Interactive Toys and Children's Education

By Oravec, Jo Ann | Childhood Education, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Interactive Toys and Children's Education


Oravec, Jo Ann, Childhood Education


Strategies for Educators and Parents

Psychologists have stressed the importance of toys and play in childhood development (Erikson, 1977; Rogers & Sawyer, 1988). Toys are "learning instruments" (Mann, 1996)--objects that stimulate children's imaginations and help them develop socially and intellectually. Therefore, it is not surprising that many new children's toys are cause for concern among those who care for children. Interactive toys equipped with microchips have the capability to respond to input from each other, from the environment, and from children themselves, transforming these toys from passive items into entities that can engage in forms of conversation and play with children.

Many aspects of these interactive toys are problematic; for example, children may become confused as to whether the toys are indeed "alive" and really their "friends," triggering important concerns involving socialization. This article outlines some of the issues surrounding interactive toys and presents an analysis of the toys' features. It also describes specific strategies that educators and parents can use to mitigate the toys' deficiencies and help children interact with them in ways that stimulate their imaginations and foster development. Children can gain some useful insights from these toys if the toys are carefully selected for children's developmental levels, and if children receive specific guidance from teachers and parents.

Considering the great importance of play in children's lives, it can be risky to give them recently developed interactive toys if their potential effects have not been researched. Educators and parents often face conflicting responsibilities. Many feel obligated to prepare children for a world in which computer skills are increasingly important. At the same time, they are also responsible for ensuring that the toys they give children are best-suited for their developmental stages. Thus, interactive toys can present adults with formidable challenges.

Consider "Amazing Ally" by Playmates Toys. Ally is a "computer chip, animatronic `best friend' doll that can order a pizza on her cell phone, knows when her hair is being brushed and what kind of outfit she's wearing, and can remember details about her owner"; she "sings songs and tells jokes," as well (Ebenkamp & Stanley, 1999). Children do not need to use their imaginations to create stories about Ally; rather, the doll speaks for itself and involves children in daily routines pre-established by its designers.

Regardless of whether teachers and parents want children to be exposed to such electronic "friends," children will see the toys in advertisements, in classroom "show-and-tell" and at their playmates' houses. Therefore, it is a good idea to provide adult guidance concerning how best to interact with such toys.

Some Drawbacks of Interactive Toys

When considering interactive toys, it is important to consider what value the toys can offer to children. While playing with such toys, children may learn specific values about friendship and conversational etiquette. They are also learning, however, that it is appropriate to invest significant time and effort into building a relationship with a machine, which is troublesome. Educators and parents should explore the values that these toys reflect and make their toy purchases with these values in mind; they also should discuss the values with children. Interactive toys have many aspects that can confuse, frustrate, or mislead children if the toys are not appropriate for the child's developmental level. Some of these aspects include:

Poor quality of feedback to children: Although a number of interactive toys have the capability to engage children in forms of conversation, they do not provide meaningful assistance if the child does not provide the "correct" response. My Best Friend Doll (Play-By-Play Corporation) asks children a question, then simply repeats the question if they do not produce the expected answer (Grumet, 1999). …

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