all want our kids to be little Einsteins, but is the toy industry
going to far? By Fran Molloy
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.
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
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.
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.
still have the same look and feel,” she argues. “But when
you say goodnight to your teddy bear, it now says ‘Goodnight’
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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!
Molloy is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia.