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Brain Teased

We all want our kids to be little Einsteins, but is the toy industry going to far? By Fran Molloy

It starts in utero, intensifies when babies are learning to crawl and hits a frenzy about the time they are learning the alphabet: the push to get smarter has created a global industry dedicated to training young brains. Think you’re off the hook when your children are out of nappies? Think again: A new generation of tech toys aimed at the elderly means that from cradle to grave, the relentless push to maximize mind power is on.

Tech toys intended to improve intelligence tend to focus on the under-10 age group, starting when children learn to read, write and count. It’s here where manufacturers are reaping big dollars generated by anxious parents who are time poor but more than ready to part with their hard-earned cash to make sure their children have a winning edge in the brain race.

Toys are no longer purely entertainment: Smart kids are what it’s all about.

Wander through the average real-world toy store and you’ll find that shelf space previously occupied by wooden blocks and squeaky toys now houses a wide range of brightly packaged kiddy electronica. Approximately a quarter of all toys sold now have some kind of electronic component, according to Philippe Guinaudeau, the business group director of market-research firm GFK Group.

The global toy market is already worth around $60 billion a year and is growing rapidly.

“Electronic toys are a dynamic section of the market,” Guinaudeau says, calculating that they have increased by more than 30 percent in the last five years.

Toy mobile phones for toddlers include a range of educational ringtones; but some parents prefer the Teddyfone, a teddy-bear-shaped real mobile phone with no screen and only four buttons including an SOS button that can connect straight to Mom’s mobile.

Dolls ain’t dolls when they talk back, like the slightly creepy “Love and Grow Suzie,” who sings, learns and even grows, increasing in size in response to “nurturing.” Susie comes with voice recognition technology, and will cost you about $110.

Even Barbie—the ultimate dumb blonde—is getting in on the act, with the Barbie B-Bright learning laptop (cunningly disguised as a handbag) teaching numbers, shapes and create-your-own music. (But it’s still only available in pink.)

Beverly Jenkin heads up Australia’s Toy Industry Association, and says that while there has been a huge increase in toys with electronic gadgetry, the toy world is just mirroring the real world, which is also inundated by technology.

“Toys still have the same look and feel,” she argues. “But when you say goodnight to your teddy bear, it now says ‘Goodnight’ back.”

From laptops for the under-5-year-olds to interactive dolls that speak, sing and grow, technology is driving the childhood experiences of the next generation—and nobody knows what the long-term effects will be.

Critics of kiddy tech are concerned about a variety of potential dangers, from shorter attention spans brought on by fast-moving objects on screens, to potential health hazards posed by radio-frequency emissions. Some even suggest that rising incidences of autism may be related to screen-based viewing by very young children.

Meanwhile, there’s a cashed-up market for toymakers: time-poor parents who want to ensure their offspring get a head-start on a new childhood brain race that can involve an expensive private-school education and after-school tutoring from the age of 6. But while most of their parents grew up with plenty of encouragement to play outdoors with their siblings and neighboring children under minimal supervision, this generation of kids are heavily protected, cocooned indoors and in need of constant entertainment. And while baby boomer adults are trying to boost their brainpower before Alzheimer’s hits, at the other end of the scale, pregnant women can buy gadgets designed to fast-track the developing minds of their progeny in-utero.

If you believe the tech-toy hype, early intervention is the key to breeding a better brainiac, and the earliest schoolroom for the precocious progeny of pushy parents is now—the womb. Yes, if you want your child to compete unfairly at preschool, you need to get started from shortly after conception, with the BabyPlus Prenatal Education System.

You’re never too young to learn—in fact, you don’t even have to be born, according to the BabyPlus company, which manufactures a device that, when strapped to a pregnant belly, plays a series of 16 “lessons” of rhythmic sounds. The device sells for around $150, and its inventor, a Seattle developmental psychologist, believes that it will enhance early brain development. Testimonials from BabyPlus users claim that their babies are very advanced and alert as a result of their class-womb training.

For years, researchers have noted that when classical music has been played in utero, a newborn baby may react positively to the same music after birth. This gadget is a step up from a resting pregnant mother playing Mozart to her belly—or is it?

Developmental psychologist Dr Irina Verenikina, whose research at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales looks at the role of computers in child development, is skeptical about the impact prenatal training can have on the infant brain.

“You can’t really turn a child into a genius by playing it sounds in the womb, that’s very simplistic,” she says. “Children develop at different pace and they always will.”

And extravagant marketing claiming toys boost intelligence may encourage pushy parents to have high expectations, which can’t always be met. Verenikina is concerned that parents who buy gadgets and toys to accelerate their child’s learning may be very disappointed if their offspring is merely average.

“Imagine a child whose parents use this gadget to push their development—and the child doesn’t meet the expectations of the parent,” she says. She believes that toys that claim to help babies and children to develop ahead of their peers send the wrong message to parents.

Tech toys with high interactivity also appeal to busy parents as beneficial babysitters, decreasing the demands on them by curious toddlers.

Jane Roberts, an early-childhood specialist, worries that high-tech toys being marketed as interactive can diminish the genuine human interaction given to young children.

“We’ve now got the ‘click and go’ generation—our kids are being exposed to high-tech play opportunities. But that should not be a major play experience for children,” she says. “The best learning for young children comes through real-life experience, when they model, create, explore and develop their own initiatives through play.”

Roberts points out that interaction between parents and children is crucial for the brain development for very young children, but many parents hope that an interactive toy, computer game or TV program will babysit for them. Although interactivity may be built into high-tech toys, she says that this is very staged and limited. “Pressing buttons and having items do things for you is fairly limiting in terms of how children learn,” she says. “Technology responds in a very impersonal way—there is no change in facial expressions—it’s just not real.”

But with most infant classes in schools spending some of their time with computers, should kids these days be expected to learn their QWERTY at about the same time they learn their ABC?

Belinda Payne is the regional general marketing manager of Funtastic Toys, which markets the LeapFrog and LeapPad series of interactive storybooks and toys for preschoolers and those in early school years. “Our toys are designed to encourage parents to spend time with their children, having fun together,” she says. “A lot of parents with their first child want to give them the best learning experience that they can but they can’t remember the stages of their own childhood, and they are unsure of learning fundamentals, how much to teach at 6 months as opposed to 6 years.”

Payne says that the LeapFrog series makes the learning experience fun, gives parents confidence and helps them make their children more school-ready.

However, Jane Roberts points out that there are more critical priorities for children’s learning. “It’s not important that a child learn to read, write and spell before they get to school,” she says. “After all, they will learn that when they are there.” She says that marketing toys that claim to enhance children’s learning plays on parents’ insecurities. “Virtual toys should never replace real opportunity for play. Marketing companies with huge budgets are becoming very clever in looking at the research on child development and are trying to create toys to enhance this.”

“But these are often quite expensive—and you are able to produce opportunities for the same benefits with things that every parent has in their home already,” she argues, adding that toys can never replace the parent-child or child-child interaction.

Plenty of consumer advocates agree with her.

Toy marketers Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby were slapped with a lawsuit earlier this year, charged with false advertising by a large U.S. consumer lobby group. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood complained to the Federal Trade Commission that these companies misled parents by stating that their products are educational and beneficial for babies.

Amid growing concern that screen-based entertainment is harmful to children, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently recommended that children under 2 do not watch television. Pediatrician Dr. Michael McDowell says that time spent in front of a screen can affect the younger children’s development. “We know that learning in children under 3 is essentially based around human relationships and through emotional and social connections,” he says, adding that the time that very young children spend in front of a screen teaches passive learning rather than active learning.

Francesca Beattie put her training in psychology to use when her son Oliver was born. Alarmed after reading research about the effects of screen-based entertainment on very young children, she decided to ban TV until Oliver was 3. Rapid visual imaging, common in TV and video games, may lead to sensory overload affecting the development of a child younger than 3, she says. “The brains of young infants can’t filter and properly process information like adults. What seems quite normal to adults can prove to be too fast-paced for a young developing mind to absorb.”

Beattie argues that very young children can’t appreciate the detailed animation that occurs in children’s programs or video games. “It bombards them and they get locked in and mesmerized by sensory overload. Parents think that their child loves the program when really they’re just hypnotized by it.” Beattie says that she is convinced by claims that sensory overload could account for the increasing incidence of attention deficit problems in Western children.

She has since designed a series of educational DVDs with interactive CD-ROM that avoid rapid visual imaging. They are similar to the simple board books aimed at very young children—and she has set up a production company, Minimedia, to market the DVDs online.

While anxious parents do their best to program their kids to be smarter than they ever were, is it too late for the adults? While pregnant women can buy gadgets designed to fast-track the developing minds of their progeny in utero, at the other end of the scale, can baby boomers boost their brainpower before Alzheimer’s hits?

Can smart toys improve the mature mind?

Nintendo says they can. And it seems much of the world is listening judging by the popularity of its brain training game, which runs on the handheld Nintendo DS.

“Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training,” launched in Japan last year, claims players can enhance their intelligence through activities like solving simple math problems, counting simultaneous actions, drawing pictures on the touch screen and reading excerpts from classic literature aloud.

Exercising your brain can prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and make your brain young again, argues Nintendo’s marketing department—with baby-boomers firmly in their sights.

The Brain Training game was inspired by Japanese neuroscientist Dr. Ryuta Kawashima. His research (now heavily sponsored by Nintendo) demonstrates that exercises which use the brain’s “prefrontal cortex” will improve creativity, memory, communication and self-control.

But does it work?

A growing body of academic research suggests that the human brain does continue to have capacity for some growth in adulthood, although most neurons are in place by the age of 15.

However, while thinking exercises can be useful, physical exercise and diet are just as effective in keeping the brain healthy. Computers can’t yet duplicate one of the most effective exercises in mental agility—changing the way you use your senses.

Proponents of “neurobics” suggest that taking a different route home from work or showering with your eyes closed can be better exercise for the brain than the daily Sudoku—or computer-generated quizzes. This doesn’t mean that there is no place for technology-driven brain training; scientists around the world are using computer-generated tasks and activities for just that.

A group of educational psychologists in Sydney, Australia, have developed a system called Cellfield which uses a series of computer-based tasks to treat dyslexia in school-aged children, with some reported success.

In another computer-based brain training experiment, German researchers at the University of Tübingen have trained 10 people to use a “thought translation device,” where they can move a cursor on a computer screen through mind control, using neurofeedback—electrical signals from the brain.

But while technology can be used for brain training, most researchers in the field of brain aging argue that the same effect can be had through regular low-tech substitutes. Challenge your brain with crossword puzzles, play new music and engage in clever conversation and you won’t need computers or smart toys to train your brain.

And while the marketing hype encourages parents to fret if they aren’t getting smart toys to push the progress of their child’s young brains, the kids are blissfully unaware of the dilemma.

Children are just as likely to ignore the electronic extras on smart toys after a while, says Philippe Guinaudeau, of GFK Group. “A lot of toys are about imitating what adults do, so the success of a toy relies on the imagination and creativity of the child,” he says. “The most successful dolls are the ones without any electronic features.”

Beverly Jenkin believes that all this concentration on brain training misses the point of what toys are all about. “There are those who think that every toy is about learning,” she says. “But if you ask the kids—they say that toys should be about fun.”

Brain training is all very well for the kids, but how do you keep the mature mind malleable? Use it or lose it—there’s plenty of places on the Web to keep your brain fit. Some offer a free trial to entice you to sign up for brain-gym membership, others are freebies. Feel that brain burn!

Fran Molloy is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia. Source: Featurewell.com.


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