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The Therapy Sessions
Thursday, October 28, 2004

Smart toys

The Problem With Some 'Smart' Toys: (Hint) Use Your Imagination:
Parents want their children to succeed. And these days, toy store shelves are filled with products with names like Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby.
The toy manufacturers do not come out and say it, but the clear implication is that babies who play with these toys may score some extra I.Q. points and get an early start on the road to an Ivy League college.

Attuned to the increasing awareness among parents that the first three years are critical developmentally, companies are increasingly positioning their products as vital to optimizing intellectual growth.

Child development experts, however, have their doubts.

No studies exist, they point out, to show that any of the toys or videos give children an intellectual edge over playmates who stick to old-fashioned building blocks and baby dolls.

While researchers have found that some babies who are deprived of certain stimuli during the first years of life never completely recover, they have yet to demonstrate that increasing stimulation makes babies smarter. And some experts believe that the toys may even be detrimental to development because they lead children to focus on memorization rather than imagination and problem-solving abilities.

A few years ago when we had our first son, my wife and I agreed that we wanted very few battery toys (a small number have slipped through). It was more than just the noise (though the aggravating bells and whistles were a factor - aren't kids loud enough?).

We had a sense that these toys took something away from children, blunting active imaginations with the idea that toys must sing and dance to keep children entertained. (It is interesting to wonder whether this leads to another great delusion: the idea that it is a teacher's responsibility to make learning fun, a quest that often dilutes educational quality. Don't these people understand that some tasks - say, memorizing multiplication tables - are at times bound to be boring? It is mastery that is fun.)

Some of our relatives rolled their eyes at this. But Sean, at least, can have fun with a worthless cardboard box (it is a cave or a tent). On weekends, he turns into a dinosaur and makes his bed into a cave where he hides his books.

Sure, he is still a brat at times. All kids are.

But given the choice between two boys playing educational video games and two boys playing army, I'll take the boys playing army every time.

They'll be plenty of time to learn to read later. And armed with active imaginations, reading is likely to be fulfilling and exciting. Not something their parents make them do before they get to watch TV.

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