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Guest column by Kate Miller
President, Charlie’s Playhouse

kate3498982KATE MILLER is a mother and scientist with a PhD in demography from U Penn, and a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. In response to the terrible scarcity of toys and games to help kids understand evolution, she launched CHARLIE’S PLAYHOUSE this very month. I wrote a brief but glowing review of the company for Raising Freethinkers. In this column, Kate describes the process that led to the creation of this exciting and brilliantly-conceived resource for science-jazzed parents and their lucky kids.

Dinosaur-mania washed over my two boys a couple of years back, and in its wake came some wonderful discussions about evolution, natural selection and Charles Darwin. We turned toy boats into the Beagle and sailed around the playroom collecting plastic animals for inspection. We unfurled a roll of paper on the floor and drew ancient animals along a billion-year timeline.

Delighted by their interest, I went online one day in search of some educational games or toys on the subject. I easily found fun stuff for kids about physics, chemistry, astronomy and every other branch of science you can think of, but nothing on evolution. Yes, some wonderful children’s books about evolution, and some great videos for grownups, but no toys, no manipulatives, nothing involving physical movement or the sheer insane joy of the history of life on this planet.

I dug deeper into the market. I checked out natural history museums, suppliers of teaching materials, professional biology associations. Nothing. I made phone calls, read toy industry publications, inquired at specialty stores. Nothing. Some toys that focus on the natural world walk right up to an invisible line but will not cross over to actually use the words “evolution” or “natural selection.” Even the vast dinosaur-industrial complex doesn’t touch it. Check out the next dino toy you pick up.

timeline44095My curiosity rose, along with my indignation. Why is there no infrastructure for presenting evolutionary ideas to young children? No doubt it’s due to political concerns in corporate America, yet for most people evolution does not contradict their beliefs in any way. Many parents who have been looking for evolution-themed toys have found their way to me; these parents are religious, they are secular, they are homeschoolers, they are mainstream, they are everyone. Why should this majority be deprived of educational fun stuff for their kids because of the few who politicize the issue? At the very least, kids have to be aware of evolutionary ideas for the same reason that they need to know about religion: it’s basic cultural literacy.

shirts44095I also discovered that our national science standards recommend that students should not be exposed to evolution until high school, or middle school at earliest. I was raised in a household where evolution was normal, like gravity, so hearing about evolution for the first time in high school strikes me as odd, like learning that the Earth revolves around the Sun sometime around your junior prom. As member of the standards panel later told me over coffee, that recommendation was driven not by children’s inability to grasp the concepts but by elementary teachers’ discomfort with the material.

So my kids and I stumbled upon this vacant market niche, and I had what one friend calls “the entrepreneurial seizure.” Against my better judgment, we decided to start a business. Of course I hope to make a buck with this venture (wouldn’t it be nice if the kids get to go to college?) but I also hope to contribute to the scientific literacy of future generations. Oh, and also have some laughs with the kids along the way. So here is Charlie’s Playhouse. Welcome!

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.