Tech toys and ELAs aren't going away-in fact, there will be more
on the market in the months and years to come. So what are parents
But ELAs and similar products are no substitute for all the
other things kids can and should do during this critical
developmental stage. Reading, building, coloring, pretending, even
piling the couch cushions into a pile and leaping into them are all
just as critical to help develop interested, engaged and, yes,
Like most preschoolers, my son has no shortage of toys. In
addition to the piles of blocks, puzzles, books and plastic
dinosaurs that overtake our family room daily, Ryan plays with tech
toys that range from talking cars to console books to interactive
game systems. He even has his own "computer"-my husband, an IT
consultant, set one up for him to play kid-friendly CDs and access
sites like www.noggin.com, where he saves animals with Diego and
figures out Blue's latest clue.
Do these marketed "tech toys" actually make your
kids any smarter?
My husband says playing the computer games is making him
smarter. I'm not so sure, and I limit the time he spends staring at
the screen, worried that he'll turn into a slack-jawed couch potato
before he hits kindergarten. Yet all of Ryan's playmates show the
same obsession with any interactive (and usually noisy) toy that
lights up, talks and tells them what to do.
Visit any toy store and you'll find a dizzying array of
technology toys that claim to teach kids the skills they'll need to
excel in school and life. Preschoolers now carry their own portable
video devices and "learning centers" just as their parents tote
laptops and cell phones, and many toys are marketed not just as
fun, but educational as well.
Can they really make your preschooler smarter?
If you have preschoolers, chances are you have tech toys. A
survey conducted in 2006 found that 46 percent of respondents had
purchased an education learning aid (ELA) toy for a child age 3-5;
22 percent had purchased an ELA for a child age 2-3.
According to D is for Digital, a recent report examining ELAs
and other interactive media, there are 15 activity laptops, 19
types of hardware/software systems and 12 stand-alone devices
marketed at 3- to 5-year-olds. That's in addition to the 13
computer software brands that target this age group and the 20
preschooler-specific Web destinations like www.pbskids.com and
While children may be drawn to the flashing lights, entertaining
sounds and novelty of ELAs, it is primarily parents and
grandparents who ultimately make the purchasing decisions-and
believing that these toys will help kids learn is a powerful
"As parents, we want the best for our children and we want our
children to be the smartest," says Kathryn A. Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a
professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of
Einstein Never Used Flashcards. "We do everything in our power to
buy anything we can to help them get an edge."
But do these toys provide an edge? Or is it just the opposite?
"(Toy companies) are telling parents that their kids will learn to
read faster, associate words faster and none of this is showing up
on any test," says Liz Perle, editor in chief of Common Sense
Media. In some cases, narrow skill sets like number recognition,
matching, shape recognition and letter recognition can be improved
slightly, but there's no empirical evidence of these kinds of
claims, she says.
Some toy manufacturers work with child development experts and
use school standards and curricula to develop toys that complement
what children learn in school. But with younger kids, the field is
wide open. There is no "curriculum" for preschoolers-and flash
cards and pushy parents aside, the work of preschoolers has never
been to master the 3 Rs but to simply play.
While some companies do perform educational effectiveness
studies when developing their toys, others do not. Toy packages and
marketing claims aside, it's difficult to determine if research was
performed to determine whether a toy enhances learning, says Carly
Shuler, a Cooney fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame
Workshop. "Anybody can make a product that says it teaches your
child ABCs and 123s and gets them ready for the first grade," says
Schuler. "There are no standards around what we can market to
children and their parents in terms of what's educational and
Proponents of ELAs point out that they can help preschoolers
learn basic concepts and introduce them to technology they will use
in school. "It's important to learn ways to learn with technology
and through technology because that's the world they live in," says
Jim Gray, director of learning at LeapFrog.
American Academy of Pediatrics spokesperson and pediatrician Dr.
Donald Shifrin disagrees. "It is no surprise that toddlers will
'orient' to a screen; it is visual stimulation," says Shifrin. "But
to expect 'better,' 'faster' and 'more efficient' learning is
unproven innuendo. So we are basically conducting an uncontrolled
experiment on our nation's toddlers without a control group for
comparison." (The AAP discourages parents from allowing children
"screen time" under the age of 2, and limiting to two hours of
"quality screen time" for age 2-5.)
Regardless of marketing claims, says Hirsh-Pasek, ELAs and other
technology toys can't duplicate what children need to develop:
their intellectual, social and physical skills. Unstructured
play-open-ended activities like coloring, building, playing with
sand or role-playing with other children-develops gross and fine
motor skills, spatial skills, cause-and-effect recognition and
problem-solving. At this stage of their lives, children learn most
through interacting with their parents, caregivers and other
Preschoolers learn best when they're playing-engaged in an
activity they find fun. From a play perspective, ELAs may not be
all that engaging-even an "interactive" toy isn't the same as
interacting with a person.
Does adding tech to a toy make it better? Not necessarily.
Hirsh-Pasek recently conducted research on electronic console books
for kids and found that parents who read the electronic version
spent more time trying to direct the child ("push the green
button") than having what's called dialogic reading ("See the
monkey? Do you remember when we saw monkeys at the zoo?"), which
helps children learn. Afterwards, children with the traditional
book knew the story better than those with the higher-tech
The bigger issue, say most experts, is that the time
preschoolers spend interacting with ELAs and tech toys is time that
isn't spent doing other things. "A kid's world is a zero sum game.
There are 24 hours in your child's day, and every hour they spend
interfacing with technology is an hour they're not playing,
jumping, hopping, skipping and having pretend games," says Perle.
"It's a question of how much and how balanced. No one ever died
from having a tech toy, but no one also got into Harvard from
Because these toys are relatively new, there are no long-range
studies that prove they have an impact on test scores, reading
comprehension or other educational abilities when children reach
school. At this point, the toys offer plenty of promise but no real
"Yes, some of these games are really wonderful and introduce
kids to stories and words and numbers and certain basic concepts,"
says Perle. But they're no guarantee of academic success, she
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.
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