Are smart toys smart buys?

/ Source: WebMD

This holiday season, many "smart" toys and games will take up shelf space next to the dolls and balls. Can brainy games inch up IQs? Which toys best inspire thought and creativity? Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, co-author of "Einstein Never Used Flashcards", joined us with answers and advice.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek. Let's start by defining "smart toys."

Hirsh-Pasek: I would start by saying that it's age dependent, and smart toys have largely come out for younger children, and they're designed to help children be smarter.

Either they build brain growth, or are supposed to, or they help in mathematical skills or in reading readiness, and as children get older, there are computer programs and CD-ROMs that children buy as "toys" to help them learn various areas of specialty.

Moderator: Why the push to make babies smarter? Aren't babies supposed to be busy being babies?

Hirsh-Pasek: That is a wonderful question. There are three answers:

Societal Forces. These come from each parent and manufacturers who want to do the best for children, want children to succeed faster, and enter the global economy into the 21st century. Thus there is tremendous pressure from all walks of life to have children learning early mastering reading and mastering early math -- even young babies.

Marketing Ploys. Because society has this push the market has made this a billion dollar industry. If you look at the growth of smart toys over the last three years you would see the numbers of these toys doubling. And toy manufacturers have come to learn that in this society, selling better brains to parents of young children is as good as selling sex when you want to sell cars.

Exaggerated Science. In the last 30 years we have learned a tremendous amount in the science of young children that tell us about the remarkable capacities and capabilities of babies and toddlers. For example, we hear about the Mozart effect, which was really a study where people played Mozart to adults and found short-lived findings and gains in IQ, and we take these findings and we translate them into the marketplace.

I would add finally to these three that the government of the U.S. is pushing very hard to make sure that "no child is left behind" and that, too, has accelerated the push to make babies into young adults.

Moderator: So how do parents interpret the science being used to sell them these "educational" toys?

Hirsh-Pasek: It's not easy, because our world is polluted with information and sometimes it's very difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. In "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards" my co-author Roberta Golinkoff tried to take the most current science to write it in accessible form and to empower people so that they could have the scientific information at their fingertips in a way that was digestible and useable.

Listening to lectures, reading books, staying in touch with fine magazines, like Child, Parents, and Parenting, are also ways to learn about the current science and then to help you in making decisions about toys that are based not just on advertising, but on evidence with children.

Member question: Does playing classical music for babies (even in the womb) do anything to help them learn? Does it at least increase their potential appreciation for music?

Hirsh-Pasek: There's nothing wrong with playing classical music for us or for babies. There is some reason to believe that babies, even in utero, can hear from about seven months postgestation. However, while it is pleasant and music is wonderful, there is no reason to believe that you're giving your child an intellectual advantage by playing music.

Having said that, lullabies seem to be universal and do provide some calming motion and influence for babies and young children, so while it might not make our children any smarter, it's always wonderful to expose children to music and to use lullabies if we want to calm our children down.

Moderator: What kind of problems do you see with pushing children to learn at such an early age?

Hirsh-Pasek: Both parents and children are missing out. First of all, parents who don't play with children tend to forget the beauties and joys of childhood and no longer see the world in the same fresh and exciting way. When we view childhood as a journey instead of as a race, we live in the moment and have more fun being parents. But the push toward adulthood also has troubling consequences for young children.

First, children who have been in more highly academic environments and who are always asked for "the answer" tend to be more rigid, more fidgety, and more perfectionistic. They've come to believe that learning equals memorization rather than exploration, so learning isn't fun. And in this world that we live in, the 21st century child will be much better off as a creative problem solver than as a robot who can memorize facts from smart toys.

One further problem is that if we, as adults, constantly occupy our children with smart toys and classes in the preschool years, they never learn the value of structuring their own time. They get bored quickly and they don't understand that it is within their ability to come up with activities and answers that have never been used or seen before. We sacrifice creativity.

Member question: Toy marketers have us parents reeled in from before birth now, with tummy speakers for playing music or language tapes or whatever. We're guilted into thinking our kids will be left behind if we don't buy all this stuff. Please reassure me that hugs and reading to my kids every night are just as good.

Hirsh-Pasek: Consider yourself reassured. "In Einstein Never Used Flashcards", our mission was to create a new "Three R's," to help parents, to help teachers, and to help policymakers reflect, resist and re-center. Once you reflect on the body of scientific knowledge that we have on how children learn and develop, you can, with assurance, resist those toy marketers and just say no. If we do that, we will then be able to re-center and give childhood back to children and to parents.

Member question: What do you think of teaching babies to sign as a way of communicating? My friend thinks it makes her 8 month old smarter. Does it increase her child's brainpower?

Hirsh-Pasek: That's a good question. I was actually the expert they called on 20/20 to speak about that topic. Here's what I said: It's not clear that you're really teaching children sign language when you use these systems, any more than you are teaching your child French by suggesting that you go to the cafe. However, children can use their hands to say words and indicate meanings before they can actually spit words out through the mouth. And if it's fun for the parent, it's wonderful for the child. Any activity that helps parents and children communicate more with one another is good.

Does it actually increase a child's IQ? Well, that's hard to say. There are some reports that it might; on the other hand, the parents who tend to sign with children are also those who look for more activities with their children. So it may just be that parents who play more with their children end up with more attentive children.

Member question: What do you suggest for children around 5 to 6 months old?

Hirsh-Pasek: It depends a little bit on the child, but most children who are 5 and 6 months old:

  • Can reach out for toys
  • Can grab on to rattles
  • Love looking in mirrors
  • Like squishy toys that make noise
  • Like mobiles on top of the crib that turn around and make music

So they would be my top choice. I would probably add there's nothing wrong with graspable balls and little cheerios. You don't need a big budget to find great toys for little children.

Moderator: Let's talk about those videotapes made for babies -- the ones that promise to make your baby the next Einstein.

Hirsh-Pasek: Part of my answer is that I was shocked to find out that babies 6 months to 2 years were watching two hours of video a day, and that 25 percent of homes with children that age had televisions in the baby's room. My response was how sad, how truly, truly sad. These videotapes are engaging, but nothing is as engaging as the real world.

One comment made in the Boston Globe was that a mother mentioned how much her child liked watching the trees on the videotape, and my response was, if you like the trees on a videotape, imagine how wonderful they are in real life! The videos do not, do not, make you smarter.

We learn about objects and actions in the world by touching them, by feeling them, and by doing them. Young children, like the rest of us, are interactive creatures. We need to play with the world to understand it.

Moderator: What do you think are the long-term consequences of using these videos?

Hirsh-Pasek: I think that we are creating couch potatoes at an earlier and earlier age, and videos force us into passive learning. For preschoolers, there is evidence that children do learn some things from educational television, so it's not that all television is necessarily bad, the message on the television is more important than the medium itself.

However, we must limit time on TV, and the American Medical Association says before the age 2 that limit should be zero, and we should ask ourselves what it is we expect the children to get or we expect to get from having them watch the videos. If we expect 5 minutes of peace, then the video might be OK in very limited form. If we expect them to be geniuses, then we should re-think, or it's time for the three R's again: Reflect, resist and re-center.

Finally, if you are going to watch any videos it is a good idea to watch with your child. For preschoolers, again, watching with your child does make a difference because then you take the messages off the TV and interact with them so they are getting the information.

Member question: My three nieces all go to sleep to a video every night. I really have to hold my tongue every time I visit. This must be brewing some serious future sleep disorders, don't you think?

Hirsh-Pasek: I'm sorry to hear that they go to bed with a video. It's hard to know what the future effect will be. Perhaps they are just learning to tune out whatever goes on around them. I think going to sleep without the noise pollution is probably a better idea.

Member question: What kinds of toys allow kids to use their imagination the most, besides pots and pans and paper bags, that is.

Hirsh-Pasek: The best toys for imagination are those where our children get to build things or to tell stories or to make something they've never made before.

For making something they've never made before. I like:

  • Crayons
  • Paper
  • Paint
  • Play-Doh

For building things:

  • Lincoln Logs
  • Legos
  • K-nex

For telling stories I think any of the toys that have figurines and allow you to construct worlds and stories, even, dare I say, Barbie, or any other doll, are great for creating worlds and situations. These allow children to be very creative. Books are something else I put on the list.
In your question you had suggested other things than paper bags and boxes, but I believe boxes that can become fortresses or taxis, socks that become puppets, and pots and pans that become the rhythm section of the orchestra are the very best toys that we have.

Member question: I have two daughters who engage in creative play, which I think is as valuable as some of the useless homework worksheets they are constantly sent home with. What do you think?

Hirsh-Pasek: Wow, you are right on. Furthermore, there is research to back you up. Creative play is far from a waste of time; it is the work of childhood. Children who engage in creative play are better readers, better writers, and better mathematicians. Creative play is a safe place where children can try out new and extravagant ideas with no ill consequences.
So keep up the good work and know that your children will be the creative problem solvers of the future in a world where many others will be stuck just following the rules.

Member question: What are some guidelines for introducing kids to computers? What's age-appropriate? Do you recommend any type or kind of software for preschoolers?

Hirsh-Pasek: It's true that we live in a computer age, and almost anything within limits has positives rather than negatives. Simply learning how to use a mouse when you're 3 or 4 begins the journey toward computer literacy. There are some very cute computer programs on the market. I personally like the painting programs that allow children to express creativity and drawing on the screen.

I would limit any passive activity for 3-and 4-year-old children. They're better off in the great outdoors than sitting in front of a mostly nonresponsive screen. However, a small amount, maybe 15 minutes to half an hour a day is fine, or maybe for a really engaging program a little bit more is fine. I would not add that on top of TV or video viewing, but rather, instead of.

Member question: Are "boys" toys and "girls" toys a good or bad thing? Should we try to buy gender-neutral things, or is that denying the differences between the sexes from an early age?

Hirsh-Pasek: In theory, I really wanted to believe that toys could truly be gender neutral. Becoming a mother taught me otherwise. I quickly learned that my three sons could make guns out of anything. So I believe that some amount of gender toy division will be with us forever.
However, it's OK for boys to play with dolls. My sons, especially the older ones, got a doll when their baby brother was born and they are no less manly because of it. Girls using boys' toys has never been a problem. So I think use whichever toys we like in whichever way we like, and it's more how you use it than what you buy. I believe the more creative toys and the homemade toys are mostly gender neutral.

Having said that, a cautionary note: I would stay away from violent toys where the objective is to make war or to have people kill one another, in both video games and in plastic figurines.

Member question: Are there any games or fun ways to introduce math to young children? I don't want my child hating math and doing as poorly as I did in school.

Hirsh-Pasek: I empathize with you, and the answer is yes. Early math is really about learning patterns. For the 2 year old, it's a game of I-spy while you're sitting in the car and saying, "I spy a rectangle," and rectangles emerge from everywhere: buildings, lawns, and windows.
Slightly older children, 2 1/2 and 3, will start to count. They don't always get the numbers right, but that doesn't matter, even if they go, "One, four, three, two," they're beginning to sort out the process.

And numbers are everywhere. When we set the table for four, we're helping our children learn about numbers. When we talk about having more ice cream than our brother, or less, we're talking about learning numbers. Everything from lemonade stands from age 5 and 6 to counting change in the supermarket build number skills that will serve them well when they go to school.
"In Einstein Never Used Flashcards", we have an entire chapter devoted to what we know about learning numbers and math, along with a lot of activities that can help our children play while learning about numbers.

Moderator: Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, do you have any final comments for us?

Hirsh-Pasek: Take a deep breath out there and join us in our revolution to start the new three R's. We really believe that if we can go and tell our friends and our teachers to reflect on what childhood really can be, to ask ourselves, "Why are we buying this toy?" to reflect on how children really learn through play -- that we will all be empowered to resist the many temptations that we see in our roadrunner society. And taking these two steps -- reflect and resist -- will help reduce our stress and our children's stress as we come to re-center our lives and help our children thrive as intelligent and happy people.

Moderator: Thanks to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D. for sharing her expertise with us. For more information, please read "Einstein Never Used Flash Cards", by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick-Golinkoff, Ph.D. Be sure to check out our numerous related articles and archived Live Event transcripts on WebMD and visit our message boards for more parenting advice and support.

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