involved swinging a hard wooden ball on a chain around a post. Duck!

One thing none of us ever owned was an “educational toy.”

This long introduction is by way of pointing you to a funny, insightful and very well-written post on the topic of educational toys, educational TV, and what that means. It’s by Woodland Park Pre-3 parent Toby Beth Jarman and appears on the website Offsprung where she writes a featured blog called Tykegeist.

I like this line:

. . . it’s curious to me why a culture that’s often so proudly and willfully ignorant would care whether their babies are smarter than other babies.

And this one:

At what age does intelligence lose its bragging rights, anyway?

I love Toby's prose and enjoy her thinking. Go read it.

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PJ Mullen said...

That is a very interesting column you linked to. I've always wondered exactly how my son was supposed to gain any advantage from watching anything by baby einstein or whatnot. Very rarely does he watch TV. We got some of the baby einstein stuff as a hand me down from friends who have had their children. It calms my son down when he's cranky, but I think his natural curiosity serves the same purpose. I think we've done more for him by reading books to him every day and talking to him, telling him exactly what we are doing. I'm not sure if it is truly him responding to my question or not, but if I ask my 16 month old if he is hungry, he will nod his head in the affirmative and take off towards the kitchen. Very interesting read. Thanks.

Teacher Tom said...

I think Toby makes a very good point: marketers have figured out how to take advantage of new parents' insecurities to sell stuff.

I try very hard to make my preschool operate as much as possible like my own childhood roaming around the neighborhood with my friends. In fact, my mom saved a lot of our non-educational toys and we now use them in class. That "Skittle Bowl" game I mention? Kids are still whacking each other in the head with it!

Floor Pie said...

Tom! Thanks for linking us and thanks for your great comment on my post. I couldn't agree more.

Teacher Tom said...

You deserve lots of readers Toby. I love how you think and how you write. I'll probably link to everything you post.

WeaselMomma said...

Overall, I have found that toys have been a complete waste of hard earned cash. Most loose their luster in a child's eyes within a day -if not sooner. Bikes and outdoor lay sets are what make mine happy.