WHEN DID PLAY BECOME OCCUPATIONAL THERAPY? Every kid is special, but not every kid has special needs.

Author:Skenazy, Lenore
Position:TECHNOLOGY
 
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THE "WALKING WINGS Learning to Walk Assistant" is a vest that goes around your baby with long straps on the top that you can yank to pull him or her upright, like a marionette. According to the product website: "When the child is strapped into the safety harness, they can be held up by an adult walking behind them. This encourages the child's natural instinct to use their legs and develop muscle strength."

A set of emotion flash cards boasts: "Teach your student emotional intelligence (EQ). IQ gets you through school but EQ gets you through life!" According to the product description, "a high quality photograph on the front of each card teaches a child to label emotions" while "the back of each card teaches a child how these emotions feel and when they could occur." You'll be delighted (lips curving up, not down!) to learn the emotions pictured include "happy, sad, angry, frustrated, excited and many more."

The Gymboree website promises climbing equipment where children can develop "strength, balance, coordination and self-confidence."

A bumpy ball isn't just fun, its packaging explains--it aids in "sensory play."

If these products and services were only for children with developmental obstacles, such as cerebral palsy or autism, of course they'd make sense. Some kids do need help walking or reading faces. But "many of these items that came originally from the field of special needs moved into the mainstream," says Tovah Klein, author of How Toddlers Thrive (Touchstone) and director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. More and more they're being marketed to parents of neurotypical children, as if trusting some basic skills to kick in on their own is an iffy--or at least time-wasting--proposition.

When Raymond Raad and his husband take their 2-year-old to the kiddie gym, the boy does not get to just run around. "I tried to sign up for free play time," says Raad, a New Jersey psychiatrist, "but you cannot."

First the children must be formally instructed in the fine art of tumbling. "There's a lot of just telling them, 'We're going to do this now. Now we're going to do that,'" says Raad.

Ah, but at the end of the session, parents can be sure this time has not been wasted. "They present you with all the things the kids have learned: 'They developed their cognitive abilities, their social abilities, their physical abilities,'" says Raad. "It is quantified."

That, in a nutshell, is childhood today. Kids may come into the world...

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