Open any pregnancy or baby book, and you’ll find that list: the baby essentials, the things you absolutely cannot live without. While many accessories are easily recognized as frivolous, certain items are truly indispensable: the basic necessities for life with a baby.
Or are they?
In this weekly series, we’ll be looking at several baby essentials that really aren’t. They may be useful in certain situations, but if money or space is tight, or if you’re just looking to simplify and reduce consumerism and waste, here’s how to get along just fine without these so-called “essentials.“
Non-Essential #6: Brain Boosters
Edutainment for infants is all the rage these days. With loaded names like Baby Einstein, Baby Mozart, Baby Genius, and Brainy Baby, they all claim to offer your baby the intellectual enhancements they’ll need to get ahead, to maximize their potential, to succeed in today’s fast-paced and competetive society.
But there is, in fact, no evidence that any of these toys, videos, books, or methodologies actually provide any long-term benefit, and often in fact have quite the opposite effect.
The issues of excessive testing, unrealistic expectations and high-pressure environments in public schools, over-scheduling, parents’ loss of connection with their children and their own parental instincts, parental guilt over lack of quality time, confusion over conflicting messages on child development, the impact of consumerism and profit-driven children’s industries, and how this all relates to the surge in ‘educational enrichment’ for babies is simply far too massive and complex to properly get into within this brief article. Please, please, please read Much Too Early!, a highly illuminating article by David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child and Miseducation: Preschoolers at Risk, for an overview of some of these issues. Among other things, he explains how knowing the alphabet is not a step towards reading, clarifies the mis-application of the HeadStart program results, outlines the normal intellectual developmental steps of the young child, and reaffirms that education is not a race to be the first to the finish line.
Early Academics: A Distortion of Natural Development
As brain research has led to some understanding about the development of intelligence in young children, including such concepts as “windows” or critical periods and the importance of the first three years, ‘experts’ and educators have jumped on the findings, misinterpreted them, and launched this whole baby brain-building mess. In this interview, John Bruer explains this history and debunks the myth of the “first three years.”
These myths extend back to in utero. When studies of fetal heart rate showed that the unborn infant could differentiate between the voice of its mother and an unknown voice, the “Pregaphone” was invented. This device (supposedly) allows you to read Shakespeare, play Mozart, and otherwise educate your baby while still in the womb. Of course, your baby hears your voice just fine without this device anyway, so the specific advantage offered by it is rather murky.
Dr. Maria Montessori, in observing young children as they played and learned, observed what indeed appeared to be “sensitive periods” — decades before there was any corroborating brain research — where children appeared to be especially primed to learn certain skills or concepts. However, rather than this being an opportunity for parents and teachers to feed factoids to the passive child, this was simply how the child was naturally forming itself. In other words, a young child will instinctively seek out the learning experiences that will best suit its development at any particular time. As long as there is a normal environment to explore, a child will learn to walk, jump, and run, understand spoken language, distinguish and identify colours, textures, and sizes, sing, count, and draw representational figures — incredibly complex ideas, all from its own curiosity and emergent drive to self-create.
Preschoolers and School-Age Children Also Suffer from Misapplied Academics
The pressure for scholastic success, combined with the belief that the best way to achieve this is through in an indoor classroom setting with textbooks and tests — rather than through practical experience and free play — has become so all-encompassing that schools are cutting recess, and the age for beginning institutionalized schooling keeps dropping (despite the failure to provide any evidence that this actually improves success, and much evidence to the contrary).
In North America, the legal age for mandatory school attendance is usually 5 or 6, though in many areas, you will be looked at quite oddly if your child is not in a formal academic preschool by age 3 or 4. By contrast, many Scandinavian countries do not begin formal schooling until age 7, have longer holidays… and have higher results in literacy and academic achievement. “One of the most intriguing statistics from international comparisons is the lack of relationship between hours in the classroom and educational achievement.”
If early academics for preschoolers does nothing to improve later school success — and apparently even has the opposite effect entirely — does it not stand to reason that we should utterly refrain from continuing to extend this mistake further and further back into childhood, even into infancy?
Let The Children Play
So what should we do, then, with our babies? Of course we want the best for them, it’s only natural to want to give them any advantage we possibly can.
First of all, breastfeed. Formula-fed babies score 5-6% lower IQ’s by school age.
Second, wear your baby. Babies who are worn cry less, and spend more time in the “active alert” state — when they are observing and absorbing information. They also get more adult interaction and a better vantage point for viewing and learning about their world.
But, perhaps most important of all, let them play. And play with them.
Don’t let yourself be taken in by the messages about enhancing your baby’s brain development that appear on flashy product lines. Just as sex is used in advertising to sell products to adults, marketers have figured out that brain development sells to parents. There is no evidence, however, that particular educational programs, methods, or techniques are effective for brain development.
For example, listening to Mozart is not bad for your child. That is, if you like Mozart, there is no harm in playing it and exposing your child to music. But you could just as well sing lullabies, play Simon and Garfunkel, the Indigo Girls, or any other band you like. Music is wonderful. There is no doubt about it. But the evidence from research says that listening to Mozart, Madonna, or Mama Cass will not make your child a math genius or budding architect, or even increase his general intelligence.
… Your child will learn more when you play with him than when you buy him fancy boxes containing self-proclaimed “state-of-the-art” devices with exorbitant claims to build his brain.
Parents feel enormous pressure to spend meaningful time with their kids, and of course, everybody wants to do what’s best for their kids. But “play” has become a four-letter word. And so often, parents take “quality play time” to mean “teaching time.” They trade play in for structured activities, educational TV and flash cards. But what I believe makes more sense, and what research indicates, is that children learn through play, and play with parents is the best.
Also remember, while you’re happily playing with your child, that anything can be a toy. You don’t need a house full of mountains of playthings. When my son was an infant, one of his favourite toys was the lid from an old bottle of Vaseline. Possibly not the “greenest” toy ever, but he loved it. Boxes, sticks, old clothes, pots and pans, brooms, simple wooden blocks, scraps of fabric, spoons, anything that makes noise… You don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars on plastic made-in-China nonsense, or even on high-quality wooden eco-friendly toys. Just let them explore, and play.
CBC Radio “The Hurried Infant”: Listen online to the podcasts of this recent 2-part story on the program “Ideas.”
Massive list of articles on the value of play and fallacies regarding early education.
Be sure to check out Part 7: Baby Food.
[This post was written by Heather Dunham]