Tech toys that don’t teach

With the official start of the holiday shopping season, are you tempted to buy a toy that’s both fun and educational for the tot?

Better focus on the fun. A fascinating piece in the UK newspaper The Guardian states that a government-funded study found — when it comes to three- and four- year old children — that high-tech preschool toys “are no more effective than traditional ways of introducing basic literacy and number skills.”

Instead, the study notes, toy laptops and mobile phones are better as aids for imaginative play than education.

A total of 346 families were surveyed, including two dozen in detail. Professor Lydia Plowman of the University of Stirling concluded the toys were not harmful but not “particularly beneficial.” Perhaps most telling, notes the article: “Parents who bought such toys often failed to replace the battery when it ran out after children lost interest.”

This runs counter to marketing efforts in a sector of the toy industry, one led by companies such as Vtech (whose V.Smile won Toy of the Year in 2005) and Leapfrog (whose educational LeapPad was the top-selling toy earlier this decade). Admittedly, this is a UK and not a US study, and certain cultural factors may make a difference. (Disclosure: I once consulted the Toy Industry Association as its Toy Trends Expert and am still on the advisory board of New York Game Factory.)

But it’s been my experience than parents of kids from preschool through fifth grade will consider buying any technology that’s both engaging and educational, if it might help a child in school. That undoubtedly has helped tech toys that tout teaching. Now more of the onus may be on manufacturers to prove that the toys are educational.

To me, the good news is the study may help bury the overused and trite marketing mantra, “They’ll have so much fun they won’t know they’re learning.” I, for one, consider this a teachable moment.

(This essay originally appeared on Frank Catalano’s blog.)