The littlest learners

Are ‘educational’ toys best for baby?


Jill S. Browning


Baby toys that make 'sense'

Babies learn about their world through their senses: looking, tasting, touching, hearing and smelling. Books (cloth and vinyl taste best), mobiles, musical toys, mirrors and rattles all have a place in the baby’s toy box. "Something they can look at, touch, taste, bang, throw, chew—with their whole body, that’s what I have found that children seem to love the best," says Marcia Grimsley, director of educational development for The Brainy Baby Company (

For more ideas and the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio’s picks and pans, visit





Mom Jennifer Mitchell has visions of greatness for her daughter, Kendra. For the past six months she’s been exposing her 2-year-old to the DVD set, "Your Baby Can Read," which is targeted to children ages 3 months to 5 years. The makers of the DVDs claim their lessons take advantage of the early window of opportunity for learning language, so that kids who watch can start reading at astonishingly early ages. "I bought the DVD set after seeing a story about it on CNN. A baby was reading—that was enough for me," says Mitchell, who lives in Roseburg, Ore.

It’s easy to be swayed by the commercial claims and lavish "educational" labels splashed throughout toy stores. After all, what parents in their right minds wouldn’t want to supply their bundles of joy with the world’s best "educational" toys—the ones that ostensibly will give them every ounce of opportunity for success in life?

While there’s no harm in heaping on the educational toys (other than possibly financial), experts agree that the best thing you can do for your baby is to pay close attention to his interests—and to follow his lead.

Do they work?

The "Your Baby Can Read" videos display a written word, repeat it twice and then show a short video of that word in action. Mitchell admits it’s a little boring for both her and her daughter. Even so, has watching it turned Kendra into a reader?

Yes and no. After four weeks or so of watching the videos, Kendra recognized and made the signs for about seven words from flashcards her mom was using to supplement the video. "It was exciting," Mitchell says. "I mean, she couldn’t even say gorilla, it was more like ‘a-wiwwa,’ but she knew what it said." As far as the video putting Kendra on the fast track to reading, Mitchell isn’t entirely convinced. "I like to think so, but so far I haven’t seen any sign of her knowing anything but the words from the video. It’s a good start, I guess."

Mom Anita Costabile from Bartlett also makes educational videos part of the repertoire of toys available to her 2-year-old son, Antonio. She started playing the Baby Einstein tapes when Antonio was 4 months old. "I do think that a lot of those videos and tapes are good if you use it in an interactive style, as opposed to just sitting your kid in front of the TV for two hours," she says. Costabile, a speech language pathologist, liked the tapes for her son when he was younger because there are no words. Consequently, she was the one doing the talking and labeling the items for her son. "It’s kind of nice because then you can interact and point and try to engage with your child," she says.

Kill the (media) messenger?

Many of the educational offerings are in the form of videos and DVDs. Ironically, in her role as a speech language pathologist, Costabile advises parents not to play videos for their babies. "The most advice that we give parents is reducing the amount of TV time and increasing the amount of talking you do with your kids," she says.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that preschool children benefit from watching educational shows and perform better on reading and math tests than children who don’t watch. They warn, however, that more research is needed before it can recommend that children aged 2 or younger turn on the tube.

"Just television is not how you educate a child," says Marcia Grimsley, director of educational development at The Brainy Baby Company, makers of award-winning educational DVDs, CDs and toys. "Just giving them one kind of toy is not how you educate a child. You give them as much information and expand their world as much as you possibly can and they learn from a wide variety of resources." She recommends providing babies with items that give them a full spectrum of sensory experiences. (See sidebar: "Baby toys that make ‘sense.’ ")

Grimsley, a mother of two, agrees with the AAP that more research is needed to assess the pros and cons of television for younger kids, but believes the "no-TV under 2" guideline is excessive since it doesn’t differentiate between educational and non-educational content. "If you create something that is educationally appropriate, age appropriate, developmentally appropriate … then the media, videos, DVDs and toys, just like books and other things, can be excellent learning tools," she says.

Brainy Baby products are designed for kids ages 6 months to 5 years, but Grimsley says parents should introduce material to their kids when they’re developmentally ready. "Different babies have different attention spans and different learning styles, as all people do," she says. "And at a young age, you need to pay close attention to your child." If your baby loses interest during a program, you should turn it off.

Let the child lead

"The best thing we as parents can do is follow our child’s interests," says Linda Gilkerson, professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. Sometimes those interests will be the same as ours, and sometimes they’ll be different. Gilkerson says that even in newborns, parents can notice twinkling eyes or sparks of interest toward certain objects and can learn what the baby is attracted to. "You’re watching for individual interest," she says. "Watch for their passion, and then make things available." For example, if you notice that your child always turns to sounds or wiggles when you sing, incorporate more music into his life.

Gilkerson says parents should be on the lookout for things the entire family enjoys, too. For example, if mom sings, dad plays the guitar and the toddler and baby dance, the whole family can interact and share in an experience together. "If you have one kind of thing that everybody kind of relaxes into, that is fantastic," says Gilkerson, whose own family plays tennis together. "That’s a jewel. It’s not something to force, but it’s something that you have in your treasure chest as a family."

Imagine that

You don’t have to spend a lot of money on the latest toys to expand your baby’s world and mind. Chances are your baby will be delighted with commonplace objects around the house. Grimsley suggests wooden spoons and metal pots be part of the toy staples.

"A lot of toys do things—they talk for the baby, the trains make noises, there’s a lot that’s kind of built in to the toys," says Gilkerson. "It’s also good to value things that aren’t built-in." For instance, she says that if you have Dad’s old wooden train from his childhood and must make your own whistle sounds, a child will benefit from this imaginary exercise. Also, kids like what their parents have, so keep those old cell phones and worn-out purses on hand for pretend play. Then once the kids are engaged, Gilkerson says to be patient and give them the time they need to delve into play fully.

"Children need activity, they need interaction and they need interesting objects to explore," says Gilkerson.

What will your baby’s object of affection be? Watch him carefully, and then watch out—the favorite object might just end up being that box that houses your "educational" video.


Writer Jill S. Browning is the mom of 6-year-old triplets in Downers Grove and buys batteries in bulk.

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