It was in the wee hours of the morning in that hazy space between sleep and wakefulness that I contemplated my Saturday morning and how I’d like to spend it. Thinking about hopping on the train to the city, I considered calling up a friend and exuberantly proclaiming, “let’s go shopping!” The phrase sounded too familiar though, and I suddenly remembered why. It was the name of my favorite board game growing up. Sure, I also vaguely recall Candyland and a matching memorization game, but nothing was quite like Let’s Go Shopping. Plastic shopping bags as game pieces, going about the mall trying to collect pieces to create a matching outfit. Whoever assembled their outfit first won. This was of course a precursor to Mall Madness, which came out as I entered adolescence and considered myself far too “old” for such games anymore.

When I think back to it now, I wonder how modern parents aiming to instill their children with the highest academic opportunities would react to this. There was no Baby Einstein as I grew up. You could watch Sesame Street and learning some counting, but the animals were a bit overwhelming for me on that show and I didn’t have much interest in television anyway. I preferred my hot pink toy limo and following my mother around the house before I reached school age. My dirty secret? I dropped out of preschool. All those children running around screaming was terrifying, and frankly, I just preferred my mother’s company. Perhaps it was a shy disposition, or the fact that I’d grown up seeking and receiving the primary attention that I craved which was that of my family.

In today’s era of innovation and enhancement with toys and tools to make your child smarter, more coordinated, and fluent in multiple languages, I find myself thinking about whether all of this matters. What about simple creative play? The full attention of a loving caregiver? Shouldn’t this be enough?

As I was getting antsy most recently on a five-hour flight, I asked for the children’s activity book complete with crayons. Excited as I find coloring calming, I was most disappointed when I saw the book to be full of puzzles, riddles and arithmetic equations. Where was there space for the actual coloring? After completing all of the “activities” I finally resigned myself to color the outside edges of the pages. I remembered doing these same puzzles as a child and how frustrated I’d become when attempting to solve the generic restaurant placemat problems that were often beyond my age-level. Early sense of mastery? Not so much. If anything, these “fun” puzzles usually shook my confidence.

Having attended magnet schools for a few years in elementary school, I distinctly recall being a part of educational experimental curriculums. At one point we had brand-new textbooks seeking to teach us science in a whole new way. The problem was they were so complicated even our teachers didn’t quite understand them. The reality is that according to the Flynn effect, IQ scores have been slowly but steadily increasing over time. There are several theories that attempt to explain this. They include everything from increased nutrition to more stimulating environments. A recent article on Psychology Today found here explains the good and bad sides of the media, as certain forms of media are postulated to contribute to increased IQ. The Magic School Bus, anyone? I still watch the reruns.

Being at a point in my academic career where I’m excited and grateful to be graduating with my Ph.D. and have a fellowship lined up for next year, I am often struck by a sense of surprise I made it this far. Certainly I was a curious child with lots of energy and excitement. But I also was never the child that boasted having read Austen’s complete works by the fifth grade (and yes, I’ve had this announced to me by others more than once). I did well in school, and had parents that were loving, supportive, and also had high standards. But at the end of the day, I was allowed my childhood. I wasn’t shipped from one after-school activity to another, soccer games to violin lessons. Believe me, my parents tried, insisting I might like to try art classes, ballet, and music (one at a time). In time my curiosity caught up with me and I ventured into all of these territories later in life. Until then, one of the best parts of childhood was simply being a child. And of course, playing Let’s Go Shopping to my heart’s content.

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