From teddy bears that talk to blinking, singing blocks, high-tech playthings surround your modern child in the form of "smart toys" and automated gizmos. Just as technology gadgets for grown-ups are breaking away from the traditional computer format, tech toys for kids that don't involve a static screen or clicking a mouse are multiplying.
Are tech-centric toys beneficial for your child's brain and development? Or do these new high-tech playthings cripple curiosity and encourage passive play?
In the words of legendary pediatrician and author Dr. Spock, "A child loves his play, not because it's easy, but because it's hard." The object of play isn't just to push a button and get the biggest bang from the smallest effort—a toy should create an opportunity for the work of imagination and creativity.
"There's a big difference between play and entertainment," says Dr. Stevanne Auerbach, author of Smart Play Smart Toys: How to Raise a Child with a High PQ. Dr. Auerbach adds, "Toys that don't involve the child's imagination or stimulate creativity are quickly discarded—children simply become bored and uninterested if there's no interactivity."
When choosing tech-centric toys for young children ask yourself, "Is this a toy that my child can truly interact with? Does it simply stimulate the senses, or actually aid imagination?" Keep in mind the primary principles behind productive play—interactivity, tangibility and creativity—and check out these tech-toys for tots:
- Activity Cube (VTech; ages 0-2) This cube is packed with traditional, low-tech features like a shape-sorter and movable buttons, but it also comes with unique interactive alphabet blocks and a keyboard that your child can use to hone alphabet skills and learn musical notes. One of the advantages of tech toys, notes Dr. Auerbach, is that they've been effective in helping kids to learn at their own pace. The activity cube allows the tiniest tots to explore letters and other concepts as quickly or slowly as they're able, offering up an active learning tool instead of busy work for the brain.
- Follow Me Puppy (Hammacher Schlemmer; ages 1-3) This hassle-free, no-poop-to-scoop, electronic furry friend makes for the perfect first pet. The wired pup comes with a "smart bone" that communicates with the dog via infrared sensor. When the bone is attached to your child, the cute creature follows his mini master around. The mechanical canine also boasts a microphone that repeats encouraging phrases, such as "play with me," or any other phrases you record in here. Your little one reaps the rewards of responsibility by caring for her companion, without the work of a real pet.
- Smart Blocks (Smarcks; ages 1 and up) Touch toys provides your child a maximum interactive experience, but learning apps on a tablet or smartphone requires tiny fingers to interact with a physical interface that's delicate, and often expensive. Conversely, these durable, talking building blocks can stand a lot of wear and tear, so kids as young as 1 or 2 years old can pick up the blocks, drop them, throw them around and connect them in countless combinations. These blocks talk, sing or tell a story when connected, sharpening spatial skills and boosting brain power by encouraging proactive play.
- Kid-Tough Video Camera (Fisher Price; ages 2 and up) Give your budding Spielberg the chance to explore her creative side—for real. Unlike a lot of other toy products that imitate adult technology, this device is a practically indestructible video camera that actually works. Since kids love to mimic tech-obsessed adults, toymakers create "fake" electronic devices for kids. However, the repetitive responses and artificial effects can bore and frustrate children. With this tool, even a very young child can create something original.
- Tag Junior Reader (Leapfrog; ages 2-4) This reading system gives your child a leg up on literacy skills in a fun, enticing tool. Grasp the colorful plastic figure called the "bookpal" and touch it to a specially designed board book to hear the page talk. The advantage of this system over screen-based reading apps is that your little learner can hold the tool and book, turn pages and get the full 3D experience of reading a story. Plus, bookpal and the board books are sturdy enough to be handled and played with by toddlers. As your child grows older and more proficient, she can graduate to the Leapfrog tag interactive pen, which has more features and is designed for older children. The technology component adds to the traditional reading experience instead of replacing it.
We think of technology as a force that makes life easier—but as technology invades the toy kingdom, it doesn't necessarily mean that the work of play should become effortless. Chosen wisely, tech toys can be as effective as traditional playthings in stimulating the imagination, promoting learning and, most importantly, providing hours of fun.