Gift Advice From Alison Gopnik

“Getting presents for children—whether your own or someone else’s—involves a tangle of complications, starting with the fact that what looks like fun to an adult often doesn’t look that way to a kid,” writes Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe. “But there’s even more to think about than that when it comes to kids: what’s good for their mental and social development, what will expand their horizons, what will prove entertaining to them for weeks or months instead of minutes.

Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist at University of California at Berkeley and the author of The Philosophical Baby, has found that when it comes to young children especially, the most important property to look for in a gift is that it lends itself to pretend-play. Such gifts, Gopnik said, develop children’s ability to engage in counter-factual thinking—to imagine ‘ways the world could be other than the way it is.’

Blocks and dolls are good in this respect, according to Gopnik, while some toys that are explicitly designed to be educational—a talking microscope, for instance, that recites facts—are not. ‘One of the best presents my son ever got was from his wonderful grandmother,’ Gopnik said. ‘She made dress-up clothes: a whole box full of capes and different kinds of trousers and wands and sparkly crowns. And it was a very inexpensive present, but it was a fantastic source of pretend-play.’

A good gift doesn’t even have to be that labor intensive. In fact, according to Gopnik, one of the best things you can do when you give a kid a gift is not throw away the box it came in. ‘Boxes end up being a fantastic toy,’ she said. ‘You can turn it into a boat, you can turn it into a house, you can ride in it—there’s very good play value in a cardboard box.’” (Read more here).

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