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
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.
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
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.
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:
Smart toys can also help develop physical and social skills,
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
Volume control - seems obvious to me but I guess not to some
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
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.
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.