Around this same time, the educator Maria Montessori designed toys to teach math concepts and declared that pupils would learn willingly if their schoolwork were more like play. Montessori’s ideas caught on among some educators, but also sparked much debate about the nature of toys. Academics championed free play and urged industry executives to make better-quality toys that appealed to the imagination.
But many toys still left little for young minds to conjure with. By 1957, the cultural critic Roland Barthes was decrying his era’s playthings as products of “chemistry not nature.” He was horrified that there were “dolls which urinate” and other toys “meant to prepare the little girl for the causality of housekeeping, to ‘condition’ her to her future role as mother.” These toys, Barthes wrote, “are meant to produce children who are users, not creators.” He was enunciating what was to become a central tenet of scholars of play: self-directed play is superior, and toys that invite children to improvise and imagine are better than those that are passive and preprogrammed.
The study of toys reached a high point during the seventies with Erik Erikson’s books Childhood and Society and Toys and Reason. Erikson created a developmental timeline, starting with “autocosmic play,” in which infants play with their own bodies, and going on to a toy “microsphere,” followed by the “macrosphere” of play with other children. Erikson underlined that playing with toys is a part of identity formation, and insisted that a child’s world of manageable toys should be interfered with as little as possible.
By the 1950s, toys had become short-term and expendable: Davy Crockett hats and the like—spin-off gear from television shows or children’s movies. This isn’t to say that the “maturational” function of toys vanished. Lego won a large following as an “instructive game” in the late fifties and early sixties, and when the ultimate maturational television program, Sesame Street, debuted in 1969, a line of educational toys followed in its wake. The lessons of Sesame Street were strongly influenced by Maria Montessori’s educational philosophy, and from the beginning the show’s producers, the Children’s Television Workshop, worked hard to connect with young children and their families in low-income areas. In fact the show was viewed as an extension of the 1960s War on Poverty, and was funded in part by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare.
Some of the early debates that swirled around Sesame Street are echoed today in the debates over the Baby Genius Edutainment Complex. The program’s critics argued that young children benefit from playing inventively on their own, rather than watching television. But there is a crucial difference between edutainment DVDs and Sesame Street: the TV show was not intended for babies, while today’s DVDs are made explicitly for children two and under. And now even Sesame Street has an infant DVD line.
Many infant DVDs are hawked with dubious information about time-limited opportunities for learning. Some products prey on parental fears, invoking the specter of infant brain-cell death. Charles Zorn, a neuropsychological education specialist, told me that he often has to reassure parents that brain-cell counts are not a measure of a child’s intelligence, knowledge, or ability to learn. The brain deliberately makes too many, then lets a bunch wither; which ones wither depends on the environment the newborn encounters. Cell death is actually part of the development process. “When you learn to read, you are killing cells to create a pathway,” Zorn says. Indeed, reducing infant brain-cell death is counterproductive; cell death is a way the nervous system refines its circuits.