The following is a recovered and reclaimed post from a blog I used to write on skepticism and rational parenting. Commenting is permanently closed.
My daughter received numerous toys as presents for the holidays from friends and family. (Not from me. I bought her books.) I appreciate that — and I especially appreciate the care with which some of the toys were chosen. Despite being in the first year of her life, she is going to have an interesting time of growing up with so many people actively looking out for her education. But while some of the toys have obvious educational value — and by that I mean books, coloured blocks with shapes, numbers, and letters, and even the (most excellent) “bug bottle” a soft-sided container with a small collection of plush insects inside (actually meant to impress her entomology-enthused father) — some of the toys just try too hard.
For example, take the rubber duck. My daughter received a rubber duck of above average quality (to be quite fair and honest) whose tag read:
“[thebrandname] Toys are specifically designed to stimulate development of your baby. Because the toys are designed intelligently, using colour, sound, and feel as key stimulation aids, your child will quickly discover that learning is fun!”
I did something of a double-take when I read the tag, pocketed it for reference (as I was of course instantly mentally preparing to write this post), and had a second look at the miracle rubber duck. Apparently, modern rubber ducks are quite impressive. Hmmm?
The small tag goes on to emphasize that the duck has some sort of impact on imagination, touch and feel, learning about the properties of water, and dexterity — though it does not elaborate. I’ve held back on the company name because, quite frankly, the brand is not as important as the message it conveys about modern toy marketing. I mean I suppose that it’s fair for a company to talk about the educational benefits of a toy. And I suppose it would be really difficult to cite research to back up such claims on a tag that has a diameter of less than two inches. But, really — there should be some parity between said claim and reality. After all, it’s just a rubber duck.
My concern stems back to the “over-education” of toys. The idea that an item is being marketed with such vague and (to be fair) meaningless claims is troubling. Think to what other common and simple objects a description such as the quoted ones above could be applied. I’m sitting in my kitchen typing this and, for the sake of an example, an empty cottage cheese container is sitting on the counter. Let’s go through the list; Could an empty cottage cheese container stimulate the imagination? Check. Is it be something a baby could touch and feel? It seems safe enough. Would an empty cottage cheese container teach about the properties of water. Of course, in a bathtub. Would it build dexterity? Absolutely — fill, lift, and pour. Fill, lift, and pour.
(Wow! I might just have to hang some tags on them and sell my empty food dishes door to door.)
I suppose my thought on this kind of ploy is pretty simple: The educational value of a toy has more to do with how a parent applies the toy to the child’s environment. A cottage cheese dish is just a plastic bowl. A rubber duck is just a rubber duck. And it’s easy to have a little fun dissecting the marketing of simple toys that over-emphasize their own educational value. But this kind of marketing doesn’t stop with ducks. For example, as as I’ve mentioned before, too often this is applied to repackaged classical music sold as intelligence-boosting albums. And I’m almost certain that parents wandering the aisle of their local toy stores are bombarded with such claims.
My solution: ask the questions. How am I going to use this toy — be it a complex, interactive electronic teaching aid or a simple rubber duck — to teach my child something real and useful? And if you can’t answer that, don’t just look at the box.