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Play is Under Siege

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A Doll Can Expand a Child’s Mind in a Way That a Flashcard Can’t

By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Golinkoff
Published: USA Today 2004

Tis the season to be jolly. Tis the season to join the pilgrimage of parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles visiting toy stores in search of the perfect holiday gift.

This year, like last, we will be dazzled by gizmos and gadgets designed to offer educational fun. Electronic books we will read to our children. Video games offer lessons in shapes and colors. Newer robotic toys even promise to teach social skills. Pinocchio sits alone on the shelf like the Velveteen Rabbit, replaced by technological toys that crowd out imagination and leave little time for creative reflection. Play is under siege

Our appetite for early learning is inspiring designer elves who are turning the educational toy market into a multibillion-dollar business. In this climate of academic “accountability”, even infant toys are designed to “stimulate the brain” and give our youngest “an educational head start”. Our children are becoming passive consumers of toys and entertainment media.


The Kaiser Foundation reported that children age 6 and under are spending an average of two hours a day in front of a television. This doesn’t even account for the use of electronic toys that occupy much of their “downtime”. It is little wonder that educators and physicians are warning well-intentioned parents: Let the buyer beware. Researchers in child psychology spend countless hours studying how infants and preschoolers develop and really learn. This does not happen by filling children’s heads with facts, or by encouraging babies to passively watch videos or answer questions from demanding toys. To view children as empty vessels who need to be rushed toward adulthood under our educational supervision is tiring and demanding for well-meaning parents.


Children are being taught that there is only one right answer, a track sure to breed conformity rather than ingenuity. We are raising a generation of children who have no idea what to do when they are not being entertained. Mounds of evidence suggest that children learn through active play, not through passive feeding. They learn math when the play “chef” and set a table for four. They learn physics when they build a fort and carefully balance the cushion atop the roof. They learn language by talking with excited friends when they jump through the leaves or build an igloo.

Research on young children has shown time and again that PLAY=LEARNING! The world is a virtual classroom filled with opportunities to stimulate the brain and encourage intellectual and social growth.

In this Google generation, our children will have plenty of time to look up facts. To succeed in the global marketplace of tomorrow, they need to be creative problem-solvers-not robots equipped with pre-wired answers to yesterday’s questions.

So what is a parent to do? Take refuge in the scientific findings of today and reinvest in the toys of yesteryear. The recipe is clear. Toys should be 90% child and 10% toy. They should be props for children’s fantasy, not directors for their every behavior. In the Zero-budget category, think about pots and pans that make rhythm instruments. Think about appliance boxes that become taxis and fire trucks.

And if you are willing to spend a bit more, we recommend the following:

  • Construction toys that allow your child to build castles and coves.
  • Play-Doh and little figurines that allow for imaginative play.
  • Books with glorious illustrations that inspire bedtime discussion.
  • Drawing tools, such as crayons and paints, with a big white pad that becomes filled with images of their hopes and concerns.
  • Red rubber balls that promote their physical development and lust for activity.
  • Props that turn your family room into a grocery store or a playground.
  • Old clothes shortened for little bodies that allow them to be soldiers and brides
  • Puzzles that create images and designs and feed children’s growing attention spans.

Each of these gives the child a chance to build a world and make decisions about how to fill that world.

This year, go to the less-traveled (and much quieter) aisles in the store. Think back about what was fun for you when you were a kid. It was probably trains, forts and dolls rather than glorified workbooks and flashcards. These are the memories that fueled a Shakespeare and an Einstein. These are the memories that will help us choose toys that inspire creativity in the children who will build our future.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Robert Golinkoff are the authors of Einstein never 

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