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.
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 www.noggin.com.
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 motivator.
"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 what's not."
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 children.
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 version.
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 it."
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 proof.
"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 warns.
Kelly James-Enger is a former lawyer, a mom of two and a freelance writer.
See more of Kelly's stories here.