Techno Family

Guide to Choosing Interactive Toys

by Carolyn Jabs

Technology has infiltrated Toyland. Even the simplest playthings for babies now blink and beep. Toys for older kids talk (often in several languages), offer programmable options and in some cases “learn” as your child plays with them. Some of these toys enrich children’s play, but others frustrate kids or undermine imagination.

During the holidays it takes courage to look beyond the gee-whiz appeal of the latest chip-laden toy. At their best, interactive toys give children more control over their play. At their worst, they turn them into passive spectators of yet another show. How can parents recognize good interactive toys? Ask these questions before handing over your credit card.

Does the toy make developmental sense? Children move through predictable stages, especially in the early years, and toys can help them master the challenges they encounter at each stage. It can be hard to identify toys that are neither too easy (borrring!) or too hard (Mommmy!). Succinct suggestions for appropriate toys at different ages are available from the Iowa State University Extension at www.extension.iastate.edu (search: ages and stages).

Can your child control the toy? A child who can’t control an interactive toy may feel helpless instead of competent. At the least, kids should be able to adjust volume and turn interactive playthings on and off. With more advanced toys, consider whether your child will be able to understand instructions, change levels or download relevant software. Mindflex by Mattel, for example, is an intriguing game that allows kids to manipulate a ball with “brain waves.” Learning to maneuver the ball takes lots of patience and may prove frustrating to younger children.

Does the toy let them do something they couldn’t otherwise do? Look for interactive playthings that offer genuinely new experiences for kids. Young children, for example, don’t have the dexterity to get music from adult instruments.

Kidijamz from VTech lets them experiment with sound by recording and mixing beats and melodies. Talking dolls, on the other hand, often don’t expand what kids can do perfectly well by themselves. In fact, they may limit kids to what adults think they want to talk about. Before getting a doll that does nothing but laugh, think about a doll that responds to all your child’s emotions.

Will the toy stimulate or stifle imagination? A good interactive toy will inspire play without dictating where it should go. Unfortunately, some heavily designed interactive toys actually squelch imagination because they take over, imposing an adult agenda. For example, Chico the Talking Vacation Car teaches vocabulary in two languages but the stories and riddles set a script for play, so children are less likely to make up their own stories about where the car is going and why. Also, the car is so densely designed that even if a doll or action figure wanted to go along for a ride, there’s no room. As a general rule, the more the toy does on its own, the less imaginative play it will
inspire.

Does the toy promote passive or active play? Play that promotes genuine growth for kids is active, noisy and often messy. Although it’s tempting to buy toys that will entertain children and keep them occupied much as television does, such toys don’t help children figure out how the world works or what their role in things might be. Zhu Zhu hamsters, for example, may be highly entertaining but, unlike a real pet, they don’t engage your child in the deep learning that comes from learning to feed and be gentle with a living creature. Play potential is limited if your child opens a new toy and asks, “What does it do?”

What values are implicit in the toy? The toys we give kids inevitably communicate ideas about the kinds of people we expect them to be. Interactive toys often send more powerful and explicit signals if only because the toys actually talk. Be sure what a toy says is something you want your child to hear over and over. At the same time, think twice about so-called “educational” toys that send the message that the only important achievement in childhood is learning letters, numbers and colors.

Is the price justified? Although the price of chips has dropped, interactive toys still tend to be big-ticket items. Consider what you won’t be buying — blocks, puzzles, modeling clay, books — so you can afford this season’s razzle-dazzle techno toy. Be sure the price won’t become a sore point if your child loses interest once he’s pushed all the buttons and seen the special effects.

Kids today live in a digital world and it’s inevitable that they will want to play with gadgets that look just like the ones used by Mom and Dad. It’s up to parents to look beyond interactive junk food to find toys that are genuinely nourishing.

Does the toy have growing room? The best toys, interactive or not, hold their appeal, offering richer experiences as the child matures. Often, the playthings with real staying power are open-ended creative materials that let children work out their own ideas by building, drawing and making music.

The new Kid-Tough digital camera from Fisher-Price, Mindstorms NXT-2 from Lego and the Zippity Learning system from Learning Frog are just a few of the creative interactive products children are likely to return to again and again.

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer specializing in technology for families.