I used to think educational toys were the best. Why not get my nieces a Leapfrog tablet? Why not inject every game with a coding lesson? And then I became a parent myself and came to my senses. I saw a baby look at the most banal objects with wonder, a toddler making associations between animals I didn’t even know he’d observed, a rapidly developing child who could have his mind blown by excavators on YouTube.
And I realized something: We’ve all been bamboozled! Educational toys are dumb.
Companies like Fisher Price may have started the trend, but the new wave of toys that teach code are the current worst offenders. There are iPad apps, robots, robot balls, robot caterpillars, and countless Kickstarter campaigns. Today, learning to code has become a sort of imperative to child play. "Are they learning their STEM? The girls especially! They’ll never grow up right without their STEM! They can't lean in without their STEM! Mark Zuckerberg will never hire them without their STEM!"
The problems with coding toys is the same of most all educational toys. Educational toys suck as toys. And who says our good old toys aren’t educational, anyway?
First, my fellow parents, we aren’t fooling anyone. Like slipping a puree of carrots into a brownie, your child recognizes that something about the educational toy experience is just off. And if they don’t say anything, it’s because they’re being nice. I knew Math Blasters sucked compared to Wing Commander, okay? And any kid raised on Barbie who is handed the original GoldieBlox board game—as awesome and progressive as I think we all find the brand on whole—is not coaxed into thinking that the convoluted process of weaving ribbon on a pegboard is a toy on par with, you know, driving around to pool parties in a boss pink convertible. You weren’t fooled by educational toys as a kid. And neither is your kid.
Furthermore, why are any of us so certain that educational toys work, or at least work any better than real toys at their task? I’ll never forget talking to a mother who explained why she was fine with her son playing Pokémon. Sure, there were little monsters in this game, but to play, you had to learn how to budget, saving up resources to then invest in the right power-ups. There were invisible lessons embedded in the game design as part of the challenge that would lay the foundation for a kid understanding, 20 years later, if they could afford to go out for drinks and still pay their rent that month.
And truth be told, Pokémon isn’t alone in this regard. Research has found that video games can spur problem solving, interest in history, social skills, and even exercise (when kids tried to mock the moves they saw virtual athletes make.) Almost every off-the-shelf dummy video game you play requires a basic version of the scientific method to complete. Here you are, on Super Mario Bros. level one. The first time you play, you run right into the goomba mushroom and die. The second time, you hypothesize how to avoid death. "Maybe I can jump over him. Maybe I can jump on him!" You test. And correct theories are rewarded with progress in the game. So what if you’re not publishing a grand conclusion. Your conclusion is burning Bowser alive and partying with the princess at the last castle. Meanwhile, all those coding apps that are all the rage? They aren’t proven to work. And they teach such baseline principles that there's not much gained. Meanwhile, handing a kid who is curious about coding real resources—maybe a plan, an Arduino, and some LEDs—could do the job better. And it would give them the opportunity to build something real they might actually want to play with when the lesson is done.
Physical toys—be they blocks or cars or dolls—are loaded with lessons of their own, of course. They teach motor coordination, which may in fact be necessary for language development. They teach foundational logic and geometry. They even teach social skills, all while giving children a springboard to more open-ended imaginative play. Meanwhile, let's admit that many educational toys are really too narrowly focused for our children. We may adore that pull-string barn sounds toy we had in 1985, but c’mon, how many times does a toddler really need to be told that the cow says "moo" before they get it? I think a lot of educational toys underestimate how quickly a child can absorb ideas. Which is why babies are as fascinated by Tupperware containers as they are anything by Playskool. There’s so much to explore and learn, no single toy could encapsulate it all.
And indeed, the expectation that our toys are teaching our children can come at a cost. One study found that toys that spoke—like reading shapes aloud—didn’t reduce how much parents spoke to their children, but it changed the way parents spoke, reducing our use of crucial spatially oriented words like "under" or "over" that children need to be hearing to understand context and geometric relationships. "We might have thought that these bells and whistles would enhance the educational value of the toy," the researchers wrote. "Our results, however, suggest otherwise."
Now look, even writing this stuff gives me a rock in my stomach. I’m not judging the way you raise your child. I’m a firm believer that parents can know their own children better than other parents do. Maybe your kid loves that app that’s teaching them to code, and has the time of their life playing it. Great. Ignore me. No pile of research has defined the perfect way to raise your child, so please don’t see this as parent shaming; this is marketing shaming. Toys are already educational! Tell me a kid isn’t learning something every single time they play with Lego. The "educational toy" industry is just making good toys boring, with the hopes of charging a premium in the process.
It should be noted that educational toys for adults are pretty dumb, too. Maybe even dumber. Like all those snake oil Brain Age- and Luminosity-style games that the government is finally cracking down on, which tantalize with the promise of keeping our brains young? Science has found that they’d get fine results by just taking a walk in the glorious, uncoded outdoors, burning a few calories in the process. And learning any new skill—ever been interested in learning the guitar?—probably comes with the same if not better cognitive benefits. You might even make some new friends in the process, which is yet another bonus to your brain and that other crucial life-quality component, your happiness.
Bottom line: Life is short. Let’s not spend it with stupid educational toys and apps that won’t teach our kids much of anything they couldn’t learn somewhere else, while probably having more fun playing in the process.