One of the things people email me wanting to know about most often is "what does the research say about how to set up a play room? What toys should I buy that will have the greatest benefit for my child's learning and development?" I'd actually been putting off doing this episode for a while, in part because the research base on this topic is thin on the ground - but also because the idea just made me kind of uncomfortable. I mean, we've survived for tens of thousands of years without play rooms - or even dedicated toys, never mind the incredibly beautiful and expensive ones that are available now! - what could I really say about this? Well, now's the time. Perhaps it shouldn't surprise you that this episode is coming in the middle of our series on the intersection of money and parenting. I hope it offers you some reassurance about how to set up your own play room - if you choose to and are able to. And even more reassurance if you choose not to or can't.
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Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re covering a topic that listeners have been asking for for ages, which is How to Set Up a Play Room.
And if you hear some trepidation in my voice, it’s because there’s a lot of it in me. And if you think it’s an incredible coincidence that this episode is coming hot on the heels of a couple of episodes exploring children and consumerism then…I’m sorry to say that this is not a coincidence. I was uncomfortable enough with the topic that I felt I really couldn’t do this episode without covering those other topics as well as a counterpoint.
The main reason I’m uncomfortable is, of course, even having the wherewithal to ask the question “how do I set up a child’s play room” represents an absolutely enormous amount of privilege. It says that the person asking the question has so many resources that they can devote an entire room in their house to nothing but a child’s play, and on top of this, they have enough resources to equip the room with a sizeable proportion of whatever toys I suggest that the scientific literature says are necessary to bring about a positive outcome for their child.
But when my listeners ask for something I do try my best to deliver. So here we go!
While we’ve discussed the benefits of play on the show before in an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, who is the Director of the National Institute for Play, we haven’t specifically looked at toys and play, or the role of parents in play. And it turns out that the concept of parents getting involved in children’s play, or directing children’s play, or providing materials for children’s play is something that’s pretty much unique to Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic (or WEIRD) countries – plus Japan as well, and possibly China is heading in this direction too.
For ethnographic evidence on this topic we look to our old friend Dr. David Lancy, who gathered hundreds of ethnographic studies on child development in his book The Anthropology of Childhood. Dr. Lancy reports that Sisala parents in Ghana regard an interest in children’s play as beneath their dignity. Even the face-to-face position where the baby is held facing the mother that is so common in Western cultures is very rare elsewhere. Western scholars consider talking to and playing with the infant essential to promote the bond between mother and infant, but this activity is rare in many cultures as well – the !Kung people who live on the western edge of the Kalahari Desert not only don’t play with their children but believe the practice may be harmful to the child’s development because children learn best without adult intervention. Gusii children in Kenya may try to get their mother to play or talk but will be ignored, because the mother believes that responding would be simply pointless, as the child is not a valid human being until it reaches the age of ‘sense,’ at around six or seven.
A little closer to home, interaction between Mexican children tends to take place through shared work activity, rather than child-centered play. All of these approaches are in stark contrast to the recommendations provided to parents in Western countries - the American Academy of Pediatrics’ clinical report on this topic is called The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds – implying that play has some kind of unique qualities in promoting these parent-child bonds that can’t be replaced by other activities, when anthropological evidence shows that this bonding can occur through other kinds of activities like shared work as well.
Dr. Lancy goes on to try to understand the gulf between societies where mothers simply don’t play with children and those where the absence of play between mothers and children is seen as an indicator of clinical abnormality. He sees the discrepancy as primarily driven by differing parental goals – rather than needing to keep the child out of the way or involve them in productive work as soon as possible, Western parents are responsible for developing literate children who have high levels of concentration, self-discipline, emotional self-control, persistence in the face of failure, cooperation with others, attention to adults and to the material that adults deem it necessary for children to learn so they can be successful in school. Dr. Lancy says that “mothers carefully control the toy inventory to facilitate these lessons as well as expose their children to the artifacts of schooling, such as letters, numbers, colors, and “staying within the lines.” In several Asian cultures parents also use play didactically to socialize the child to restrain its own desires and adopt a cooperative and deferential attitude toward others. A failure to achieve these goals brings scorn on the parents and humiliation for the mother, and could have a materially negative result for the parents if they don’t instill enough filial piety and gratitude in the child that will prompt the child to care for the parents for the remainder of their lives and beyond.
In addition to school readiness, parents manage children’s play for other reasons, like living vicariously through their children’s experiences in sports, as we segregate players by age and deliberately develop their skills and self-confidence. A hundred years ago, children would manage their own games, not worrying who wins and who loses, or even if the game is finished.
So it’s against this rather strange backdrop – where play is found to be something that children from most cultures enjoy, even if they aren’t permitted to do it much, contrasted with Western cultures where parents organize and direct the materials of play and the actual games themselves, that we situate this episode on how to set up a child’s playroom.
Before we get into the toys themselves, for those of you who haven’t listened to Episode 57, What is the Value of Play, for a while, let’s just do a really quick review of the evidence on the benefits of play. And they are many. We can count improvements in executive functioning, including cognitive flexibility, inhibitory control, and working memory, as well as language development, early math skills, social development, peer relations, physical development and health, creativity, reasoning about hypothetical events, and an enhanced sense of agency. If we think back to the introduction to this episode, we can see how well these skills line up with our goal to raise children who are successful in school. A number of these studies do look at play outside of the parent-child relationship, and some specifically look at play where children are provided with objects and “minimal adult direction,” and find more creative play where adults aren’t standing over the child – or maybe even sitting next to the child - telling the child what to do.
This also brings us to an important definition about what play is – while different scholars use different definitions, one of the most commonly agreed upon criteria is that play doesn’t seem to serve any apparent immediate purpose – children engage in it just for the sake of it, because it’s fun. If an adult is trying to ‘teach’ the child something then it isn’t play – in fact, some researchers see the presence of a ‘minimally intrusive adult’ as a contextual cue to play. So *play* is important and useful to children (although play itself may not be inherently critical to children’s development), but what about individual toys? Is there any evidence looking at the impact of the number or types of toys that are available to a child and the child’s outcomes?
Most of our children are fortunate enough to own toys; in one ethnography of 32 families’ homes in Los Angeles published in 2012, the authors reported that family homes had an average of 139 toys visible to researchers, with most homes having at least 100 and some as many as 250.
The researchers didn’t specifically note the presence or absence of play rooms, but the book does include hundreds of absolutely fascinating photos, many of them photos of the material clutter that sometimes seems to threaten to take over our homes, and noted that “it is not unusual to also find kids’ art and Disney-themed images in public rooms of homes, giving them a very child-centered look that would have been rare during the middle decades of the twentieth century, when there was far more emphasis on presentation and formality in the living room, dining room, and even kitchen areas.”
And how much does all this children’s stuff cost? Well, the U.S. in the mid-2000s we spent about $24 billion on toys each year, with $3.1 billion specifically for infant and preschool toys. The average family spent about $240 on toys and games each year, and grandparents spent $500 each year on gifts for grandchildren. But the most telling statistic to me is that the U.S. represents 3.1% of the world’s children, but 40% of the global toy market.
So children have toys. But how are they used in the home?
One researcher visited a set of 18 mother/infant pairs once a month when the infants were aged between 1 month and 18 months – so yes, this is definitely a small sample size, but the extended visits with each family (rather than dragging them into a lab and telling them to play “as you would at home”) and duration of the visits over 18 months yielded some really interesting information. The researcher, Dr. Doris Pierce, did this study for her dissertation in Occupational Therapy, and she was interested in learning more about “the relatively unrecognized work that mothers do in managing the play objects and play spaces of infant toddlers in the home,” which she says is “critical to child development” – because occupational therapists so rarely encounter the child in their home environment and so don’t have much understanding of how the techniques they prescribe are actually used in the home. Dr. Pierce saw mothers as “the stage managers behind the play scene in the home;” constantly engaged in positioning the infant and toddler for play, selecting toys, setting up the play space, monitoring for safety, and controlling access to areas of the home. It’s work that requires judgement, decision making, and ongoing manipulations of the physical environment – and when you put it in terms like that, suddenly it makes it much clearer to me why we feel so exhausted at the end of the day when as far as an outsider is concerned, we haven’t really “done” anything.
Dr. Pierce found that new mothers often rely heavily on the messages from commercial toy manufacturers to make toy selections, and used these to try to make sure their child had access to as many toys that can aid their development. First time mothers were more likely to fit into this category, and have ideas about what they ‘ought’ to buy, although these opinions were often based on the design, labeling, and marketing of toys. But another group of mothers, who often had less money available to spend on toys, tended to let their children mainly play with household objects and told Dr. Pierce that they didn’t believe commercial toys were important in the infant’s life. I thought there was some interesting rationalizations going on there on both sides – parents who could afford toys rationalized their decision to buy them by saying it was in their child’s best interest, while parents who didn’t have money rationalized their inability to buy toys by saying they didn’t believe toys were important for children’s development. More experienced mothers often had a store of outgrown toys from previous children, and were better able to offer an appropriate toy at the right age for the child, a puzzle that first time mothers sometimes struggled with. It seemed like the primary way mothers decided that the child had developmentally moved on from the toy was when the mother found she could no longer leave the child with the toy and expect the child to be entertained while she did housework nearby. The mothers would often rotate the toy selection to try to maintain the child’s interest so she could step away and get the work done around the house that our culture requires be completed.
Once the children became mobile, the kitchen cupboards often became an important source of toys – particularly while the mother was cooking or washing the dishes, and then as the child matured into a toddler toys like shape sorters, books, puzzles, and other educational toys made an appearance in at least the upper income homes. Dr. Pierce noted that it was usually the mother who tried to engage the child in play with these toys, rather than the child playing with them independently. Of course, this kind of interaction is deeply embedded in our culture as well – when we play try to engage our child with an educational toy we are passing on a message about who holds knowledge and who needs to develop knowledge, and that what the adult knows is valuable and what the child knows or discovers by themselves may be less valuable, and that children should listen to what adults are telling them. All of these lessons are preparing children for success in school, where they must learn that it doesn’t really matter what questions they have, that providing the correct answer to a question that someone else has deemed important is what constitutes ‘knowledge.’
I want to add a side note about something that I’ve wondered about and that may have been bugging you as well - we have a number of toys made from recycled plastics in our house and I know from my work in sustainability consulting that chemicals in plastics – and particularly recycled plastics are not amazing for our health. Pthalates are added to plastic toys to increase flexibility and durability, but have also been shown to have negative impacts on liver, kidney, and reproductive systems. Experiments in rats have found that two kinds of phthalates increased the incidence of many reproductive malformations by more than 50% and reduced the size of men’s testicles. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers were freely added to toys before the year 2007, when new regulations restricted the amount that could be in each toy; this chemical has thryroid disrupting properties. But now we’re not using that we’re using phosphate flame retardants instead, which are neurotoxic and carcinogenic. And you might be asking what these chemicals are doing in toys; the answer is that they were added to the plastic for whatever its original use was, and they stay in the plastic when it’s melted down and reshaped into a toy. So it seems as though yes, these chemicals are very much present in toys – but just the presence of a chemical isn’t the only thing that matters. As the saying goes, “it’s the dose that makes the poison” – and the news on this front may be as depressing as it is reassuring – even if children put toys made from recycled plastics in their mouths, the amount of exposure to these chemicals they get is an order of magnitude lower than the exposure they received through breast milk. And as they get older, the exposure they get through touching toys with their hands and then putting their hands in their mouths is TWO orders of magnitude lower than their exposure to the chemicals through household dust. So it’s good news that worrying about chemicals in toys made from recycled plastic shouldn’t be our top priority – because due to the way we’re living our lives our children are getting exposed to these chemicals anyway.
Once the toys are in the house, Dr. Pierce found that it was usually primarily the mother’s role to offer the toys to the child, and as the child got older this shifted to arranging the toys for the child’s use – and this was the defining factor in the infant’s experience of the home no matter whether the family had a lot of money and lived in a large home or had less money and lived in a small home. Each home play space was unique, but the most common arrangement was that toys were most highly concentrated next to the kitchen, where the mother spent the most time working.
And, of course, this way of organizing the home – and the play space – is highly unusual in the rest of the world. We do see parallels in Japan where mothers often find themselves isolated in high rise apartments with their infant while the husband goes to work, but the home filled with hard surfaces, sharp corners, electricity, and tiny objects everywhere, and only one adult is available for the vast majority of the day to keep them safe, keep the home tidy, and play with the child is something that people in many cultures would think is absolutely batty.
In Dr. Pierce’s study toys most commonly entered the house through the mother’s purchases at toy stores, although six of the 18 infants in the study also had a toys mailed to them every six weeks from a club that had been promoted in a parent magazine. With only one exception in 18, the child’s first birthday gift included at least one large wheeled push toy or riding toy. Visiting relatives often brought gifts, maternal aunts gave outgrown toys, and maternal grandmothers would pass on toys the mothers themselves had played with as infants in a symbol of the importance of the family being extended for another generation. So we can see that the mother – but also the toy industry, family, and friends all play a role in determining the number and types of toys available.
The French sociologist and anthropologist Pierre Bordieu talked about an idea which also came up in Dr. Allison Pugh’s work on consumerism, although I didn’t have time to discuss it with her, and that’s the idea that parents have cultural capital like knowledge, taste, and ways of speaking that children internalize without consciously thinking about them. One of the ways this knowledge is passed on to children is through the toys we give them to play with. So when we buy the authentic $100 Grimm’s rainbow that was cut from a single, solid piece of Linden wood and matches the peg doll and Large Element Stacker accessories, we’re saying to our child: “these things matter.” Children aren’t born with knowledge about what we consider to be markers of quality, or of high culture, which is why they often favor toys that middle class parents think are blingy and crass, and initially, at least, they don’t see the $21.99 knockoff rainbow stacking toy as any less than the one that costs five times the price. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it if you already own the $100 version – or the $21.99 version – but I want to bring it to the surface that we are transmitting a cultural message to our child with the toys we purchase and the ways we play with them.
When we think about what types of toys we should offer our children, I look to