The Importance of Being a Blockhead

dad kids and tower

dad kids and towerDear Mr. Dad: My husband and I are new parents and our baby is going to have his first birthday in a few weeks. We both work in tech and we’re really excited about getting a tablet for him. There seem to be so many options out there and we’re a little overwhelmed. Should we get an iPad or is there a better choice for toddlers?

 A: Yes, the Internet is full of videos of very young children happily swiping away on their tablets. But the best tablet for your baby is no tablet at all, at least not for a while. In fact, if I had to recommend one toy that’s an absolute must-have for every nursery, it would be a nice set of blocks.

But before I tell you why blocks are so great, let’s talk about why tablets are such a poor choice for babies.

  • The more time a baby spends interacting with a screen, the less time he’ll spend interacting with real, live humans—which is a lot more important. Tablets are great for a lot of things, but they can’t teach verbal- or social skills.
  • Although research on babies and tablets is in its infancy, early results aren’t very pretty. Researchers (and day care providers) are finding that toddlers who spend a lot of time playing with tablets are developmentally lagging in terms of muscle tone and hand-eye coordination (swiping takes a lot less dexterity and coordination than stacking blocks or picking up tiny objects). One app company, Tiggly, has taken some excellent steps to bridge the gap between swiping and developing actual fine motor skills. But the rest of the industry has a long, long way to go.
  • As kids get older, screen time is associated with weight gain, behavior problems, repetitive stress injuries, sleep problems, and low cognitive performance.

Okay, so what’s so great about blocks?

  • They help your baby develop hand-eye coordination as well as grasping and releasing skills.
  • They teach your baby all about patterns, sizes, categories (big ones with the big ones, little ones with the little ones), gravity, balance, and structure. These mini lessons in math and physics lay the foundation for your baby’s later understanding of how the world works.
  • They teach good thinking skills. “Taken from a psychological view-point,” wrote Albert Einstein, a guy who knew a thing or two about thinking, “this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought—before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.”
  • They can help your baby grasp the difference between things he has control over (such as which blocks he wants to use and how high he wants to go), and things he doesn’t (such as the law of gravity, which keeps pulling down his towers).
  • They teach perseverance. Building a tower—or anything else—out of blocks can be an excruciatingly frustrating experience for a baby. But along the way, he’ll learn that if he keeps working on something long enough, he’ll eventually succeed.
  • Research by Dimitri Christakis and his colleagues at the University of Washington has found that kids who play with blocks have better language skills and watch less TV than those who don’t.
  • The best thing about blocks is that they encourage parents to get down on their hands and knees and spend time with their children, playing, laughing, and learning.

Finding the right blocks can be just as overwhelming as finding the right tablet. For reviews and recommendations, do a search at

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Seriously: some schools actually supply tablets to their students. Even when those kids are still in elementary school. I don’t know about you, but my second grader has a hard time remembering her lunchbox when she gets off the bus. I’m terrified over the idea of having to replace a lost tablet.
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