Toys That Think, Kids Who Don't
Look Who's Talking
Move over Raggedy Ann -- today's most popular dolls are powered not by a child's own imagination, but by a computer microchip buried beneath a tangle of synthetic blonde curls.
Techno the Robotic Puppy is barking up a sales storm at Kay Bee Toys. This silver robotic pooch performs tricks, walks, barks, and even whines.
"Thanks to his artificial intelligence program, Techno will let you know how he's feeling and provide feedback on the care you provide," promises the toy dog's manufacturer. "His state-of-the-art sensors allow him to see and hear everything around him. The more you teach him, the smarter he gets!"
Techno has lots of company -- Radio Shack is selling Koby, the Interactive Bear, billed as "the smartest bear you'll ever meet!" He asks a child questions and "understands" the answers. He can even recognize and remember a child's name.
These virtual pets aren't the only entrants into the vast new techno toys arena. Play-By-Play's My Best Friend doll employs voice-recognition technology, allowing it to carry on a limited conversation with a child. The doll asks questions and if it hears a wrong answer, it asks the child to try again.
Missed Learning Opportunities
While brisk holiday sales of the latest generation of digital playthings offer evidence that parents are dazzled by a toy's memory or response, some early childhood educators believe they rob kids of important learning opportunities. Why?
"As the dolls and toys become more animated, the child is put in a responsive mode," says Bobby Rosenquest, assistant professor of education at Wheelock College in Boston. "The child is responding to what the toy does. That's very different from imagining and creating an entire world through play."
And since play is the work of young children -- the primary way they make sense of their environment -- interacting with a toy that tells them what to do is the opposite of how most playtime should be spent, Rosenquest believes.
"If you have a little girl who says to her doll, 'Mommy's going to give you a bath and then put you to bed,' the little girl is in charge, deciding what's going to happen. An electronic toy is much more restrictive, because the toy decides what's going to happen, not the child."
Stifling Kids' Imaginations
Toys programmed with computer scripts result in "scripted play," Rosenquest observes. The program devised by the manufacturer, not the child, powers the play. Research done by educators at Wheelock shows that young children tend not to stray from the script that is embedded in the toy. For example, if a robotic dog demands to be fed, most children will try to feed the dog, rather than take him for a walk or pretend he is a wolf. (Similarly, kids who "play Lion King" simply choose roles from the movie and often do little more than act out the scenes they've already seen on the screen, Rosenquest notes. Playing a generic game about lions is more likely to lead to creative, original play.)
Research also shows that children get bored more easily with scripted play than with play that springs from their own imaginations. That's why a basic set of wooden blocks is probably a better investment than a toy with lots of bells and whistles; a cloth doll is a better buy than a computerized doll for precisely the same reason. Simply put, the less the toy can do, the more the child can do with it. And the more the child can do, the longer she or he will stay immersed in play.
"I worry about an artificial world asking a child to do things," Rosenquest laments. But for now, most parents seem to be embracing that world, perhaps believing that a toy's virtual intelligence will somehow boost the natural intelligence of their child.
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