The Questionable “Science” of An Optimized Environment

Last week, I wrote about my experience letting W do her own thing outdoors. In short, she had a great time — and was obviously both physically and mentally stimulated — picking up rocks and licking them. I talked about having to remind myself that she doesn’t need fancy classes or an “optimized learning environment” in order to develop into a physically, mentally, and emotionally capable person. Still, I am cutting myself a BIG break for frequently forgetting that she doesn’t need all sorts of stimulation, because we parents are constantly told otherwise. Just today, I ran across a project from the Methodist University of Piracicaba in Brazil, called the Affordances in the Home Environment for Motor Development – Infant Scale (AHEMD-IS). The stated purpose of the study is “to provide researchers, educators, and parents with a reliable instrument to assess the quality and quantity of motor development opportunities in the home during early childhood.”

I’m all about science, but this…is ridiculous. The assessment questionnaire is available on the AHEMD website; there are several versions available for different age groups. I took a look at the 18-42 month questionnaire (validated, with results reported by Rodrigues et al).

The questionnaire asks about the home environment (Is there more than one type of flooring? Are there stairs?), about how the child spends time during the day (How much time being carried? How much time in a playpen?), and about toys in the house (How many toys that simulate adult activity? How many rolling toys? How many water toys?…) This last part goes on for 8 pages.

If this scale were meant to assess a daycare or preschool environment, I’d be all for it. After all, daycare and the like are parent proxies, which try to reproduce a home-like environment (and some could use help). That the scale is meant to assess the home, however, disturbs me. We’re forgetting our evolutionary roots when we consider a home full of all sorts of toys (rocking toys! musical toys! dolls!) to be superior — necessary, even — to development. After all, through the vast majority of evolutionary history, human babies have developed into functional adults through a combination of crawling around on the ground (cave floor?), which would lose our cave-ancestors points on the assessment (In your home’s inside space, is there any furniture or equipment for your child to pull up to a standing position and/or walk?) and/or being carried, which would also lose points (In a typical day, how much time does your child spend in a carrying device?).

As much as I’m bothered by some of the questions on the survey, I’m more disturbed by the questions the survey DIDN’T ask:

  • On a typical day, does your child have an opportunity to spend time outdoors (weather permitting)?
  • On a regular basis, do you involve your child in your daily household chores and/or in your outside-the-house errands?
  • Do you talk to your child about what you’re doing, and about what he/she is doing?
  • How many open-ended toys and/or objects that can be used for imaginative play (empty boxes, plastic containers) does your house contain?
  • Do you make allowances for the fact that children develop at different paces, or do you frequently compare your child to other children?

Research like this distresses me, because it supports the notion that development is fostered by things rather than by interaction, and it restricts the definition of a toy to something that has been manufactured for play. What about sticks and rocks? What about running around outdoors? What about helping Mama choose between beets and broccoli at the store, or learning that the greens growing in the garden have little carrots attached to them? This sort of research suggests that an “optimized indoor playspace” is infinitely superior to following a parent around, playing with empty toilet paper rolls, and spending time outside.

This kind of research validates the notion that we need to force development. That it somehow doesn’t come naturally. That a human baby needs to be taught (and bought things) to be human. It validates the notion that we need to start pushing at an early age and providing all the right toys (and heaven help us if we don’t have more than one flooring surface in the house!) so that our pint-sized Einsteins will get into the right preschool…so that they’ll get into the right kindergarten…the right college…the right job…

This kind of research supports the notion that our kids need to hurry up and develop, already! And the extent to which this notion pervades society distresses me. It runs completely counter to being in the moment and enjoying life as it happens. It sets us up to race through each stage to get to the next one…and if life is a race, the finish line is…death.


What do you think about the idea of assessing your child’s home environment?



Rodrigues et al. Development and construct validation of an inventory for assessing the home environment for motor development. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2005 Jun;76(2):140-8.


3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Alice Callahan (@scienceofmom)
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 11:37:21

    Great post! This is something that I think about a lot. We really have not bought many toys for BabyC. She still plays with a lot of stuff from the recycling bin, and she is still way more interested in outdoor stuff (rocks, wood chips, leaves) than in anything I’ve every bought for her. One of my closest friends has a baby just 5 weeks older than BabyC. They live a few hours away from us, so we see them every few months, and we can’t help but compare developmental milestones between our babies. We really do this in a fun, interested way, not in a competitive way, but it has got me thinking. Her baby is in daycare part-time, and some of his “skills” might come from being in that setting. For example, he seems to actually get that crayons are made for drawing, while BabyC still wants to eat them. My friend says that he sees older kids drawing in daycare, so that’s how he learned this. I find myself thinking, “Oh! We should really work more on art!” but then I have to ask, “So what if she doesn’t get into drawing for another week or month or two?” Who decided that was important at this stage? She’d rather sort through wood chips in the dirt, and I have yet to see any evidence that this kind of activity will put her at any kind of disadvantage in her life! (And I’d be willing to bet that letting her guide her activities is better for her development in the long run than trying to force “art time.”)


  2. Ashley @ C is for Cockerham
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 11:41:35

    T’s favorite toys are empty water bottles with pasta, and I’m pretty sure he’d explore our dog’s food bowl for hours a day, if we let him!


  3. Megyn @ Minimalist Mommi
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 11:46:23

    Does the study say who funded it? I’m curious to see if any toy companies are supporting such claims and funding similar research.

    You make really great points! I always remind myself that intelligence is highly heritable. I know environment plays a role in furthering the development of the IQ, but at the end of the day, if my kid is born with about an average IQ, no amount or type of toys will lead the child to go up or down a standard deviation.

    I actually wrote about this topic here: (all based on info. I learned as a psych major and general observations, no actual scientific data cited FYI)


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