At the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, kids clamber over one another in an enormous anthill maze. Carpeted, encaged in wire mesh, consisting of layers of looping and overlapping low tunnels, the Limb Bender, as it is called, spans a storey and a half, and usually contains anywhere from two to four wailing toddlers stuck in its dead centre. Eventually, while a crowd of parents politely holds back snickers, the mom or dad of one of the stuck babes valiantly begins belly-crawling his or her way upward, hissing with as much mustered sweetness as possible: ‘Come down, Callie.’
In his book The Anthropology of Childhood: Cherubs, Chattel, Changelings (2008), the anthropologist David Lancy introduced the idea of the neontocracy: a type of society, unique to WEIRD countries (Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic), in which children are the most valued members. In a neontocracy, the bathtub fills up with toy ducks, the living room is slowly smothered in gadgets, and there is no upper limit on the amount of time and energy adults must pour into the project of childhood.
Further inside the Children’s Museum, kids climb into huge, clear-plastic wind tunnels, shrieking as their hair stands on end. They scramble up rope nets; roll magnets along magnetised slopes; spin a deep-backed wheel filled with copper sand; creep into a completely black room roiled by simulated thunder, chucking handfuls of glass beads onto tables to evoke the sound of rain. If they get bored with that, upstairs there’s a jacuzzi-sized tub of blue pebbles to scoop into windmills and, on the third floor, a waterplay area where they can float boats down channels or carve ice with blunt plastic knives.
When my husband Jorge and I first moved to Pittsburgh, I loved the Children’s Museum. There was nothing like it in Oaxaca, the city in southwestern Mexico where we lived when our daughter, Elena, was between the ages of one and two. I was amazed that I could take Elena there for a whole afternoon and relax as she fiddled with light sticks or sorted rocks into holes. It was like taking my hands off the steering wheel, being able to sit back and zone out as she explored, with the added bonus that all the sensory play and stimulation and exposure to other kids had to be good for her development, right? It felt like a healthy granola bar, sweet and indulgent and still promising flaxseed and fibre.