The American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP) wants parents to know they’re wasting money on high tech toys. In fact, according to a new AAP clinical report titled The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children there’s literally no need for high priced electronic toys and devices as long as cardboard boxes and blocks exist in the world. Because it turns out that when kids play with objects as innocuous as, say, a wooden spoon, they’re still receiving the benefits of play. So, the directive seems clear: it’s time for parents to put down the iPad and pick up the drawing pad.
This information will likely make some parents feel defensive. I get it. Hearing that all my kids ever needed was a pot to bang on fills me with a weird sense of panic. For some reason, the thought of my boys only having low-tech toys feels wildly regressive. So much so, it’s almost panic-inducing.
What about the future? Ever since I became a parent, the tech industry has groomed me to believe that my kids had to know how to code by 10-years-old or end up jobless, poor, and probably friendless. To that end, I should probably buy a special interactive robot, or download a coding app, or at the very least have them watch an educational program that helps them develop science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. And if I don’t? Well, I’m a bad parent, right?
Not so, says the AAP. Parents like me have, in fact, been the victim of a long con — a con that started when my own parents proudly plopped a heavy Commodore 64 computer on the dinner table and proclaimed I’d make something of myself yet. But it turns out I never needed the tech and neither do my kids. Because all of the skills needed for the modern world can be developed in much more simple play.
For instance, authors of the report explain, “Play with traditional toys was associated with an increased quality and quantity of language compared with play with electronic toys, particularly if the video toys did not encourage interaction.” Why is that? It makes logical sense if you really think about it. “Media (eg, television, video games, and smartphone and tablet applications) use often encourages passivity and the consumption of others’ creativity rather than active learning and socially interactive play,” explain the authors of the AAP report.
For even more proof look no further than a study cited in the new report that looked at how babies learn with Baby Einstein videos compared to using blocks. “The children playing with blocks independently developed better language and cognitive skills than their peers watching videos,” the authors note.
I owned Baby Einstein videos. Both of my kids watched them. I was completely duped.
And I suspect that’s what many parents who bought learning toys from their local Apple store will figure out too, one day. So maybe my anxiety over learning cardboard boxes and time outdoors beats the LeapPad, hands down, is less about my kids and more about me. Clever marketers took advantage of my parental insecurities. I am a rube.
But also, I’m lazy. Tech toys take advantage of that parental weakness as well. When kids can lock into a screen, or respond to prompts from a beeping gizmo as they learn to code, why do I need to be there? After all, I have other shit to do. Like trying to ease the stress from all of the noise and blue light emanating from all these tiny screens.
The problem is, that when it comes to playing, getting traditional, cheap, and low tech works fine, but is vastly improved with interaction from an adult. Because the evidence shows that when kids engage in open-ended, kid-led, imaginative play with an adult, their brain practically blooms.
“Through the buffering capacity of caregivers, play can serve as an antidote to toxic stress, allowing the physiologic stress response to return to baseline,” write the AAP report authors. “Adult success in later life can be related to the experience of childhood play that cultivated creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, flexibility, and innovations.”
Those skills — creativity, problem-solving, teamwork, flexibility, and innovations — are exactly what will help my kids be successful in the future. Coding languages will change. The way computers are coded will change. The need for creativity and problem solving will never change. And that’s what I give my kids by playing with them. What do I give my kids by handing them some bullshit tech toy? A barrier to life experience and human interaction. Now that’s regressive.
So what’s the way forward? We have to internalize this fact: analog play filled with human experience is the best thing for our kids. Yes, it’s also hard. It requires more parental effort to get on the ground and stack blocks, particularly when the Instagram needs scrolling. But it’s worth the effort. Not just for the kid, but for parents too.
Consider this note from the report: “One study documented that positive parenting activities, such as playing and shared reading, result in decreases in parental experiences of stress and enhancement in the parent–child relationship, and these effects mediate relations between the activities and social–emotional development.”
So here’s my plan — no more tech toys. I’m going to put an emphasis on toys that encourage imagination and physical play. I’m going to double down on spending time with my boys without screens. The data is clear that good, low tech, rough and tumble play is key to my boys’ development. I’m going to give it to them. Doctor’s orders.