Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Nice Work If You Can Get It

by Tom Bozzo

Last night, I was talking to my brother Steve about the kids, and he noted with some disappointment that his Little Brother never really got into Legos, some effort on Steve's part to promote them among their various activities. I've been starting early on the kids in hopes of directing them — ahem — appropriately. So far, so good, as John was, in a stream of warming-daddy's-heart moments, incessantly repeating "Daddy, that is COOL!" as we continued work on the construction of Stephanie the SST (bringing gender equality to Sodor aviation) before dinner yesterday evening.

Still, we are (or it feels like we are) basically freaks who limit TV to the extent practicable, and have all but banished electronic noisemaking toys for the preservation of our sanity if not the kids' hearing.

For some evidence that it's actually a problem broad enough to attract the attention of traditional toys' marketers, I had just seen that the Lego clone brand Mega Bloks has commissioned a clinical study to show the effects of block play on toddlers' development and TV-watching habits. A favorable clinical trial result, they may hope, will do for building blocks what the idea that classical music is good for early child development did for the Baby Einstein company. I won't even go to the possibility that hardcore Lego partisans might not be wishing them so much success. (Much of Mega Bloks' claim to fame is its willingness to take on contemporary martial subjects that, Dino Attack notwithstanding, Lego still officially avoids. They also were much earlier to use low-cost Wal-Mart friendly Chinese production than Lego, which is just now heading to Asia and lower-cost corners of the EU under financial duress.)

A study abstract is here (PDF). I'm struck that the researchers are really likely to be measuring parental behavior as much as anything. It's not that John didn't show preferences for some toys over others in the 18-30 month range, but clearly we had lots of influence on his playthings. That goes double for the Tube. While he had mastered its basic controls early on, it was up to us, after all, to teach him that he didn't have unlimited leave to use them. As the study design includes periodic parental prodding with reminders to play with the blocks, it would seem that unless the blocks were a pure substitute for traditional toys (unlikely), there should be some decrement of TV-watching observed in the treatment group. It'll be interesting to see how practical and statistical significance might be discerned in the results.
Then there are those of us whose Lego playing was restricted to the role of finding specific blocks, for the Older Brother was doing the actual building and designing. What did that do for my mental development? I searched through masses of blocks to pick out all the red ones with two dots, or four-in-a-row...

Interestingly, said Older Brother now studies structural engineering and architectural studies, and I, well...
There *are* big bucks to be made in certain forms of signal extraction.

One question, was this a voluntary arrangement? How much older is the brother? Mine is less than a year younger, and by the time we were in prime Lego-playing time (not counting now), I'd have gotten my ass kicked if I tried to do that.
Parental influence... it gets hugely complicated once you leave the blocks and legos behind. One complaint that I heard over and over again as the daughters reached adulthood was that we unfairly limited their access to popular culture and that they draw a blank when others refer to icons of their childhood years. Unfairly? I don't remember it being a premeditated thing -- it's just that we're not ones to have a TV on ever in the house and there never seemed the time to even explore what the options were. We never even bothered with cable. On the other hand, we did get the Barbies because it was clear that girl friends came over and expected to play with Barbies, in the same way that they expected to be offered milk and cookies and not fruit juice and granola bars. And all the time you're thinking -- should there be a larger game plan? The answer: No, I no longer think so. It's what the gut tells you feels right at any given moment, given who you are, given who they are.
Said Brother is two and a half years older. Yes, voluntary, in that I really wanted to play with the Legos and this was the only way I could. Plus, to this day he is still larger than I, so no ass-kicking to be done on my part. And it is also true that, at least on Sundays, the Lego-playing tended to degenerate into fighting before 11 in the morning. Yet every Sunday we unfailingly played Legos. This is also why my father sometimes had the rule that we had to be out of the house by 11, or somesuch, on Sundays.
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