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Years ago, I was present as our friend’s son unwrapped birthday gifts.  One was a school bus with the alphabet emblazoned on it.  Each time you pressed a letter-button, it would name the letter.  Our friend took great delights in pushing “F” “U” over and over.  It went right back to the store.  Later, either in one of the many daycares I visited as an itinerant early intervention speech therapist, or in Kohl’s as a hormonal woman pregnant with twins, we chanced upon a toy lawn mower.  It looked just like a regular toy mower, with a handle, some noise when you pushed it around, like many walking toys, but it had one more thing – a label proclaiming it to be a “learning mower”.  I laughed it off, deciding the manufacturers had given it that title because there were ABC and 123 stickers, which added supposed educational value without actually doing anything extra in product development.

Unfortunately, the trend caught on, and it’s more than just some colorful decals on the side of a toy.  Behold: the Fisher-Price “Laugh and Learn” line.  Characterized by the goofy (and I’m sure trademarked) eyes and mouth emblazoned on every single toy, the “Laugh and Learn” line has remade such classics as mowers, vacuums, shape sorters, telephones, cameras, puzzles,  and now encompasses such things as lanterns, mirrors, chairs, iPod cases, stuffed dogs, smart phones, and ball poppers.  There’s even a soccer ball.  Fisher-Price has created a cash cow by slapping the word “learn” on their products, as if the plain, classic version had no educational value whatsoever.  Parents see a plain toy next to the jacked up “Laugh and Learn” (or, increasingly, see only the electronic version), deduce there’s added value in the battery power, and bring that home instead.  I cannot stand the battery-powered version with its repetitive mechanical tunes, and promises to “teach” babies.

Let’s take one example, the shape sorting cookie jar.  Shape sorters teach many things to babies and toddlers.  My kids, who just turned one this weekend, are able to open the lid to their classic 1972 Fisher Price shape sorter, and take out all the shapes, as well as put them back in, with or without the lid.  They can learn visual-spatial skills as they put things inside, hone fine motor tasks of grasping and releasing, fine-tune pre-puzzle skills of rotating shapes to fit into the holes, explore gravity as they drop the pieces in or out of the bucket, and there are even opportunities for such pre-academic classics as shapes, colors, and numbers.  The triangles are all green, the rectangles are red, and the circles are blue.  We can count them as they go in or out.  We can introduce an action vocabulary — push, drop, hold, count, sort.  We can sort them into different piles by shape/color.  We can even add advanced vocabulary and learn the names for 3D forms such as cylinder, rectangular prism, and triangular prism.  Maybe I’m the only one who does that.  We can learn the opposites “on” and “off”, and take shapes “out” or put them “in”.  They learn determination (“grit”) as they persevere to fit the shapes through the holes.

We received, by way of hand-me-down from my nephew, the Fisher-Price Laugh and Learn Cookie Shape Surprise cookie jar shape sorter.  It has five shapes/colors, so you know it already has added value (my kids may never learn what a star or a heart is otherwise). Plus, the shapes are all emblazoned with a raised numeral, even though it’s not developmentally appropriate to be teaching number symbols until kids have an awareness of quantity of real objects (“two” feet?  My kids just learned they have feet).  Then, we get to the battery-operated wonder.  The cookie jar has little ball-bearings in each opening, so when you successfully force a shape through the hole (it requires more force than the traditional shape sorter owing to the motion sensing technology impeding the shape’s progress), it labels the shape (or number) for you.  And then sings its stupid song.  “Shapes are in my cookie jar, triangle, heart and star.  There’s a circle over there, here’s a square!”  Or, if the toggle switch is set on “number” mode: “Would you like some cookies? Here they are!  Five different shapes, in my cookie jar! You can take them out, you can put them back, five little cookies make a tasty snack!” You can also just push the red nose of the cookie jar’s face to get a bonus song.  The most positive reviews of this toy range from detailing how the song is “catchy, not too annoying” to “It’s my kid’s favorite toy, but I want to shoot myself for buying it”.  That seems to be the theme.  As a parent, you have to put up with the stupid songs or noises because of their “educational” value, and if they’re only mildly annoying, that’s as good as you can expect to do.

What’s ironic, is that in trying to bolster educational value by adding sounds/music, the companies are actually grossly simplifying what the toy can actually “teach”.  It also makes parents feel like they’re depriving their child of something educational if they buy the plain shape sorter.  What do kids “learn” from these toys?  They learn mostly cause and effect.  If I push the button here, I get a song.  Many, many toys teach this concept.  While this is an important baby toy skill, it is only one aspect of play, and of learning.  Just as hearing a mechanical voice say “triangle” is only one exposure a child will have, and will mostly certainly not be the way my children end up figuring out the abstract concepts of shapes.  What I cannot stand is when parents measure educational value by the amount of time their child pushed the red nose over and over and stayed quiet in their crib.  While I appreciate time to go shower, make a phone call, or eat a sandwich, I do not conflate repetitive button-pushing with “learning”.  Nor do I think my kids will figure out shapes, colors, or numbers from playing with educational toys.  I also rail against what those songs are replacing.  For the parents who think it’s the toy’s job to “teach”, and not theirs, it’s replacing a parent coaching a child along, saying, perhaps, “Yes, mummy, that red square goes in the hole.  Can you put it in there?  Oops, not quite.  Try it a different way.  Yes, like that.  Push.  Almost.  Good job!”  The toy says, “Square” or “Four” and then sings a song.  If recent research in language acquisition is any guide, the child playing with the toy without the parent has just lost out on 28 additional words.  Fast-forward to preschool-aged children using a “learning vacuum” for pretend play.  If the vacuum’s job is to teach letters or numbers, and the toy constantly sings when you push its buttons, where is the voice of the child going ‘vroooom’ pretending to suck up dirt?  Where is the child narrating his play as he imitates the adults in his life?  Where is the integration of the vacuum into a larger ‘house’ play scheme?  So-called educational toys are by far the least open-ended toys I’ve seen on the market.

Why does a soccer ball need additional value?  So you can charge more for it, obviously.  So you can guilt well-meaning but anxious parents into purchasing more crap.  So you can assuage the guilt parents feel about not providing constant stimulation so their children can “get ahead” by the time they get to preschool.

In my family, the premier purchaser of this Chinese-made, battery-powered plastic crap is the last person you’d think of — a librarian.  But my mother-in-law gobbles up these toys, from the Vtech Infant Learning Jungle Fun Music Box my nephew was scared of for his first six months, to the “Rhyme and Discover” “book” (from a librarian — this shocked me), the infamous cookie jar, and the newest one, that just left my jaw hanging open, the Singin’ Soccer Ball, which, in addition to ABCs and 123s (again, not developmentally appropriate for the 9 month old pictured holding it), purports to teach sportsmanship.

I try to pretend I’m coming around on the electronic toy front, for the sake of family harmony.  I try to pretend it’s all copasetic if I just turn the toy off when I’m around. (though the kids are confused why the buttons that used to light up are now dark…) I try to pretend it’s okay if our household isn’t 100% battery-powered toy free.  In short, I try not to be a helicopter control-freak parent.  But every time we unwrap a new gift, whether it’s a talking puzzle from my uncle, or a battery-powered walking toy from my in-laws, or when we receive a new bag of hand-me-downs (and that fucking cookie jar) from my nephew, I just want to cringe.  It should simply be a parent’s choice to offer these toys.  It shouldn’t make me so angry, should it?  Yet, short of explaining (again) to my in-laws that we don’t want those toys, they keep on coming.  I doubt they’d sit and listen to a condensed lecture from this diatribe.  Maybe it’s more the fact that I feel disrespected in my parenting decisions, the fact that the burden of deciding whether to return a well-intentioned toy, try to remove the batteries, allow it, or smash it into a million pieces falls on us.  I’d rather spend my time building block towers with my kids for them to smash than arranging for childcare so I can run to Kohl’s for the third time this month, and return the piece of junk.

As I goggled in disbelief at the Singin’ Soccer Ball, I was unable to disguise my contempt in the usual forced smile I reserve for playtime at my in-laws’ house, and my father-in-law asked, “Why, it’s bad?” while I searched in vain for the off switch (IT HAS NONE!!!), I replied, through gritted teeth, “No, they’re just not my favorite kind of toy.” It’s true, kind of.  If my wonderful mother-in-law is sitting on the floor with my children, interacting with them and the heathenous toy, it’s not harming them.  If my brother likes pushing the buttons, and it helps him play with my kids, then that’s great for everyone.  No one toy sitting on the shelf is going to make or break a child’s kindergarten readiness.  No open-ended shoebox, or high-priced baby laptop can replace a parent’s interactions.

I am officially going on record to speak for all those parents writing Amazon reviews about annoying songs and tolerable noise levels — you don’t have to buy that crap.  I absolve you of your feeling a need to buy “educational” toys.  You are so much better than that.  You are not only your child’s first teacher; you’re also his first — and best — toy.

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Toy manufacturers are in a business; there’s no denying that.  I think they earn most of their money producing things that already exist.  Simply put, there are no new toys.  We have the balls, strings, blocks, sticks, and sculpting material.  Put them together in some combination, and you have a toy.  Look for “new” toys on the shelf: chances are they’re some variation on the ball, string, block, stick, or clay theme.  In other words, building a better mousetrap.

But what about when it isn’t actually better?  What about those toys I see in the Toys ‘R Us circular that I can’t fathom an adult thinking, “Oh!  That’s such a great toy!” and buying it.  Moreover, I can’t picture a child playing with it after 7:45 Christmas morning.  And what about those toys that seek to fill a “need” that wasn’t actually there in the first place?  The types of commercials/ads pushing these toys first have to convince you how miserable your life is, and what horrible problems you have.  Then, they present their product, and you’re cured of your insatiable depressive existence on this earth. 

At one preschool/Head Start center I visit, each classroom seems to have grey plastic shoes in the dress-up area.  They look like an old man’s jogging shoes, complete with red accented plastic, but thse are no real shoes.  They’re for teaching children how to velcro, snap, and tie shoes.  What’s more, they’re not actually designed for kids to put on their feet, yet they’re in the dress-ups, as if a child might put on a silly hat, glamorous gown, and try to wedge their feet into these plastic vessels.  Try as I might, I couldn’t find an image of these ridiculous “toys”.  I guess the Head Start bought out the stock of the fake grey plastic un-shoes several years ago and instituted it center-wide as a sort of mandate. 

“All house-keeping and dramatic play areas will heretofore be outfitted with a set of plastic shoes model 147A, 147C, 147T, and 147Q.  Failure to adhere to this guideline will result in immediate enrollment of children you thought you expelled for eating crayons and pooping in the sandbox.”

Anyway, when I realized they were not even functional as dress-up shoes, I began to think how silly it is to create a product that imitates a real thing, yet would seem to serve no additional purpose.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to practice tying  shoes by, um, tying shoes?  And if the argument is made that it’s hard to learn to tie one’s own shoes, then wouldn’t it serve dual purposes to have kids tie each other’s shoes?  Then the teacher spends less time crouched on the ground gripping sticky, dirty, sandy laces, and the kids develop special standing when they become resident “Tiers” (hmmm…that doesn’t look right.  Tie-ers?  Lacers?  Lasers?  Sneakers? Knotters?). 

Here are some of the fabulous offerings from respected toy makers for those in the market for fake shoes you can’t wear…I mean, “dexterity toys”: Here, and here.

To draw some parallels, in speech pathology there is a movement afoot which posits that some children need to do so-called “non-speech oral motor therapy” separate from actual speech therapy.  It involves blowing whistles and horns, blowing bubbles, blowing cotton balls across the table, and sucking through straws.  As much fun as this is (especially for those producing and selling the whistles, horns, and straws), for kids who don’t have actual, demonstrated motor deficits (i.e., your normal, articulation therapy candidate), we in the speechie world have found that the best way to work on speech is to actually practice speech. 

Can you imagine learning to play a musical instrument by drumming your fingers on a table and never touching an actual piano?  I can understand rehearsing music mentally, clapping out beats, and cellists practicing finger positions silently on their arms, but never to touch an instrument, in service to playing an instrument?

Or how about learning to chew food by practicing first on packing peanuts, bubble wrap, kitchen sponges, and aquarium tubing?

Or learn how to drive a car by sitting in a carboard box with a paper plate stapled on as your steering wheel?  Or, worse yet, by taking drivers ed while playing Need for Speed?

Scary.