This long read is a tribute to capitalism’s ability to tap into our insecurities by using pseudoscience and thereby persuade us to spend tens of billions of dollars every year on useless bits of plastic. The author is a father of a 10-year old child in the UK and begins by noting that like him, millions of parents spend a lot of money buying their kids expensive toys: “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…By 2020, the broad category of educational toys was making nearly $65bn (£55bn) worldwide, a figure that is forecast to double within the decade.”

The article goes on to explain how multinational toy manufacturers have built their lucrative empires: “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…

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”)…“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.””

Whilst there is nothing wrong with parents having Ivy League aspirations for their kids, new research shows that developmental toys don’t do anything for mental development: “…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.”…For decades, we’ve been getting our children, and their toys, all wrong…

A remarkable range of species, from the elephantnose fish to the komodo dragon, have been observed frolicking with objects such as twigs, rings and plastic balls. Among our own kind, play is ubiquitous, and there is possible evidence for toys stretching at least as far back as the Late Upper Palaeolithic period, from 20,000 to 10,000 BC, though the most common toys, like stick dolls and little wooden spears, have likely vanished from the early archaeological record altogether. From the bronze age onward, playthings appear frequently, and often in graves and other settings that suggest how intimately they were associated with what it means to be a child. A fifth-century BC Attic flask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicts a little boy about to cross over the River Styx into the world of the dead; he reaches one hand toward his living mother, who cannot take it, and in his other hand he grasps the handle of a toy cart….
…despite the best efforts of millions of striver parents, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can turn three-year-olds into geniuses by giving them plastic ukuleles for their birthdays, or even drilling them on their violin scales. (You may well be able to foster in those children a paralysing perfectionism and deep sense of inadequacy.) Equally, you don’t have to grow up with hundreds of toys, or speaking three languages, in order to be extraordinarily bright. (In fact, you can still learn several languages with a high degree of fluency in later childhood and beyond.)”

In case you want to set up a business brainwashing affluent parents to spend their money on useless bits of plastic, you will find in this article details of the tricks that firms like Fisher-Price use to flog their products. More constructively, if you are a young parent and you want to buy useful toys for your child, the article says: “After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toy, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were “more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,” the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”

As a result of such research, it is increasingly acknowledged that the best new toys are the best old ones – sticks and blocks and dolls and sand that follow no pre-programmed routines, that elicit no predetermined behaviours.”

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