Temple’s Director of the Infant Language Laboratory, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., was stunned by a 2005 Henry J. Kaiser Family report revealing that educational toy manufacturers may be more concerned with sales than education.
Despite educational claims on commercial toy packages, there is little research to corroborate manufacturers’ claims to improve child development.
“Educational toys – edutainment in some circles – are a $20 billion industry,” Hirsh-Pasek said.
“And it’s all based on totally unfounded claims.”
Prompted by the Kaiser Foundation’s findings, the developmental psychologist began research by defining play. She found that the definition of play was not consistent among parents and experts.
Head of Undergraduate Advising, Dr. Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, discussed her interactions with her seven-year-old son. When they tire of gospel music on long car rides, they play math – a simple game that requires him to compute in his head the numbers she recites.
“Everything has potential to be play,” she said. “I can buy him math books now and he uses them.”
Experts, however, believe that play is reserved for unstructured activities.
“To parents everything is play, even highly structured activities,” Hirsh-Pasek said.
The psychologist described her research as a scientific enterprise that encompasses understanding toys, in addition to understanding interaction between parents and children.
In observing three and five-year-olds, Hirsh-Pasek uncovered that parents spent more time guiding behavior than engaging the child in meaningful discussion.
She said, “push here, turn the page,” were prevalent comments when electronic consoles were in use.
Assessed through comprehension questions, children were better able to retain information with traditional books than with electronic consoles. Yet most advertisements are for electronic books.
“Let the buyer beware,” Hirsh-Pasek said.
She looked at a 2006 list of the top ten toys – nine of which were electronic with an average price of $49.82.
“For $59, you can take a box and turn it into a taxi cab or a bed,” she said. “You can do anything.”
According to a 2006 statement on play by The American Academy of Pediatrics, “true toys,” such as blocks, require children to employ their imagination, unlike passive toys requiring limited imagination.
“We want to put science in people’s hands and help them understand what toys can or can’t do and what is optimal for young children’s growth,” Hirsh-Pasek said about her research.
“My goal is not to damn the toy industry. Just remember the good old days by thinking back about what we thought was fun and recognizing that it’s still fun.”
She said she wants parents to examine the educational claims of toys.
“I don’t think a kid can replicate the wonderful places we could go in our head because toys today are so tactile,” Williams-Witherspoon said.
“You can’t divorce children from technology. We just have to find a way to use it responsibly.”
Hirsh-Pasek said she isn’t anti-technology either. She said the Nintendo Wii is a good, interactive toy, but she still prefers retro toys.
“Enjoy your holidays,” she said. “Use that downtime to build taxi cabs and beds.”
Trudy Steigerwalt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org