In the past I have written critically about the use of creative practice as a prescriptive tool to boost the development and achievement level of children (i.e. attaching headphones to your belly to expose a baby to Mozart in utero). Back in November, The Guardian had a long form piece on the related topic of giving kids educational toys with the same end in mind. Research basically shows it doesn’t work:
But, despite the best efforts of millions of striver parents, it doesn’t seem to be the case that you can turn three-year-olds into geniuses by giving them plastic ukuleles for their birthdays, or even drilling them on their violin scales. (You may well be able to foster in those children a paralysing perfectionism and deep sense of inadequacy.) Equally, you don’t have to grow up with hundreds of toys, or speaking three languages, in order to be extraordinarily bright. (In fact, you can still learn several languages with a high degree of fluency in later childhood and beyond.)
Not all of that nuance has broken through to parents. Already in the mid 1980s, Brian Sutton-Smith, probably the most prolific play scholar in history, could write: “We have little compelling evidence of a connection between toys, all by themselves, and achievement…”
The oft repeated story about kids being more interested in playing with the box the toy came in points to the exact type of play that does contribute to skill development. The less concrete and realistic the intended use of the object is, the better.
It seems that basically that from birth through adulthood, the best pursuit of creativity is messy, unstructured creativity.
After watching kids play with more than 100 different types of toy, the researchers concluded that simple, open-ended, non-realistic toys with multiple parts, like a random assortment of Lego, inspired the highest-quality play. While engaged with such toys, children were “more likely to be creative, engage in problem solving, interact with their peers, and use language,” the researchers wrote. Electronic toys, however, tended to limit kids’ play: “A simple wooden cash register in our study inspired children to engage in lots of conversations related to buying and selling – but a plastic cash register that produced sounds when buttons were pushed mostly inspired children to just push the buttons repeatedly.”
As a result of such research, it is increasingly acknowledged that the best new toys are the best old ones – sticks and blocks and dolls and sand that follow no pre-programmed routines, that elicit no predetermined behaviours.