Early Childhood

Watchdog Group Questions Educational Value of Electronic Toys

By Andrew Trotter — December 06, 2000 4 min read
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The traditional sounds of the holiday season—festive songs and crackling fires— will be spiced in many homes later this month by electronic blips, squawks, and fuzzy prerecorded voices pronouncing letters, words, and phrases such as “Yippee, you did it!,” as children unwrap and activate the latest generation of electronic educational toys.

Electronic toys, such as those above, are provoking a holiday-season debate between educators and toy makers.
--David A. Dougherty

“They’re taking over,” Diane Levin, an education professor at Wheelock College in Boston, said of the noisy, candy-colored plastic devices filling toy stores and catalogs. But she says the buyer should beware.

Ms. Levin is a co-author of the Toy Action Guide for 2000-2001, published by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment, or TRUCE, a national group in West Somerville, Mass., that is trying to stir up a revolt against what it calls “harmful toy trends.” The guide, which has been published annually since 1994, is available on the Internet at www.wheelock.edu/truce.

Many toys on the guide’s list of “Toys To Avoid” are electronic and claim to be educational, including some hand-held video games and traditional toys with electronic features. Some of the toys are criticized as attempting to “hook infants and toddlers on TV, computers, and other media,” at the expense of playtime with other people or experiences with their physical surroundings.

What is especially troubling, Ms. Levin contends, is how microchips have invaded baby and toddler toys, such as rattles, xylophones, and stacking cups. The electronic versions now emit music or animal sounds. “They play Beethoven because of research that hearing music when babies are young raises their intelligence,” Ms. Levin said.

But Ms. Levin warns educators and parents to be skeptical of any claim that toys raise intelligence or improve language skills. For instance, she scoffs at the idea that “if a toy says ‘moo’... it teaches language.”

Beyond those concerns, Ms. Levin said, such toys replace interaction with parents and deprive children of real-world feedback from manipulating objects such as blocks or rattles.

“Kids come to think toys do things for them,” she said. “It’s an approach to the world that affects the kinds of learners they become.”

By contrast, children reared on traditional toys that encourage “active play"— blocks, dolls, board games, and so forth—become active learners, Ms. Levin said. “When they get to school and need to figure out how computation works in math,” she said, “they’ll say, ‘I need to figure it out.’”

Defending the Toys

Not surprisingly, toymakers disagree.

“Certainly I understand [the critics’] position, but there are some things I don’t think are necessarily factual,” Laurie Honza, a senior project manager for VTech Industries LLC in Wheeling, Ill., said of TRUCE. The guide cited one of VTech’s electronic books for 3- to 6-year-olds, Little Smart Storytime Rhymes, as an example of “computerized books that undermine literacy by teaching young children to expect books to entertain them.”

Ms. Honza said: “They describe toys that make electronic technology the focus of play. I don’t think VTech tries to do that. We add some kinds of electronic element to add value—by adding a magical element to the play.”

She argues that her company—a U.S. subsidiary of the Bermuda-based VTech Holdings—designs toys to be appropriate for children and also responds to the needs of families.

“Parents have very busy schedules,” Ms. Honza said. “They don’t necessarily have the time” to spend with children that stay-at-home parents of an earlier generation had, she said. “The product helps make up the difference.”

Ms. Honza added that VTech, in large part, is also responding to children’s interests. The company’s activity sets that are shaped like colorful laptop computers feed children’s appetite for adult tools, she said. For example, Nonstop Girl, a “laptop” in purple and pink plastic with an LCD screen, offers word games around themes of geography, travel, and astrology.

Diane S. Kendall, the editor of Children’s Software, a newsletter published in Houston, agreed that children need toys that are relevant to adulthood and an increasingly technological world.

Of VTech, Ms. Kendall commented: “The range of their stuff is from junk to some very good things. They’ve also learned a lot over time. They’ve been a survivor in this whole industry.”

She said she often recommends to parents that they consider whether an electronic toy is flexible and allows a child to be creative.

For example, digital cameras or microscopes let children add colors and text on a computer to pictures they’ve taken.

Other useful electronic toys, she said, are hand-held electronic organizers, which help build organizational skills, and the new Lego & Steven Spielberg MovieMaker Set, which children can use to create digital movies. Neither toy is on the TRUCE list.

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 2000 edition of Education Week as Watchdog Group Questions Educational Value of Electronic Toys

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