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Traditional toys fill void in high-tech world

A recent study found half of all children under six have used a computer and more than a quarter have played a video game. But some psychologists worry that today's high-tech toys are squeezing out the traditional toys. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

In northern Vermont, there's a last-minute push to meet the Christmas rush. Maple Landmark Inc. is one of America's last remaining traditional wooden toy makers. As a family business, they produce half a million wooden trains each year in the face of some very high-tech competition.

"It's disappointing sometimes when instead of enhancing real life, technology is used to replace real life," says Maple Landmark's Mike Rainville.

In an Internet world of PlayStations, Xboxes, iPods, gadgets and gizmos, the folks in Vermont have a loyal following, but haven't been able to raise prices of their trains and traditional wooden games like checkers and cribbage in 10 years.

Americans spend some $31 billion each year on toys. A third of that is spent on video games. But child psychologists say play time is supposed to help children through important stages of mental development. And for those building blocks of life, there's no substitute for the original.

"Kids really need toys that will allow for more creativity and problem-solving," says Dr. Jerilynn Radcliffe of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. "And it's those old-fashioned toys like the blocks and the dress-ups and the pretend play activities that are really important."

"It's really learning about the world around them in small ways that they can manipulate," says Rainville.

None of this is to say that technology is bad. Interactive programs can help with math, geography, spelling and computer skills. But toy experts say kids today move too quickly through the traditional and onto what's high-tech and hot.

At FAO Schwarz, they call it "age compression."

"We absolutely do see the fact that they grow out of things or grow into other things at much younger ages than certainly you and I did," says FAO Schwarz Executive Vice President Kim Richmond.

But at a packed American Girl doll store in New York, there's proof — perhaps — that technology can't replace what's truly timeless.

"They're just like best friends being with you, they're just right beside you," says 7-year-old shopper Chelsea Leversedge.

"It's OK to be a girl for just a little while longer, and it's OK to be whatever it is you're into right now, that you're perfect at this moment," says American Girl employee Julie Parks, when asked to summarize her doll's message.

That's the same message back in Vermont at Maple Landmark — a desire to hang on to what's timeless — imagination and childhood.