Last Friday, NPR’s Morning Edition aired an interview with Susan Gregory Thomas, author of Buy Buy Baby. Ms. Thomas doesn’t have a lot of nice things to say about the way many companies market their wares to children. She particularly takes to task the notion that electronic features and “educational toys” enhance or encourage early learning.
The interview is excellent, and we agree with what Ms. Thomas has to say. Many of her comments echo statements I’ve heard from Step2 product designers over the past fifteen years. I’ve never met Ms. Thomas, but I think she’d get along with us pretty well.
Step2 products typically focus on what we call the “open-ended” play experience. As Dotti Foltz, our vice president of marketing communications (and a former schoolteacher) says, “Our products allow the child to direct the play experience rather than having the toy direct the experience.” We believe that’s what a good toy should do.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Christine Rosen wrote an interesting article (subscription required; free alternate link here) about the effects of electronic toys on child development. The article cites a couple recent studies that question the benefits of electronic learning toys.
Electronic toys have become overwhelmingly popular over the past decade. Many of us in the toy industry have watched this trend with suspicion, believing imagination and human interaction to be at the heart of play–especially for preschool children. It stands to reason that too much technology might get in the way, and it now appears that some bona fide research is confirming this.
At Step2 we’ve introduced electronic features to a modest number of our products. Typically, these have been practical in nature (e.g., a light on the Art Master Activity Desk) or purely to add realistic sound effects to role play toys (e.g., cooking sounds on the collection of LifeStyle Kitchens). Overwhelmingly, our products engage children in open-ended, imaginative play, and this continues to be the focus of our product development efforts. I dare say our products with electronics are just as fun without the batteries.
The National Retail Federation issued their Top 10 Tips for Smart Holiday Shopping last week. Some of the advice is common sense, but the list is still worth a quick read.