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    December 4, 2006
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Electronic educational toys not always the best gift, advise Temple and Delaware developmental psychologists


Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
(Photo by Joseph V. Labolito / University Photography)

Visit any toy department this holiday season, and it’s clear the age of the electronic educational toy has arrived.

But just like Santa Claus, you should check your shopping list twice before putting any of these educational toys under the tree, advises Temple University developmental psychologist Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.


“These toys feed parents’ desires to have intelligent children who have a heads-up on learning,” says Hirsh-Pasek, the Lefkowitz Professor of Psychology at Temple and co-author of Einstein Never Used Flashcards

“Unfortunately, these kinds of toys pound children with information but don’t spark their imagination or sense of discovery.”


Hirsh-Pasek, who is co-director of the Temple University Infant Lab (http://www.temple.edu/infantlab), says that the larger retail outlet stores are currently driving the toy market, and these retailers are very particular about the types of toys they want on their shelves.  “We’ve seen a tremendous growth in the educational toy industry, because from what I’ve been hearing, these big stores want educational toys on their shelves,” she says.  “Parents want them too, because the hype around these toys is that they will create better and smarter kids.”


Hirsh-Pasek says the educational toy industry has become a multi-billion-dollar interest and continues to show growth every year.  Over the past two years, she says, the new market has targeted ages 0 to 3. Hirsh-Pasek points to a 2005 report from the Kaiser Foundation that concludes that many of the claims made by the toy companies and their manufacturers are simply unsupported.


As Roberta Golinkoff, head of in the Infant Language Project at the University of Delaware (http://www.udel.edu/ILP) says, “These toys boast brain development and that they are going to give your kid a head start.  But developmental psychologists know that it doesn’t really work this way. The toy manufacturers are playing on parents’ fears that our children will be left behind in this global marketplace.”


The overarching principle is that children are creative problem-solvers; they’re discoverers; they’re active, says Hirsh-Pasek.


Golinkoff adds that “kids are not like empty vessels to be filled.   If they play with toys that allow them to be explorers, they are more likely to learn important lessons about how to master their world.”


Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff suggest that we have a choice in society today.  We can create the “worker bees” for the next generation who know how to respond, fill in the blank, and do what they are told.   Or we can create the next generation of problem-solvers and thinkers.    In the future, the creative thinkers will be called “boss”; the “worker bees” can be outsourced, the researchers say.

Hirsh-Pasek and Golinkoff offer parents the following advice, guidelines and questions to ask themselves when choosing the proper toys for their young children:

  • Look for a toy that is 10 percent toy and 90 percent child.

              “A lot of these toys direct the play activity of our children by talking to them, singing to them, asking them to press buttons and levers,” Hirsh-Pasek says.  “But our children like to figure out what is going on by themselves.  I look for a toy that doesn’t command the child, but lets the child command it.”

  • Toys are meant to be platforms for play.

              “Toys should be props for a child’s playing, not engineering or directing the child’s play,” Golinkoff adds. “Toys must awaken the child’s imagination and uniqueness.”

  • How much can you do with it?

              “If it’s a toy that asks your child to supply one thing, such as fill-in-the-blank or give one right answer, it is not allowing children to express their creativity,” says Hirsh-Pasek.  “I look for something that they can take apart and remake or reassemble into something different, which builds their imagination. Toys like these give your child opportunities to ‘make their own worlds.’”

  • Look to see if the toy promises brain growth.

              “Look carefully at the pictures and promises on the box,” Hirsh-Pasek says.  “If the toy is promising that your child is going to be smarter, it’s a red flag.  If it is promising that your child is going to be bilingual or learn calculus by playing with it, the chances are high that this is not going to happen – even with a tremendous amount of parental intervention.”

  • Does the toy encourage social interaction?

              “It is fine for your child to have alone time, but it is great for them to be with others,” says Golinkoff.  “I always look to see if more than one child can play with the toy at the same time because that’s when kids learn the negotiation skills they need to be successful in life.”

  • How much are you spending?

              “Old-fashioned retro toys that don’t cost so much and are usually hidden in the back shelves are usually much healthier for children than the ones that have fancier boxes and cost $89.99,” Hirsh-Pasek says.  As examples, she cites red rubber balls, simple building blocks, clay and crayons.  “Your child gets to build their imagination around these toys and they don’t command what your child does, but your child commands what they do.


“This advice is not about marketing, but about what we know from 30 years of child psychology about how children learn and how they grow,” says Hirsh-Pasek.


Golinkoff adds, “The irony is that the real educational toys are not the flashy gadgets and gismos with big promises, but the staples that have built creative thinkers for decades.”


Preston M. Moretz




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