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The myth of the ‘educational’ toy

Go ahead and buy that touch-screen toy for your kid. But don’t do it because you think it’s “educational.” It’s not, say researchers.

Touch-screen toys now outrank all others for frequency of play by children under 12, according to a study by the Michael Cohen Group.  They beat dolls and action figures, arts and crafts, construction and blocks, game consoles, play vehicles, puzzles and board games, with puzzles and board games coming in dead last. Even children younger than 3 are being given smartphones to play with, according to another study.

Why? According to one study, parents do indeed think they’re educational. And that’s exactly how they’re marketed. The myth is that “if it’s interactive it must be educational,” wrote researchers Lydia Plowman and Joanna McPake. 

“The learning toys are marketed at parents who want to get children ready for school,” they wrote, and while the “so-called interactivity may well provide some initial motivation for learning,” the lure of pushing buttons and clicking and scrolling “rarely continues beyond the first few encounters and may even get in the way of the educational potential.”

In fact, very few toys, touch-screen or otherwise, that are marketed as educational are backed up by anything other than a commercial claim, wrote Nicola Yelland, professor of education at Australia’s Victoria University, in the Conversation.

“In reality,” she wrote, “the toys are expensive, and often limited in scope unless parents interact and teach their children the associated skills and concepts. In many instances they are in fact tied to franchises (Disney, Pixar) that basically want to promote their items with negligible concerns about learning or educational value.”

But if you’ve already spent the money, don’t despair. Almost any toy can become educational if you sit down with your kid and join in the fun, say researchers. The interaction that makes a toy educational is interaction with you.

“Toys are marketed at being educational,” Yelland said in an interview, “playing at the heart strings of parents. They’re called brain boosting toys or toys that will result in making your child a genius. … But what I’m saying is that it’s not the toys per se.” Instead, it’s the “quality of the interaction” the child has with the adult that does the trick.

Yelland has no particular problem with smartphone and smartphone games: “I remember when iPads came out and Angry Birds. It’s a fantastic game. It teaches you about trajectory. You can experiment, You can predict. You can do all these cool things with Angry Birds.”

But unless the kid does those things with an adult, nothing much will happen.

It doesn’t mean you have to “be interactive with you child every time they’re playing,” she said. But every now and then, “if you start a pattern of talking to them about what they’re playing with, it becomes “self-regulation. … It helps them learn by themselves.”

Plowman and McPake agreed. “An electronic book that reads the words out one at a time or asks children to point to a picture with a stylus and then says ‘well done’ cannot simulate the experience of adult child conversations,” they wrote. “… So far, no technology is sufficiently intelligent that it can adapt itself to an early reader in the same way as a more capable partner sharing a reading experience.”

Says Yelland: “They market these toys because you want to give your kids the edge. The way to give them the edge is to talk to them … and that doesn’t cost any money.”

Besides, she adds, it’s fun.