This post is part of our toy guide series.
I walked into a toy store the other day to find a gift for a baby shower. I was met by an overwhelming selection of bright plastic electronic toys for babies marketed as "developmental" and "stimulating" with claims like "promotes interaction and fine motor skill development." and "encourage your child's continuing development". Wow. No wonder these toys are so popular! It all sounds so magical.
Sadly, marketing is just that: marketing. I'm all for technology improving our lives and allowing parents to do things faster and easier than ever before. The issue here is these toys have no proof of increasing intelligence, motor development, language or basic skills. If anything, they get in the way of learning for babies and young children because they work against a child's biological drive and motivation.
Children have an inner guide that keeps them moving along their developmental path. It's evolutionary: a genetic coded plan for maturation. We are wired to repeat certain actions, be interested in specific skills or events, and move through a developmental progression to acquire all the necessary nerve and muscle connections, and adapt to whatever current conditions we are exposed to. It's how children who grow up in China are Chinese and a child with Chinese descent who grows up in America is American. It's a pretty sweet system. Humans are able to take sensory input from the world around them and gather all the tools to be functionally independent.
Given a rich, responsive environment, a child is naturally attracted to exactly what she needs to accomplish in that moment. It may be tuning her ears to distinguish all the sounds in the word "duck" to repeat back in the correct order and communicate her thoughts. Or, a child is climbing one stair, then turning around and climbing back down, repeatedly. Maybe he is intently picking up small pieces of paper from the floor and lining them up in a straight row. Children will follow their interests and given the opportunity, will learn independently on their own. We are all born with an insatiable curiosity about the world around us, with the ability for creative problem solving.
When a child is successful in one of these developmental tasks from the inner guide, his body releases the chemical dopamine that makes him feel good and want to continue working on that activity. Yes, the same dopamine released after rewarding activities like exercise, sex, drugs, helping others, or accomplishing a goal.
Their brains are wired to reinforce exactly the kind of behavior that will help them learn and grow.
How does this work exactly? Let's say, we know children of a certain age are working on reaching and grabbing an object, and are attracted to bright colors, changes in light and sound, and people. Given interesting, colorful objects in her environment, a child will naturally motivated to move toward them, and will then reach and grab for the objects.
It's this connection of "I want..." and action steps taken by the child that strengthens the connections of brain to nerve to muscle (methylation).
Being successful in this process builds self-confidence, and further connects the neurons and muscles needed for that action to work correctly. So, by practicing to reach for objects over and over, the child is refining her ability to think about grabbing the object, and doing so with exact precision. She develops a strong sense of concentration to complete this task, refines her ability to block sensory input, control her body, and problem solve. By moving, her body also builds muscle strength and the skills needed for the next developmental task. Her body rewards her for this effort when she accomplishes her goal with the release of dopamine.
What happens when we offer a toy that meets these developmental needs but requires little input from the child's brain and body? Give a child a toy that hijacks this system and now we've triggered the dopamine reward release for actions inconsequential, like pressing a button.
There's a famous science experiment involving a rat and a button that releases dopamine. If you put a rat in a cage with this magic button and other things the rat needs to survive (food, water), the rat will press the button repeatedly, eschewing all other activities. It won't eat, it won't play, and it will hardly sleep. The button hijacks the natural reward system that normally makes the rat feel good when it exercises, chews through boxes, and finds a nice piece of food.
Giving your child a button to push that makes noises, blinks lights, sings songs, vibrates, and grabs their attention will rob them of their inner guide, and short-circuits their development. This magic button skips all the skill building side effects of the natural process, and directly encourages the child to remain passive,taking unfair advantage of her developmental interests.
If a child becomes acclimated to powerful rewards for doing nothing useful to her developing mind, she'll become less interested in all her other developmental needs, just like the rat.
What these "learning" toys actually teach is to remain passive, entertained by flashing lights, sounds, recorded songs, and moving pieces. Not to mention these toys further confuse the idea of cause and effect, a big developmental hurdle for these ages. There's often so much going on, it's unclear which button turned on the songs, or how it started dancing. Remember, the way young children learn is by using their brains and bodies to solve real problems and meet their developmental needs. Creating motivation to interact with a toy isn't enough, this motivation needs to be directed toward an action with real purpose behind it. The best toys are the simplest, toys that don't "do" anything unless the child acts on it. These objects allow the child to remain in full control of their actions, choices, and play.