An article in the November 29, 2007 New York Times made me both proud and discouraged, but mostly the latter (“For Toddlers, Toy of Choice Is Tech Device”). The article discussed how high-tech toys are now being purchased for demanding kids in the 3-to-8 year age range. We're not talking about a Speak and Spell or pretend “play” versions of the real thing here; we're talking about actual, functioning MP3 players, cell phones, and video games. It came down to this summary: if it is has a screen it sells; if it doesn't have a screen, the kids don't want it.
First, a disclaimer. I am generally skeptical of such trend articles. For most of them, I suspect that the so-called “reporter” picks a convenient theme (often driven by a personal agenda), then gets a few industry and end-user quotes and anecdotes to support it. Any actual or credible data is thin, non-existent, or ignored. Face it: you can come up with quotes and anecdotes to support just about any contention; they prove very little. Unfortunately, that's what passes these days for solid reporting in much of the general press.
But there is no denying that electronic, screen-centric devices are on the shelves at the stores and being bought. They are a testament to how successful our industry has been at driving down cost, squeezing in lots of technology and functionality, and then packaging it all to sell at amazingly low prices. I am proud of what we've accomplished.
On the other hand, I am discouraged, for two reasons. First, by selling the magic so cheap (and it is magic, when you look at what it takes to make it happen), we make our accomplishments seem trivial and easy. There is simply no appreciation, understanding, or awe of the billions of dollars of R&D, countless hours of hard work and brilliance and sweat, and even astronomical costs of a high-end fab facility that it has taken to make it possible.
My other concern is where all this leads, for kids to learn something about the real world around them. Optimists say that these technology-based toys may inspire interest in math, science, and technology. I see the opposite happening, as all this technology is assumed to just happen by itself, like gravity or the sun, since it is so cheap, ubiquitous, and accessible.
My suggestion: don't buy any of this high-tech stuff for the younger set. Instead, get real, hands-on, imagination-stimulating science toys, project kits, and basic parts and devices (how about a few lenses and magnets, to start?). While stores which concentrate on these items have become scarcer, and the bigger toy stores carry less of it each year (I know, I have checked), you have some good online alternatives. Check out these four sources and their sites, for example, to help kids have fun while giving them a more real sense of the world around them:
1. Edmund Scientifics, www.scientficsonline.com
2. Educational Innovations, Inc., www.teachersource.com
3. Science Enthusiast, www.scienceenthusiast.com
4. Zero Toys, www.zerotoys.com/newsite/products.htm
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