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Behind The Toy Story

By Sharlene K. Johnson


May Issue 1999

There's no denying it: High-tech toys are hot. Last February at Toy Fair, the industry's annual trade show, micro-chips were everywhere. "Toy makers are looking to technology as a way to keep some traditional toys in children's lives a little longer," says Eric Johnson, Ph.D., a toy industry expert at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management, in Nashville, Tennessee. For instance, a Barbie digital camera might keep a girl interested in the doll for a few more years.

But do these "toys that think" have as much play value as sales value? At press time, many of the products were so new that child development and toy experts had yet to put them to the test.

Stevanne Auerbach, Ph.D., author of Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Raise a Child with a High Play Quotient(St. Martin's Press), was captivated by her first look at a Zowie Interactive play set. It is a great way to introduce kids to technology, she says, because it replaces a keyboard and mouse, both of which can be hard for young children to use, with a familiar type of toy.

Still, Auerbach cautions parents to limit PC play time. "Children need to read books, listen to music, play with traditional toys, and so on," she says. "Also, I don't want to see a doll speaking for a child, instead of a child making up the language."

It's particularly important that preschoolers play with toys that give them a sense of control, says Susan Haugland, Ph.D., a child development expert at Southeast Missouri State University, in Cape Girardeau. In fact, when she tested the ActiMates Interactive Barney with kids, they had a better time with the doll when he wasn't connected to the PC, which left them, not the doll, in charge.

Joanne Oppenheim, president of the New York-based Oppenheim Toy Portfolio, also cautions parents to shop with care. "They're pricey toys, so before you buy one, try and interact with it yourself," says Oppenheim, "You know where your child is developmentally and how long something is going to interest your youngster."

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