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'Smart' toys teach without kids knowing it


Seacoast Online

December 23, 2007


If you're giving a toy to a child this holiday season, there's a good chance you're trying to trick them into learning.

According to research by the Consumer Electronics Association and the Toy Industry Association, three-quarters of consumers who purchased an electronic toy for an infant or child of up to 15 years old in the past year did so for its educational value. And three of the top five most purchased types of electronic toys were educational products.

Linda Morin, a mother of three and owner of Learning Express, a franchise store specializing in educational toys in North Hampton, said she has "definitely" seen an increase in business, especially over the past year.

Parents are realizing more and more they can purchase toys their kids love and teach them important skills at the same time whether they know it or not.

"I don't think kids realize at all the stuff that's going on while they play," Morin said. "They just think they're having fun and don't realize the educational value while they're playing."

The study found that online households expect to spend $2 billion on toys for children over the next year and spend an average of $172 per household. Radio-controlled toys and DVD games topped the list of electronic toy purchases, and the highest purchase potential is found in electronic/DVD games and electronic learning aids.

Major toy manufacturers have responded to the wants of parents. Toys disguising themselves as regular video games, stuffed animals and rides are teaching math, science, foreign language, engineering, dancing and grammar.

More teachers have been utilizing toys to teach their lessons, according to Bob Breneman, co-owner of G. Willikers! in Portsmouth, and the industry is leaning toward education.

"It's the perfect audience," he said. "Kids just want to play and explore. If we can get a little education in there while they're having some fun, it almost becomes second nature so there's no negative stigma about learning because it's all about having fun."

Sharyn Frankel, a spokesperson for BJ's Wholesale Club, said its stores are stocked with "smart" toys and have seen a huge demand in the past year.

"Parents are looking for these educational toys because it's comforting to know that while their children are having fun playing, they're learning and growing their minds at the same time," she said.

The hottest "smart" toy, she said, is the Fisher Price Smart Cycle, which not only provides a mental workout, but a physical one as well. The child plugs the stationary bike into the TV, and as he or she pedals, a character friend guides him or her through learning discoveries, games and races.

The Leapster Learning System looks like a typical hand-held gaming device, but all the games focus on essential school skills. Other popular electronic toys include kid-proof digital cameras, toy cell phones that allow children to send text messages to their friends, and video game systems centered around learning.

Daniela Weiss, vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Toy Industry Association, said toys have become highly sophisticated, integrating microchips and other technology.

"Many toys have interactive components which teach kids important skills such as early language, spelling, social etiquette and math," she said. "There are even electronic toys that take children through the nuances of learning a foreign language, playing a musical instrument or learning new dance steps."

Geoff Pendexter, owner of Whirlygigs in Exeter, said some of the old favorites, such as Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, also have educational value that remain in demand. And he thinks the trend is a good thing.

"It's great to see a child really engaging with a toy and you can tell they're really absorbing the lesson," he said. "They're learning without knowing it."

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