The week my eldest son finished nursery, I decided to clear out the playroom where he had spent much of his young life forming bonds with inanimate objects. Toys had kept him company whenever other duties or distractions had occupied his mother and me, and over the years we had amassed a truly crass number of them. As I sifted through pile after pile, I felt as though I was in the pit of an immense archaeological dig. I had not considered us to be particularly pushy or indulgent parents; mostly, I wanted my children to grow up to be financially independent and live lives of nothing worse than common unhappiness. But the artefacts in our playroom midden told another tale.
Here is a partial inventory of what I found: 13 floor puzzles, including several meant to teach the alphabet. Two sets of magnetic tiles, along with dozens of figurines and matchbox cars, for constructive and imaginary play. Xylophones and tambourines to foster musical ability, and a smattering of finger paints to inspire artistic creativity. Four logic games and a set of dice for practising maths. A speaker box that could play Mozart or children’s versions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Endless Duplo. And, to teach our kids how to unwind after the vigorously pedagogical afternoon those other things were meant to facilitate, the Fisher-Price Meditation Mouse™, an electronic plush toy offering guided stretching and relaxation exercises (advertising copy: “help your little one learn how to nama-stay relaxed”).
Our heap of playthings may have been extreme, but it was by no means atypical. American families spend, on average, around $600 per year on toys; a typical 10-year-old child in the UK may have possessed 238 toys in her short life, totalling about £6,500. That abundance bespeaks an entire world – of a postwar boom in plastics, babies and disposable income, of humans in Chinese factories and Madison Avenue marketing agencies, of the not always benign neglect of parents with relentless careers or hangovers or an aversion to spending time with other emotionally volatile beings. Above all, perhaps, the glut of toys reveals a particular vision of what play and childhood are for.
During the past two centuries, educators, psychologists, toy companies and parents like us have acted, implicitly or otherwise, as if the purpose of play is to optimise children for adulthood. The dominant model for how to do that has been the schoolhouse, with its reading, ’riting, and ’rithmetic. The more book learning we could doll up as play, and then cram into our children, the better. Then, with the rise of neuroscience in the second half of the 20th century, toys were increasingly marketed and purchased for the purpose of building better brains in order to build more competitive and successful grownups – to make Homo sapiens that were a little more sapient.
The pressure to do that has been felt most intensely with the youngest kids, aged five and under, and in recent decades the market has bestowed upon us such brands as Baby Einstein, Baby Genius and Fat Brain (tagline: “Toys that Matter to Their Gray Matter”). By 2020, the broad category of educational toys was making nearly $65bn (£55bn) worldwide, a figure that is forecast to double within the decade. Toys that teach – from the Speak & Spell and the See ’n Say to an entire phylum of learn-to-code robots – now pervade many young lives. “This generation of parents is asking toys to provide an end product, and that end product is prosperity,” Richard Gottlieb, an influential toy industry consultant, told me. “They want toys to get their children into Harvard.”
But the “bathe your toddler in ABCs and 123s” version of child development has recently come under threat. In its place, a vision of childhood and its playthings that is more archaic and even anarchic is emerging. “The model has been, ‘If I get toys that do schoolish things, then that’s good,’” Alison Gopnik, a leading developmental psychologist, told me. “But that really goes against what the developmental science is telling us.” The Christmas and birthday upshot is that young children are far more cognitively sophisticated than many toys on the Amazon results page or the Hamleys shelves assume. For decades, we’ve been getting our children, and their toys, all wrong.
One day this summer, I visited the western New York headquarters of Fisher-Price, the world’s largest maker of playthings for children under six years old, to see how beliefs about child development get incarnated in particular toys. In the main building’s atrium, I watched an employee ride a giant cherry-red spiral slide from an upper level down to the ground floor. Scattered throughout the hallways were examples of the company’s best known and bestselling toys, from the classic Rock-a-Stack ring stacker, on the market since 1960, to the 4-in-1 Ultimate Learning Bot.
Creating a line of toys often takes a couple of years. At Fisher-Price, which has been owned by the $6bn toy conglomerate Mattel since the early 1990s, commercial concerns quite naturally come first. The design process begins with a sheet from the marketing department specifying how many different products are needed for an upcoming season, at what prices, and for which outlets and licensing franchises. Then come the trend reports, which help to set design directions, from the colour palette to the personality of each toy. Every offering must be “toyetic”, which translates into English as “cute” and easy to market.
In the late 2010s, when designing the Linkimals, a hugely popular line of educational toys in the form of quirky mammals that supposedly teach basic literacy, numeracy and the colours of the rainbow, Fisher-Price considered many types of characters. “Woodland and offbeat creatures were really starting to trend,” Dom Gubitosi, who oversees the design of the company’s infant and toddler toys, said. “Parents were bored of elephants and tigers.” Today, the line includes the A to Z Otter, the Boppin’ Beaver and the Lights & Colors Llama – but sadly no Patterns & Prepositions Pangolin. “No matter how hard we tried, we just couldn’t make the pangolin cute enough,” said Kevin Crane, the Linkimals’ principal product designer.
Even in the age of online delivery, the defining moment in the life of many mass-market toys occurs in the shop aisle. Children start making their own purchasing decisions around the time they enter primary school, but for nursery-age toys, adults are still by-and-large the ones doing the buying. To convince grownups to open their wallets – or to incite children to wheedle, plead, cajole and then go thermonuclear until grownups open their wallets – the “on-shelf experience” of a toy is crucial.
“We think a lot about what the ‘Try Me’ is going to be,” an independent toy designer who licenses ideas to Fisher-Price told me. The Linkimals are designed to attract children and parents by using radio frequencies to chatter back and forth and sing ABC songs in unison. “The holy grail was always having toys that talk to each other, and that’s what we did,” Crane told me. “The consumer that bought into this bought in deep, because they experienced the learning, the magic.”
A crucial element in that abecedarian “magic” is the content that’s loaded on to toys’ silicon microchips. Some of the Linkimals boast more than 125 “songs, sounds, tunes and phrases” to edutain baby. “I can’t tell you how many count-to-10 songs I’ve written,” said Cheralyn Paul, a Fisher-Price producer who described her job as “scripting the entire electronic experience” for preschool consumers.
The little earworms that emerged from a tinny speaker on the back of one of the Linkimals – “Hell-ooh friends, how are you to-day? Are you rea-dy to play? Let friendship li-ight the way!” – were largely the creation of Paul and a sound designer named Glen Tarachow, who moonlights as a techno DJ named Euphoreum and, under his own name, as a composer of minimalist music – an antidote, perhaps, to the carnival-barking audio he engineers at Fisher-Price.
“We’re bringing the energy,” Tarachow said of his toy compositions. “We always say that – more energy!” Six months later, one of his house-inflected children’s songs – inspired, he said, by Belgian nightclubs – was still tormenting me: “All I see are colours, colours all around. All I see are colours, colours when I bounce. BOUNCE!”
In different times and places, and often in the same place at the same time, the years between birth and puberty have been considered a springtide of innocence and discovery, a mine of cheap and ready labour, or a spell of reckless sinning that needed to be drubbed out by the catechism and the cane. Those beliefs carried conflicting feelings about play, that characteristic childhood activity, and its common materials, toys. Fisher-Price’s playthings were in many ways the apotheosis of a vision of youth that began to form several hundred years ago, but that became truly dominant in the course of the last century.
A remarkable range of species, from the elephantnose fish to the komodo dragon, have been observed frolicking with objects such as twigs, rings and plastic balls. Among our own kind, play is ubiquitous, and there is possible evidence for toys stretching at least as far back as the Late Upper Palaeolithic period, from 20,000 to 10,000 BC, though the most common toys, like stick dolls and little wooden spears, have likely vanished from the early archaeological record altogether. From the bronze age onward, playthings appear frequently, and often in graves and other settings that suggest how intimately they were associated with what it means to be a child. A fifth-century BC Attic flask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts a little boy about to cross over the River Styx into the world of the dead; he reaches one hand toward his living mother, who cannot take it, and in his other hand he grasps the handle of a toy cart.
Although the explicit didacticism of modern toys is relatively novel in human history, playthings have always seemed to provide a toehold on the climb towards maturity. A ram-shaped pull toy from the 3rd-millennium BC city of Tell Asmar likely encouraged a Mesopotamian child to practise crawling along the floor and then toddling down the lane; in the Kalahari desert, the child-size bow and arrow still helps to prepare the San child for his eventual role in the hunt. Following the spread of capitalism and the Protestant ethic beginning in the 16th century, play in much of the western world was frowned upon unless it was construed as a form of physically, mentally and morally productive work. Educational toys like the ones that filled my son’s playroom emerged more or less directly from that kind of moralising and industrious zeal.
In the mid 20th century, that zeal gained a dubious neuroscientific rationale. Beginning in the 1960s, researchers studying laboratory rats, cats and rhesus macaques found that mammals needed relevant stimulation early in their lives in order to develop crucial faculties such as sight. They also discovered that young creatures had a superabundance of synaptic connections that were dramatically “pruned back” as they developed. Animals reared in environments where they could interact with toys and other members of their species had more synapses than those raised in isolation.
On their own terms, these were groundbreaking insights into what is now known as neuroplasticity, the study of how the brain changes over time. But the results were quickly lumped together and extrapolated to humans in scientifically unfounded ways. Over the next 30 years, the belief took root that we have to stimulate young children’s brains through toys, bilingualism and snatches of intrauterine Bach in order to ensure those brains are forming and maintaining the maximum number of synapses, so that children can reach their fullest potential and avoid lifelong drudgery, misery or even criminality. In the late 1990s, the neuroscience writer and research funder John T Bruer dubbed this “the myth of the first three years”.
All the talk of synapses lent a biological veneer to the already widespread doctrine of “infant determinism” – the idea that early experiences irrevocably shape a person’s behaviour and abilities. This idea was already present to a greater or lesser extent in many psychological systems, from Freudianism and the attachment theory of John Bowlby to the stepwise developmental phases postulated by Jean Piaget. As one Harvard child psychiatrist put it to the journalist Ronald Kotulak in 1996, “There is this shaping process that goes on early, and then at the end of this process, be that age two, three, or four, you have essentially designed a brain that probably is not going to change very much more.” Use toys to smuggle the learning in early, the thinking went, or the window for maximal development will close for ever.
It is true that major trauma and extreme deprivation can cause lasting, sometimes insuperable damage in young children. It also turns out that positive early experiences – such as nurturing care – can mitigate that harm. But, despite the best efforts of millions of striver parents, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can turn three-year-olds into geniuses by giving them plastic ukuleles for their birthdays, or even drilling them on their violin scales. (You may well be able to foster in those children a paralysing perfectionism and deep sense of inadequacy.) Equally, you don’t have to grow up with hundreds of toys, or speaking three languages, in order to be extraordinarily bright. (In fact, you can still learn several languages with a high degree of fluency in later childhood and beyond.)
Not all of that nuance has broken through to parents. Already in the mid 1980s, Brian Sutton-Smith, probably the most prolific play scholar in history, could write: “We have little compelling evidence of a connection between toys, all by themselves, and achievement. What is more obvious is that … we have steadily and progressively developed a belief that there is a connection between toys and achievement.”
By the late 1990s, when the myth of the first three years was fully permeating American culture, the educational toy segment grew faster than any other part of the industry, and at more than twice the rate of the US economy as a whole. Buying educational toys had become “a form of ritual magic whose practice is believed to ensure optimal development of that fecund site, the infant brain,” the communications scholar Majia Nadesan wrote in the early 2000s. By that time, the myth had taken hold of society at almost every level, from government policy down to the Toys “R” Us aisle.
At Fisher-Price headquarters, it was hard not to feel like an extraordinary amount of time, effort and alkaline batteries – not to mention a few synapses – were being wasted to make Rube Goldberg machines for the alphabet song. On the day I visited, a researcher in a black surgical mask was sliding an eye-tracking device over the head of an 18-month-old boy. We were in a part of Fisher-Price called the Play Lab, where experts in early childhood education use new technologies, such as emotion-analysing “face reader” software, to help design toys that meet kids’ “physical, cognitive, social and emotional development needs”. (One of the company’s recent slogans was “Best Possible Start”, which seems like a good way to inject the urgency of the first three years directly into insecure parents’ ready veins.)
Once the eye tracker had been fitted, the little boy was ready to begin his encounter with the Smooth Moves Sloth™, an eight-inch-high electronic light-and-noise box in the Linkimals line. Designed to seize children’s attention with its wide, vacantly smiling eyes and hypnotically swaying head, the Sloth has the vibe of a merrily lobotomised nursery school teacher. An intern instigated one of the Sloth’s routines by pressing a button on its foot, and it jolted into action. “Hey, what’s up?” the creature asked, sounding like a California college stoner transported to the front of a classroom. “Hahaha. Let’s sing!”
A look of alarm gripped the toddler and he backed away from the toy, not taking his eyes off it. Such retreats are typical of young mammals when they encounter novel objects in their environment; they must assess the unknown entity for danger before they can contemplate playing with it. One of the things that the Play Lab researchers look for are distinct “play patterns”, an industry-wide term of art for the ways toys engage children: does it encourage a child to crawl on the floor, allow kids to sort shapes and stack blocks? Fisher-Price claims the Sloth is proven to “reinforce early learning connections in little brains” and teaches “ABCs & 123s, Opposites & Games”. The little boy advanced toward the Sloth and then withdrew again, curious, but vigilant. He might have been learning something, but it was not, in that moment, his ABCs.
The idea that we need electronic toys to teach children to name colours or count to 10 is challenged by quite a few centuries of human history. Yet because school has been the dominant metaphor for learning, children who are not yet in school have often been considered little more than empty vessels waiting to be filled. “The conventional wisdom about children under five was that there just wasn’t very much going on there at all,” Alison Gopnik, the developmental psychologist, said. “You still hear people saying things like, ‘Oh, children can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality,’ or ‘They can’t think logically’, and all that.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Gopnik and her colleagues at UC Berkeley, along with other researchers, began developing better techniques for assessing how developing minds work. They focused not on what children said, but on what they did in creative and problem-solving situations. “It turned out that even the youngest babies already knew more and learned more than we ever would have thought,” Gopnik went on. “They’re extremely rational and they’re much better in some ways at doing inferential learning” – using patchy information to make accurate generalisations about a messy world – “than any other creature that we know of.”
One of the ironies of many so-called educational toys is that they don’t leave much for children to do or figure out on their own. You spin the arrow, pull the cord, and a pig oinks, end of story. “The way I like to put it, the best toys are 90% the kid, 10% the toy,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychologist at Temple University, who has led some of the most widely cited research into the effects of play on child development. “If it’s 90% the toy, and 10% the kid, that’s a problem.” (Her comments brought to mind the Fisher-Price Linkimals, which “link, sync, play and learn together”, as the tagline runs – no baby required.)
Instead of playing with educational toys that dispense information the way a funfair dispenses cotton candy – as saccharine, fluorescent, insubstantial fluff – children could be exploring the fascinating complexity of the world. They could be spending time figuring out, before they can ever articulate their insights, the basics of Newtonian mechanics and interpersonal dynamics. In the first research programme of its kind, a decade-long study at the Center for Early Childhood Education at Eastern Connecticut State University looked at the sorts of play elicited by different kinds of toys. “Back in 2010, when we started this, there wasn’t a lot of research on toys,” Julia DeLapp, who now directs the centre, told me.
After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toy, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were “more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,” the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”
As a result of such research, it is increasingly acknowledged that the best new toys are the best old ones – sticks and blocks and dolls and sand that follow no pre-programmed routines, that elicit no predetermined behaviours. “I don’t think electronic toys are a horror, but what often happens in the industry is that we kind of overdo the toys, and we take over the kids’ experience,” Hirsh-Pasek said. “Then after the kids play with the toy once or twice, they’re more interested in the box.”
And yet many policymakers, toymakers and parents still drastically underestimate children’s cognitive abilities. Only three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics felt it necessary to warn against “the proliferation of electronic, sensory-stimulating noise and light toys … that can be perceived by parents as necessary for developmental progress despite the lack of supporting evidence”.
The Ideo Play Lab, located in a former syrup factory in San Francisco’s Mission District, could be thought of as Fisher-Price’s more urbane second cousin. A design and consulting firm famous on the Ted Talk circuit for attempting to reimagine everything from the shopping cart to dying, Ideo has had a toy division for more than 30 years. “We like to say that play is part of Ideo’s DNA,” Michelle Lee, one of the Play Lab’s managing directors, told me as we stood in the company’s sleekly appointed headquarters.
Within its sun-filled, open-plan workspace, a paean to the creativity and affluence that creative and affluent people in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area associate with their home region, the lessons of recent developmental science seemed to be percolating like a fresh cup of single-estate pourover coffee. Unlike at Fisher-Price, toys that teach literacy and numeracy have become less sought after by the families that the Ideo Play Lab does market research on. Now it’s all about open-ended play and creativity. “The idea that you have a whole aisle in the toy store dedicated to helping parents feel like their kids are learning to read early is crazy,” said Adam Skaates, another Idea Play Lab managing director. Among other things, those kinds of educational toys have been disrupted by newer technologies, he pointed out: “Tablets can deliver those experiences far more efficiently.”
It wasn’t clear to me how open-ended or creative the play afforded by some of Ideo’s bestselling toys was – many of their ideas are bought by the large manufacturers, such as Fisher-Price, Mattel and Hasbro – but the designers there had a sophisticated-sounding way of talking about the play patterns that their toys provide. Construction sets offer build-and-bust play; marble runs are for physics play. They were particularly proud of a small plastic bunny with soft, fuzzy ears that nibbles up little pieces of cardstock illustrated with vegetables and poops them out in tiny bits. When they told me this charming little paper shredder was a good example of “nurturing play”, I was almost convinced. It was certainly a good example of their own ingenuity.
The Ideo designers understood that play isn’t always about hitting developmental milestones. Vlasta Komorous-King, a toy inventor who has worked at Ideo for 15 years, told a story about watching a girl playing with a doll. “And when the doll got upset, she gave the doll a puppet to soothe it,” Komorous-King said. “She understood how powerful an object could be in that moment.” It was the positive flipside of a more disheartening anecdote I had read somewhere about the effects of electronic toys on children’s psyches: a little boy who struggled and failed to do a poo on the loo remarked to his mother, despondent: “I must need new batteries.”
Despite these glimpses that play might mean other things, Ideo was in many ways a shrine to the old ethic that play ought to be productive. “We too often see play and work as antithetical, but we do the best work when we combine the two,” Lee said. In addition to inventing toys, the Ideo Play Lab was trying to peddle play to all sorts of companies as a tool for improving their bottom lines. Not for the first time, I had the pitiful sense that everything had been absorbed into a single overarching logic, that toys and play and childhood had been fully co-opted, and were now conquered territories in the work-ification of everything.
Once my eldest son started primary school, the toys that were left in our playroom were largely cast aside. His free time rapidly diminished. Now there was homework, tennis and football practice, and 90 minutes of extracurricular study at our local branch of the Russian School of Mathematics. Like a lightbulb on the blink, my wife and I flitted between worrying that we were overloading him and then rushing to get him on the waitlist for Mandarin and chess lessons. Occasionally, I proposed installing a woodworking shop in the garage, or taking my son and his friends into the local forest on Wednesday afternoons so they could have fun getting lost and climbing trees.
Even in my visions of tousle-headed cherubs gambolling in makeshift forts in hundred-acre woods, acting out narratives of unruly joy among bands of real and imaginary comrades, discovering as they go how to solve engineering and emotional problems – even in such idylls lurked the sorts of aspirations and anxieties that had haunted our playroom: how to prepare children for a world that every day seems more uncertain, unequal, and insecure, in which apart from intergenerational privilege – which, to be sure, we had – intelligence and creativity seemed like the greatest guarantors of security and autonomy. Open-ended play turned out to be just another way to try to get my six-year-old into Harvard. Even the new developmental science seemed to see children in terms that fit the marketplace all too well: it turns out kids are already the optimal problem-solvers, in possession of exactly the sorts of non-linear thinking the knowledge economy requires.
In the downtime between school and afternoon activities, when he had completed his token homework sheet and while I tidied the kitchen, my son would sometimes pretend to be the proprietor of a small ice-cream counter a friend of the family had bought our children last Christmas, serving up wooden dollops of chocolate and vanilla with a child-sized plastic scoop. In such moments, it struck me that ultimately, the logic of toys was the logic of the supply teacher: hold kids’ focus long enough to keep them from disturbing anyone or destroying anything, and maybe impart some basic lessons – about letters, physics or neoliberalism – in the process.
“The history of toys is the history of teaching children to preoccupy themselves usefully and solitarily,” Brian Sutton-Smith, the play theorist, wrote sometime before his death in 2015. If you stripped back the social and educational aspirations toys embodied, he added, toys were ultimately gifts with a paradoxical double message: “I give you this toy to bond you to me, now go away and play with it by yourself.”
The day before I visited Fisher-Price, I had driven an hour east from Buffalo to the Strong National Museum of Play, in Rochester. Along with Sutton-Smith’s archives, here you can find the world’s largest collection of materials related to play, including roughly half a million dolls, games and other playthings. Wandering past row upon row of the Strong’s rolling stacks was like being in the bowels of Noah’s ark, if the antediluvian world had been populated by rocking horses, Pet Rocks and Mr and Mrs Potato Head. It suggested to me that one thing we had taught our children with their toys was the habit of material accumulation.
The Strong is also home to the National Toy Hall of Fame, which since 1998 has been inducting some of America’s most popular and enduring toys, from the stick, blanket and cardboard box to the Atari game console and Barbie. Some of these toys were explicitly about creativity and intellectual development (the Erector Set, Crayola crayons); others were about unalloyed joy, or were refreshingly blase about wasted time (bubbles, the Magic 8 Ball).
While I was at the Strong, I sat down with the museum’s vice-president for collections, Christopher Bensch. Before joining the museum, Bensch had worked at an art museum in Utica, New York, that had a historic house next door. “In the 19th century, it was the home of the wealthiest family in town,” Bensch said. “Every Christmas, the two daughters who grew up there got a diary, and in the diary they wrote down anything else that they got for Christmas.”
“They’ve got all the money in this booming industrial town, and one year they got a dollhouse,” Bensch continued, evoking a snowy New England yuletide from a bygone era. “But in ensuing years, they would get an orange, a book, a piece of dollhouse furniture. They didn’t get the whole onslaught of goods that any child expects to receive for birthdays and holidays today – or that a parent thinks, ‘I’m being delinquent if I don’t give them everything under the sun.’”
There was something jewel-like in the beauty and simplicity of this story: a single dollhouse, in an uncluttered room, cherished and filled, wardrobe by tiny painted wardrobe, over the course of many years. I wanted for my son some of the frugality, some of the quietude, that must have been shared by those two girls.
But then again, they grew up in another world.
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