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David Ish



DAVID ISH: By way of background -- since the last time I knew you, we were doing Samadhi tanks [laughter], or something like that -- how did you wend your way over to this particular area of interest?

Dr. STEVANNE AUERBACH: My Ph.D. is in child development and child psychology. I have worked with children since college -- since high school, actually (I used to teach swimming). Since then, I have consistently been involved in children's issues. Child care was my major political as well as professional involvement for many years.

When you observe what goes on in a child-care center, you see whether or not the children have "good products" to play with. I begin evaluating children's products and toys -- whatever they're playing with -- and asking: "Are they safe?" "Are they educational?" "Are they appropriate for the child's development, culture or interests?"

ISH: Tell us just what is "Dr. Toy." What is it that you do?

AUERBACH: Dr. Toy evaluates toys and children's products, and presents awards for the best ones three times a year. We select the best toys, puzzles, software, books, games, tapes, videos and socially responsible products.

I look for products that teach children about the environment, getting along with others, understanding themselves, and generally becoming more sensitive and aware. I select the best "classic" products (those that you played with as a child) and also the best vacation products -- products that "travel well" with children so they can enjoy their experiences.

ISH: Generation X had a somewhat alienated perspective. The millennials have a more positive perspective. Have you noticed anything that would support this -- kids having different attitudes in those child-care centers [today versus 10 or 20 years ago]?

AUERBACH: These kids have grown up with more independence than ever before. They've been reared in many cases by single parents; they have a strong sense of themselves -- because in many cases they've had to rely on themselves.

And they get, from child care, a lot of good experiences simply by being with other children and expanding their experiences with other peers. I think there's more reliance on their friends -- their various peer groups -- than on their parents. The peer group probably has more significance than ever before.

ISH: Is this a good or a bad trend?

AUERBACH: That depends on the direction the peer group might go in.

I watched Dateline the other night; it was about kids in east Los Angeles who were pretty much given up as "lost," because of their community and so on. But a teacher who cared about them had totally turned them around.

Now they are "freedom writers." They've written stories of their lives on computers; they have just gotten a book contract and created a foundation. They went from being juvenile offenders and kids without hope, to kids who want to go to college and do all sorts of good things -- [a transformation that came about] mainly from an extraordinary teacher.

ISH: How did that teacher hook them in to their lives?

AUERBACH: By reading about Sarajevo and the Holocaust and Anne Frank and people they had never read before.

We have perhaps failed this generation of kids because school is very alienating to them. Computers open possibilities, but they're not the whole answer either. You have to have some reason to go on a computer -- something you're interested enough in to stay up and work on. And children need other products to be involved in -- like puzzles, games, blocks and tapes. You have to use all the senses to reach children. They are very attracted to video, and teachers have the challenge of reaching them and holding their interest.

ISH: A recent story on TechWeb profiled Dallas as "birthplace...for some of the most violent video games ever seen on the PC... In the past five years, this city...has become the capital of first-person shooter games kids love and many parents and politicians hate..." For openers, just what are "first-person shooter games"?

AUERBACH: The game becomes a very personal experience of going thru the motions of shooting and killing. I was concerned about this when I first saw PAC-Man -- the very first computer game. There was a lot of senseless repetition -- a senseless kind of pushing kids.

And yet, in another sense, that's the simplest way to develop games: Just get them mesmerized by the process.

I know a software-developer who lives in Marin County who developed a product for Panasonic called Make-A-Map. It teaches kids about their community, about the United States and the world, thru a video-game approach. The child is in the driver's seat [by] figuring out how to move thru the town or community and learning at the same time.

Make-A-Map has "action," fun and learning. This is the kind of product I'm looking for -- to open up the possibility of learning and growing minds, rather than having violent stuff which is detrimental.

We have the alternative of moving kids toward positive action, or creating yet another generation of kids who are just really strung out with frustration and aggression. If the school doesn't offer a positive alternative, or the entertainment industry doesn't offer it, they're stuck.

ISH: And what do we know about how many kids, say between the ages of 5 and 15, really go in for violent video games? Reporters always say "kids love them," and obviously enough do to make them profitable for a few producers.

AUERBACH: A lot of kids seem to "prefer" [violent video, but the real problem is] there's not enough exciting alternatives with positive qualities.

ISH: With that engaging "action" quality.

AUERBACH: Exactly. This is the challenge to the "edutainment" industry. It's the same with movies. Movies like Good Will Hunting can be produced -- getting into mind, heart and feelings; turning things around in a person's life; and letting love become kind of the ultimate objective.

But it's not therapy [laughter]. In a very important way, the script is the greatest challenge.

Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has taken the easy way out: They've gotten locked to the "PAC-Man" mentality -- and are stuck in it. They are not using the potential of going to the Moon [or other themes to] make geography, math and science interesting like a DK book.

ISH: What kind of book?

AUERBACH: Doerling-Kinderling. These are books that are designed with a "cut-away," to allow looking inside. There's more to it -- not flat, but a three-dimensional capability.

ISH: The Wall Street Journal reports a "boom in sales of software for preschoolers." In '98 a company called Knowledge Adventure unveiled Jump Start Baby, for kids from age two down to nine months. In this case, an animated teddy bear plays hide-and-seek according to each new word-recognition. Jump Start Baby was called "lapware" because the infant may have to sit on a parent's lap to use it.

AUERBACH: I've reviewed Jump Start products for older children. It was inevitable that companies would look to stimulate the child at an earlier age. The research says children are interested in learning. They're going to explore their environment. It's a lot better to use this kind of product than [fall back on] mindless television shows. There's something good as long as it's used with discretion. As long as it's simple enough, yet still challenging -- and not used to the detriment of other experiences.

ISH: And yet David Elkind, child psychologist at Tufts, says that using computers to teach children under 3 "doesn't make any development sense at all," and even at ages 4 and 5 they can be harmful. Exposing very young kids to bright, fast-moving images -- from computers and also TV screens -- is the "most likely culprit" causing the rise in attention-disorders, he says. Others say the peculiar nature of computer screens could thwart normal eye-development, which would later make simple but vital functions -- such as reading -- harder for the child.

Are there any reputable studies on computer-use at such young ages versus the more traditional tools? What concerns or advice would you offer to parents here?

AUERBACH: I admire David Elkind. I can appreciate his concern, because he does not want to see kids moving too quickly. In general, I feel the same way. But there is some value in having early, positive and limited experiences [with computers]. Limited introduction of good-quality products can be fun for kids.

As for research, the person who has a very well in-formed viewpoint -- because he reviews software -- is Warren Buckleitner. He has been doing this for many years. He can be reached at The Children's Software Review -- 908-284-0404. He has published a Parents' Survival Guide for young kids and computers, ages 2 to 7.

My concern has always been -- and this is what I recommend to parents in my book Dr. Toy's Smart Play -- to introduce these experiences when they are ready. Some kids want to and can play the violin at age 4 -- they should not be held back. Some kids really like finger-painting more than playing on a computer.

Your child's interests are going to depend on what they want to do, on their natural ability and opportunities.

I do not think there's any connection to attention-deficit disorder coming from these experiences. It is simply that -- again because of nutrition, prenatal care and genes, and a lot of other issues -- a predisposition to attention-deficit disorders may occur, and be stimulated by too much television or by too much time on computers.

Children can be introduced, for short periods of time, to simple creative activities and a variety of excellent products -- V-Tech, Team Concepts and Leap Frog. The latter is a new product line that helps kids learn phonics and other basics. V-Tech and Team Concepts offer a whole series of very fun interactive products.

ISH: It was a Wall Street Journal quote that called our attention to you. The story was about the return of marbles. You said: "Kids are getting tired of complex computer and video games that offer little interaction with other kids... Children now want more warm and fuzzy games, like marbles, where you compete with live peers." Can you cite for us some related studies, or perhaps just trends/insights from workshops?

AUERBACH: This is really my point. There must be a balance in play experiences. Let's not get so caught up in the latest technology that we forget the value of the basic, classic toys that offer human interaction. The sales for classic products such as YoYos and marbles have increased -- to the surprise of people in the industry. I don't think any definitive studies have been done.

But Playthings magazine, the trade magazine in the field of toys -- I talked to the editor recently. He confirmed a definite increase in "classic" type of toys and games: YoYos, Scrabble, erector sets, Monopoly and -- well, what can you remember playing with as a child?

You might be surprised that the once very popular hula-hoop still makes a great exercise-device today. People notice these products have not gone away. Parents today want some of that nostalgia for their children. I encourage it. Why not show your child how to do YoYo tricks?

ISH: Why the resurgence of interest?

AUERBACH: My feeling is parents feel a need to share with their children experiences they had when they were children -- a very important way that parents can "share themselves." It's kind of a legacy you can pass on: Showing a child how to play checkers or demonstrating how to play with jacks and a ball is a wonderful thing.

That's what I express in my book: For not very much money, parents can have a lot of fun with their kids and pass on a legacy.

ISH: So it's not simply marbles, but classic toys and games in general.

AUERBACH: Right. I would hope these are the kind of experiences children have more of -- direct and traditional fun that helps them understand and gain important skills. Balance is very important.

ISH: When, and in what forms, do you think competition is good for kids, versus not so good for them?

AUERBACH: Friendly competition is good for kids. They need to learn they won't always win in a game. With a lot of available board games, no one "loses"; so they're positive play experiences. But, even if they play checkers, and someone does lose, they can play again. That's very important to learn. It's part of the process of life --

ISH: If you lose, it's not the end of the world.

AUERBACH: Exactly. Keep going and try it again.

ISH: What board games are positive -- no losers, it's all kind of a win-win?

AUERBACH: I would refer your readers to my website, where a whole series of them -- GameWright, Aristoplay, many others -- are reviewed. It's

If you're not on the Internet, you can send a self-addressed stamped envelope and get a list of current products that we recommend -- Dr. Toy, 268 Bush Street, San Francisco CA 94104.

Of course I also recommend that anyone who has children (and grandparents) read my book, Dr. Toy's Smart Play. It helps everyone to understand the importance of play and how to make the most of these experiences and products at each stage of development.

ISH: How is The Institute For Childhood Resources funded?

AUERBACH: A number of ways but inadequately. We are seeking support to expand our resources and website. We have many queries that are almost impossible to respond to without getting more assistance.

ISH: One quick question on children's television: Do you think Barney and Sesame Street have anything in common, except that they both appear on PBS?

AUERBACH: In common? Well, they have a different approach, in style and how they present their programs. Sesame Street is a classic program and each of them has their fans. Some kids like both. Children seem to like Mr. Rogers also. It's nice to have choices but, again, I suggest a limit to TV-watching. Children need out-of-door play and hands-on experiences.

ISH: Now that the toy business is run by boomers of both genders, who presumably picked up some of the feminist spirit of the '70s, how wide are the options for mothers seeking "educational" toys for their daughters -- possessions or activities that, whether blatantly or subtly, build little girls' self-esteem, widen their horizons, etc.?

AUERBACH: There is a tremendous expansion in the area of educationally oriented products. Those are the products I specifically look for. More products can be used by kids both at home and at school. In the past couple of years there are even several girl-oriented software companies -- it's definitely the right direction.

ISH: Finally, can you give us a few general "rules" you would recommend to parents of kids, say age 5 thru 10, when it comes to toys and playtime?

AUERBACH: I have a complete list of suggestions for selecting toys on the web-site and also in the book. But here are some quick tips:

[1] Always look at the box.

[2] Make sure the product is appropriate for the child's age and interests.

[3] Consider the specific child you're thinking about buying the gift for. Think if it will be appropriate, and whether they will really use it.

[4] Select a product that will have some longevity.

As Dr. Toy, I encourage play for adults and children. I suggest that parents be selective, to recycle their child's toys, and take time out to play with their child, read books and have outdoor playtime like ball-throwing or rope-jumping. It's "smart play" for the family to play together.

ISH: Thank you, Dr. Toy, of behalf of the Generational Inquiry Group.

Dr. Stevanne Auerbach is Director of The Institute For Childhood Resources in San Francisco. Author of 14 books, Auerbach's most recent is Dr. Toy's Smart Play: How to Increase a Child's P.Q.(Play Quotient) (St. Martin's Press, 288 pages, $13.95). Visit to review her 100 Best Children's Products for each year, plus 500 other recommended toys.

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