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…