Book review

New parents obsess over their children’s toys, play dates, the right schools, every bump, bruise and runny nose, but now it’s apparent the toys, classrooms, playgrounds, and neighborhoods that youngsters engage with are just as important.

Objects and surroundings encode centuries of changing ideas about what makes for good childrearing, such a wooden toys or plastic, (who wants a toddler chewing on wood) and as any pediatrician would tell a guardian, no or limited digital.

From building blocks to city blocks, THE DESIGN OF CHILDHOOD: How the Material World Shapes Independent Kids (Bloomsbury) is an eye-opening exploration of how children’s playthings and physical surroundings affect their development.

Seen through the eyes of Alexandra Lange, prominent design critic, everything from the sandbox to the street is examined and suddenly has deeper meaning.

If parents are looking to rear kids in the right direction, Lange’s examination of kids’ behavior, values, and health, shaped by their environment, is an eye-opening account of society, and everything in it – toys, buildings and those behind them – shape American youngsters journey toward independence.

Take Caroline Pratt’s Manhattan’s Greenwhich Village School, founded in 1914, where she let blocks be her curriculum, at least through third grade. Lange observed this method for children to learn everything (structures of the students’ worlds, not their universe) by observing, questioning and making, and it’s still being practiced today.

Throughout history, teaching and architecture go hand in hand, as even the earliest American school reformer understood, and a new building cannot solve problems of disinvestments, segregation, and student performance.

Progressive educators call the standard classroom a relic and prefer collaborative learning, in a more open environment; while others say effective learning can take place anywhere. Both agree that school design – including good acoustics, light and air quality contribute to student achievement.

The author views technology in schools is best used as another tool, that includes reading, writing, discussing and building; directed by a teacher, and tremendously useful for research, short video learning and math practice.

Getting outside is equally as important. Different types of playgrounds can provide opportunity for both physical and emotional growth.It could be the setting for initial social interaction, and its changed drastically throughout history – from piles of dirt to tabletop sandboxes. The Playground Association of America (PAA) was founded in 1906 to organize the reformer in cities across the United States to get public funding for outdoor activities, after it was recognized that city streets were dangerous for children to play in.

A surprising evolution and history behind the human-made elements of children’s pint-sized landscapes that make up their worlds is revealed in THE DESIGN OF CHILDHOOD. From LEGOs to home floor plans, backyards and playgrounds, THE DESIGN OF CHILDHOOD shows how the seemingly innocuous universe of stuff affects kids’ behavior, values, and health, often in subtle ways.

Lang’s fascinating investigation of children’s surroundings connects the dots for parents, educators and those interested in design and architecture, including the design of the American home and how it has changed in response to shifts in children’s place in the family unit.

Technology and toys continue to change as well.

Future parents have 3-D printing to look forward to, which the author points out has already changed the prototyping of toys, bringing the price point for experimentation way day.

Kids are the same developmentally around the world, so while customized toys might be cute, they aren’t really necessary.

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