Despite the potential hazards, why are so many children playing with electronic toys? "I think electronic toys are appealing to adults" says Linda Crowe, an associate professor in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. "They think, 'Wow! These are really exciting toys; look at all of the wonderful things they can do!" But electronic toys remove social interaction and in many respects may inhibit creativity. The toy provides the fantasy and removes the opportunity for a child to mentally produce something hypothetical or imagined.” Crowe is also concerned about the effect of such toys on children’s brain development. "What's happening neurologically with these kids when they are watching flashing lights and electronic toys versus an old-fashioned play toy? Which areas of the brain are activated and what kinds of neurological connections are being established? I'm seeing outcomes in the form of shorter attention spans, but we don't know exactly what is happening in the brain."
Susan Swanson, who works for the Excelligence Learning Corporation and has been an arts educator in Monterey County, California schools, has similar concerns. "Electronic toys don't encourage dramatic play," she says. "And what is going to happen to these kids who are used to having a quick electronic fix and who think things happen at the push of a button?" she asks. Parents can go to the other extreme too, of course. "I live near Berkeley," Swanson says with a chuckle, "and you can find stores there where the only toys are those made entirely out of recycled tires or natural fibers."
Tech toys are here to stay, of course, in large part because anxious parents fear denying their children any novel advantage. "Parents believe that this is a way for their child to be ready for the academic setting," says Crowe, "and you can't fault parents for that." But she encourages parents to limit their children's use of such toys and to offer more traditional toys (such as building blocks, trains, and dolls) that encourage open-ended, creative play. Children also make their play preferences known, and they are often refreshingly low-tech. When asked by University of Stirling researchers what they most wanted to do during playtime, young children did not beg for quality time with T.M.X. Elmo. They wanted their parents to take them to the park. Sometimes, toddlers know best.
I'm a bit more cynical, so with regard to that first paragraph, I would posit that parents find additional appeal in that these gadgets keep kids out of their hair. Being the father of two toddlers, I can sympathize with folks who are tempted by toys that won't require any assistance beying swapping out double-As. But to tell me that a machine that screams the ABCs at my son is teaching him something at all - let alone in a way better than I could - falls somewhere on a continuum between condescending and insulting.