There’s an well-known marketing adage that says: “Sell the sizzle, not the steak”. This idea is the very essence of marketing, which is, after all, a discipline that has evolved to help sell people things that they probably don’t need, may not even want, and sometimes can’t easily afford. Marketing has turned us from people, who may occasionally need a fresh tube of toothpaste, into consumers, who are subtly reminded through advertising that bad breath and yellowing teeth, say, make us less desirable and successful-looking, and that these unhappy attributes can be corrected by purchasing this or that specific brand of toothpaste or mouthwash.
The fact that we fall for this ancient selling gimmick — even when we profess to be skeptical and hard-nosed consumers — is proof that practitioners of the black arts of marketing know exactly how to tap our innermost anxieties and our unspoken yearnings. Nowhere do we betray our fears more than in our hopes and desires for our children. And marketers are listening.
Children learn through play. They imitate adult behaviours, they pretend, they explore the world around them, and they are endlessly creative. If play is learning, then — by definition — anything that facilitates play also facilitates learning. Any well-designed, age-appropriate, and sturdy toy provides a learning experience. Therefore, toys help children learn through play.
So far, so good. It’s at this point, however, that marketing comes into play, all ready to sell you the sizzle rather than the (somewhat more prosaic if infinitely more nourishing) steak.
Marketers are eager to have you believe that only a particular toy, or type of toy, will have the maximum positive benefit on your child’s intelligence and potential. There is a huge emphasis in the toy industry on electronic toys that are touted as “teaching” basic intellectual concepts and skills, such as letters, numbers, reading and math. The marketing is aimed squarely at parents who are — quite naturally — anxious that their children do well in school, so that they can get good jobs, and make successful lives for themselves.
What the advertisers don’t tell parents in these carefully-designed marketing materials is that there is absolutely zero evidence that these electronic learning aids are any more effective than are the more old-fashioned, lower-cost, and more hands-on methods of helping children learn these basic skills. Read to your child every day, and you increase the odds that he or she will be a fluent reader. Spend time counting things, like petals on a flower, pennies on a table-top, or muffins in a tin and you increase the odds that he or she will master basic mathematics. Cut out paper shapes and glue them to an empty toilet roll, or make and play with play-dough, and you increase the odds that your child will believe that he or she can conceptualize and create things.
None of these things requires a dedicated electronic machine. What electronic toys do to small children is to shut them into a pre-conceived notion — someone else’s preconceived notion — that tacitly limits their horizons. Further, there is compelling evidence that exposing children under the age of 2 years to electronic media — including iPads, smart phones, and computers as well as purpose-built electronic toys — eats up precious time that is best spent interacting with actual people. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly suggests that children under the age of 2 years avoid television and other electronic entertainment media altogether, and that screen time be strictly limited to no more than one to two hours per day (still a huge amount!) for children older than that.
Make a conscious effort to ignore the seductive messages of advertisers. Set your children free. Unplug them.
They’ll thank you later.