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How to be smart about smart toys?

By Ellen DePasquale


Technology has become second nature to today's kids. Not only do they get their hands on computers as early as kindergarten but the stores are now full of "smart" toys that incorporate some level of computer technology. But what does a smart toy do, and how does playing with one affect your child?

What makes a toy smart is its functionality -- what it does and how it does it. A smart toy is not going to make your child "smarter" by increasing his or her I.Q., but some smart toys can help children get better grades by using games to teach academic subjects such as math and reading.

Defining "Smart"

We have a very specific functional definition for smart toys: Toys that use technology to enhance play by interacting with the child either through (1) initiation of "open-ended" play suggestions, or (2) responding to the child's actions in a way that sparks the child's creativity.

1. Open-ended play suggestions allow the child to define the play scenario. For example, a smart ambulance toy may say, "Help is needed over there," suggesting a rescue play pattern without dictating precisely what or where the problem is or who is in need of help. The child is then free to use his or her imagination to invent the situation and details.

2. Smart toys typically offer three different types of responses -- sound, light or movement - in response to a child's actions. It is these responses that spark a child's creativity. For example, a smart toy keyboard may have the ability to produce not just musical sounds but other sounds, such as animal sounds. This will spark creativity as the child listens to how the duck's quack changes with every key.

Our definition only covers a small percentage of those toys that are labeled "smart." Those toys that simply display computer-powered "bells and whistles" (i.e., special effects) but do not offer open-ended interactivity or responses that spark creativity we consider to be "techno" toys. An example would be a robotic dog that walks and barks-but not in response to anything the child does.

Choosing Smart

A smart purchase decision starts with understanding the child who is going to receive the toy. What types of toys does the child currently play with? What are his favorite book, TV or movie characters? What are her interests and favorite activities? What are his favorite school subjects? In what areas does the child excel or need assistance? Answering these questions is important so that you can match the smart toy to the child's needs and interests.

Smart toys offer a wide variety of experiences and cover a great range of topics, so there is literally something for everyone. Here are some examples of topics addressed by smart toys:

  • Music appreciation

  • Music education

  • Math

  • Reading

  • Writing

  • History

  • Geography

  • Construction

Smart toys can also help develop physical and social skills, including:

  • Hand-eye coordination

  • Verbal and Written Communication

  • Patience (taking turns)

  • Listening and following directions

Buying Smart

Since smart toys are usually expensive, you want to make sure to get the best return on your investment. Here is a checklist of features to look for when making your final decision:

  • ON and OFF switch - Believe it or not, some manufacturers have designed toys that cannot be turned off by a person, but rather shut themselves down after a predefined period of no interaction. The problem here is three-fold: first, the lack of control puts the smart toy, as opposed to the child or parent, in charge of the playtime; second, if the child is done playing with the toy, then there is a good chance no one else wants to continue to listen to it; third, the two problems just noted will very quickly turn this noisy smart toy into a dusty smart toy as no one will want to turn it on knowing they cannot turn it off.

  • Volume control - seems obvious to me but I guess not to some manufacturers.

  • Headset jack - not mandatory, but does allow for the child to play without forcing everyone in the vicinity to listen.

  • Manufacturer's suggestions for play - I am happy to say that manufacturers are now including suggestions on how parents can become involved in play.

  • Multiple levels of play - one terrific advantage of "smart" toys is that they are often smart enough to identify the child's skill level, and adjust the game accordingly.

  • Interactive but not dictating play - smart toys should invite children to play, not tell them what to do.

  • Suggested age range - this is important as a guide, but you know your kids better than anyone and we all know that children develop and mature at different rates.

Playing Smart

Smart toys are great for helping to teach children a variety of lessons, but the most important part of playtime is the interaction with you! Don't be intimidated by the buttons on the smart toy; I am sure that the child who receives it will not be. Children are so adept at technology that they are ready to play even before they understand what the toy can do.

Let the child open the box and start playing even before you get to the manual. Smart toys that have a specific sequence required to get them started also usually come with a reset button, so you can start over from scratch if you don't get it right the first time.

Learn how to play with the toy together -- it is great for bonding and building self-confidence. Many times you will find that the child grasps how the toy works even before you do, and then he or she becomes the teacher. This is a powerful dynamic that will make any kid feel great. But make sure you eventually understand how the toy works, so that you can help if there are any questions in the future. The last thing you want to hear yourself say is, "I don't know how it works."

Keep the directions handy even after you have mastered the toy or completed the set-up process (if there is one). If, six months from now, the toy's memory is somehow erased, the child will be very disappointed if you cannot remember how to set it up again.

The bottom line is that playtime is for having fun. The smart toy you choose should offer a new, exciting experience for both you and your child because it plays the role of a new playmate, introducing new ways to play.



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