As parents, I suppose that it is natural for us to want the best for our children. We want them to do well, to achieve the best things that they are capable of. And in this advertising-permeated culture, I suppose, it’s only natural that we internalize the fears implanted by the advertisements: Has my child kept up with his peers scholastically? Should he be reading before he starts kindergarten? Should she recognize colours, shapes, words before her first birthday?
In the store, we are often asked to recommend educational toys, or toys that will help children succeed in these various intellectual tasks. Usually, what parents are looking for is a system, or what they perceive to be a system — a kind of home-based scholastic system — to be administered to the child long before that child is ready to enter the formal educational system at age four or five. Parents often seem disappointed to find that we don’t stock this sort of learning system, and they often seem perplexed that we recommend, instead, the most open-ended playthings possible — many of which have been available for centuries: blocks, puzzles, things to sort, and so on. Most of the high-tech toys of recent years are mere variations on a theme, after all: is a truck that drives by itself inherently more fun than one that the child must push himself?
Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at University of California, Berkeley, was recently interviewed on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio program, The Current. During the interview she discussed her new book, The Philosophical Baby: What Children’s Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love and the Meaning of Life. She is not a big fan of pre-packaged learning systems, either. You can listen to a podcast of the program here (it’s in Part Two of the program).
It’s worth your time.