Some time before Christmas, I saw a woman in a toy store lean up against a shelf and hold her head in both hands, as though she'd just lost something. And in a way she had, because this store, like every other one in this city, had just run out of the LeapPad, the talking book that's turning out to be this holiday season's miracle story.
LeapFrog Enterprises, a small company based in California, has started a toy revolution by turning the dusty niche of "educational toys" (phonics books, flashcards) into this year's top-selling Christmas gifts, leaving Mattel and Fisher Price scrambling to catch up.
For those who haven't yet bought it, the LeapPad is like a goody-goody GameBoy, an interactive book that reads to preschoolers, spells out words, "plays fun letter games!" and makes "reading and learning fun!" The narrator is a frog named Leap, who has the jaunty, didactic personality of that Microsoft Word paper clip.
There are many reasons for parents to appreciate LeapFrog. The toy plays jazz instead of that blink-blink xylophone noise. And if kids are addicted to gadgets, well, why not one that's also a book?
And yet something is a little sinister about the way LeapFrog is so tuned into the overactive ambitions of modern parents. The toys plug into a Web site so you can "track your child's progress online!" (with the reminder, of course, that each child learns at his or her own pace). The company's entire product line is packaged in emphatic Orwellian jingles: "Never Ending Mind Station. The fun never ends!" -- next to a photo of a girl with a ponytail and a smile saying: "I learned all my letters and numbers!"
Traditional educators worry that electronic toys such as the LeapPad will cause parents to spend less time interacting with their children. But that worry seems somewhat misplaced. The parents who buy their toddlers a miniature laptop for Christmas are not the same parents who use the TV for a babysitter. More likely they are kin to parents who sign up their 2-year-olds for science classes or are endlessly setting up "motion puzzles" for their infants.
Christopher Lasch once wrote that Americans had begun to organize their leisure time like work, marking it out in goals and achievements. And lately even for 1-year-olds, play is never just play. It's no longer good enough to bat about aimlessly with your plastic French fries and frying pan. Now you have to have the "Pretend and Learn Shopping Cart" (part of the Leap system), "A cart full of learning fun!" in which "ten food items represent quantities one through ten and each major food group."
I don't really have much to say about the research claims of these new educational toys -- claims that my child will "never fall behind!" or will be 10 or 20 or whatever percent smarter. It's possible they are true, but practical knowledge doesn't allow me to take them seriously. My own child is not quite ready for the LeapPad, but has been through the Baby Mozart videos, inspired by "lab work" at the University of California showing that preschoolers who listened to Mozart scored 80 percent better on certain tests.
But what does it mean for a 6-month-old to be 80 percent better? That she swats at her teething ring like John McEnroe? Or that she grabs her Cheerios with the pincer precision of a Swiss watchmaker? Any new mother knows the Baby Mozart videos are good for only one thing: so that you can leave the infant alone for five minutes and take a shower as she watches those soothing images flash across the screen.
No doubt toys and books were always meant to "teach" kids something. But the didactic purpose was not always so transparent. The Erector set or Legos or Mr. Potato Head provided the parts and let the imagination assemble them.
These days, every part has a purpose, every story is packed with explicit lessons. In the original version, Pooh is self-satisfied, and Tigger is insufferable. In the updated Disney version, Pooh is learning how to be a better friend, while Tigger is improving his self-esteem.
"That's not a toy," parents like to say. But really, what isn't a toy? An old shoe is a tiny cradle, and a plastic cup is a boat in the bathtub sea. My daughter has plenty of fancy toys that beep and blink and count and sing. But one of my favorite afternoons was spent watching her and my mother-in-law transform an empty packing box with the help of two stray crayons that had rolled under the radiator. The back flap was the woods where the squirrels and foxes live, and the other squares were rooms in the house.
Did the fun never end! Did my daughter learn letters and numbers! I don't know but I know that the afternoon stretched like taffy and pretty soon it was time for dinner.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.