When It Comes to Giving Children "Educational Toys," Education Expert Says Parents Should Leave No Child Behind

Parents cautioned to not select toys the way they buy cars

By Mary Cochrane

Release Date: December 10, 2004

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BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Parents considering purchase of "must-have" electronic educational toys for their children this holiday season are reminded to include an extra component that's much more important than batteries: themselves.

Even the most successful educational toys work best when a parent or guardian is part of a child's interaction with the plaything, says University at Buffalo researcher Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D., an internationally renowned expert on educational technologies and early childhood education.

"We know from research that if you just throw things into the home, you don't get a measurable difference in learning. So our expectations probably shouldn't be too high for these toys," says Clements, professor of learning and instruction in the UB Graduate School of Education.

"On the other hand, if you put some educational toys or computer programs into the home that coordinate with schoolwork the kids are doing, you can get a significant, positive, substantial and noticeable effect on kids in areas like reading, literacy and mathematics."

When deciding which toy to buy, the first step should be to research the toy and the company that makes them, according to Clements. A little checking can reveal a lot about a toy's potential educational benefits and whether it's age appropriate for a child.

Clements, who has served as a consultant for toy maker Fisher-Price, says some toy companies "really do try to balance the educational and the entertainment aspects of the toys."

"The best toy companies do a lot of testing with children, they're empirically based, which is different from the 'let's make a bunch of stuff and hope that one catches on and make a lot of money from it' mindset that dominates the toy industry," he says.

Parents, he notes, can find help in selecting software and educational toys by reading ratings and reviews on- and off-line. Clements recommends Children's Software Revue www.childrenssoftware.com and magazines such as Parent and Child, Scholastic, and Family Fun.

"Parents shouldn't just walk into a Wal-Mart without doing a bit of research, because the quality of products may range from, at best, harmless to, at worst, a waste of money for low-quality educational experiences," Clements says.

"Auto dealers will tell you people spend 10 percent of their time on all the features of a car they are buying and 90 percent of their time on the color. In the same way, parents should avoid spending a lot of time on surface features of a product. Instead, spend more time researching and thinking about these educational toys, instead of just walking into a store and buying what looks nice, because it really makes a difference in the quality of what you buy."

But, Clements cautions, even the top-rated toys don't guarantee a child will learn and excel in school, particularly without adult supervision.

"If no one is there moderating the experience for the child, if no one is there facilitating learning, you can expect there might be some small effect, but it will not be large," Clements says. "We shouldn't be giving people impressions such as, 'you can take them out of first grade; just keep them at home with these educational games.' It's not that kind of educational experience by and large from what we know."

After children unwrap their gifts, parents should stick around to explore along with them what the products have to offer. And they should refuse to be shooed away by kids who may be more computer-wise or technology-savvy than the adults in the family, Clements adds.

"Even if the child technologically is way beyond you, they often skirt at the top of real intellectual endeavors and projects," he says. "One of the things parents at home can do that schools often don't have time for is to get the kids into long-term projects. From physical projects -- still valuable -- such as building a train set, to various computer versions of such projects.

"For example, they might use Microworld's Project Building to make their own simulations of an environment like a pond or of traffic in a city. Younger children can create arts and buildings on the screen, as well as off computer. Projects such as these can teach kids patience, attention. They delve into the subject matter, they get interested in books, especially if parents get them into research to learn more about the subject."

"Kids are not going to get into writing a better composition without an audience, someone talking to them and challenging them to take it to a deeper level," Clements adds. "That's the role parents can play regardless of how much they know about electronics."

Parents lacking computer-science degrees still are qualified to make the most of that new Leapfrog Mindstation or a Shrek 2 video game (rated among the Top Ten Video Games for ages 9-12 by Family Fun magazine), Clements points out. He recommends looking for products made by some of the more successful manufacturers, such as Broderbund, Edmark, Sunburst and The Learning Company.

Electronic and non-electronic educational toys have improved greatly in recent years, but some still are more entertainment than education. Finding the best among the many selections on store shelves can be overwhelming. But for the most part, Clements says, giving themselves as part of the gift is best way for parents to help toys teach their children well.