kids and stuff.

“If you want your child to be brilliant, tell them fairy tales. If you want them to be very brilliant, tell them more fairy tales.” – Albert Einstein

Black Friday is finally behind us and as a society I guess we survived, but not without denting some of our dignity. The accounts I read ranged from humorous to horrifying: A family of four in Florida camping overnight in front of a Toys R Us store. Women trampled at the opening of a Victoria’s Secret outlet in California. Families in Metairie enduring long lines and chilly weather for first crack at Best Buy.

Most alarming in all this is the thought of the mountain of “stuff” that will end up under trees and in the arms of kids across America: Hunger Games action figures, Justin Bieber dolls, Cabbage Patch, Hello Kitty purses, Dream Dazzle dolls, Pokemon play sets, Carrera slot cars, Microchargers, Sonix City, Monster High cell phone covers, Samsung Galaxy tablets, car DVD players, Batman Dark Knight action figures, Angry Bird video games, Harry Potter Lego sets, True Heroes, Thundercats, Avengers, Halo, Zoobles, Koo Koo, Zhu Zhu, Xia Xia, Build a Bear, My Little Pony, Disney fairies (and accessories), Liv Dolls, Little Tykes, Pictionary, Wii, Xbox, PlayStation, iPod touches, iPod nanos, MP3s and nabi Tablets for kids.

I’m not anti-toy or technology. Our apartment is filled with activity centers, dolls, balls and knick knacks our almost-2-year-old busies herself with. Granted, most of the larger toys were gifts from relatives, but we didn’t exactly chuck them off our balcony either. The problem with the unbridled accumulation of stuff is this: the more toys the child has to play with, the less he’ll use his imagination. And studies have proven the brain grows most robustly when the inner movie reels of imagination are steadily spinning. Toys make imagination nearly obsolete: the shiny, brightly-painted Barbie doll is an amazingly lifelike rendition of a female person. No imagination needed. The spinning stops.

In his powerful and insightful book on brain development, Evolution’s End, researcher Joseph C. Pearce lists what neuroscientists believe to be the biggest deterrents to development of the neo-cortex, the largest and most underused portion of the human brain. The first one is obvious: television, which replaced storytelling in most homes. The second, somewhat less apparent, is: toy stores. Forty years ago, the average American child had a maximum of five toys, Pearce writes. Today, that number is infinite. With little left to the imagination, the neuro-connectors needed to grow the brain stop multiplying or multiply less. “Having no inner imagining capacity leaves most of the brain unemployed,” he writes.

Pearce recounts how he only had four toys growing up, each of which he remembers clearly: a Flexible Flyer Sled, a Radio Flyer wagon, a pair of skates and a bicycle. “I never heard the word bored until I was in the armed service in World War II,” he writes. “I never knew a bored child in my own childhood. There was far too much to do, yet we had only a few toys.”

As Black Friday turned to Cyber Monday and shopping began its true gallop toward Christmas, expect more urgency to acquire more things. I don’t have an answer on how to stop the onslaught of stuff pointed at us from manufacturers, stores and well-meaning relatives. The best I could do is show our girls the fun of imagination-play with an empty milk carton or a handful of select twigs. Then hope that habit sticks.

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Written by Rick Jervis

Rick Jervis is the New Orleans-based Gulf Coast Correspondent for USA TODAY, covering post-Katrina rebuilding, oil spills, culture, regional oddities and the recurrent hurricane. He was on a team that won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Journalism and spent two years as USA TODAY’s Baghdad Bureau Chief. Born in Miami to Cuban parents, Rick developed a keen interest in the effects of media on a child’s brain development and is raising his two young daughters in a bilingual home with his wife, Elena.

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