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 playrooms - 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...