Marketplace”s Erica Johnson investigates the notion that “educational toys” can make
your baby smarter.
Bringing up Brainy: A look at the educational toy market
Reporter: Erica Johnson | Broadcast: January 16, 2005
UPDATE: On May 1, 2006, Campaign for a Commercial- Free Childhood filed a complaint to the Federal Trade Commission against Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, two
of the leading producers of videos for infants and toddlers, for false and deceptive advertising.
More and more of us are asking: ‘Am I doing enough?’ Raising baby… My daughter, Zoe, is 10 months old. Like every parent, I’m trying to bringher up as best I can. I thought I was doing okay until I saw books like these:
How to Raise a Brighter Child, How to Maximize Your Child’s Learning Ability, Your Child Can Think Like A Geniusâ€¦
A genius? Does chewing a cardboard box (one of Zoe”s favourite pastimes) help?
I admit I didn’t play classical musical to Zoe in utero. I worry she may already be lagging behind in brain development.
In 1980, psychology professor Anthony DeCasper conducted a study that found a newborn prefers a story read to it twice a day in the womb (his research used The Cat in the Hat) to a new story introduced soon after birth.
But am I hindering her potential of brainy greatness by denying her access to the wealth of “edu-toy” products available?
I know I’m not alone here. Fess up, all you parents. More than any generation before us, we feel the pressure to nurture our baby’s intellectual growth.
We now know a baby”s brain is like a sponge — it soaks in information– so more and more of us are asking: “Am I doing enough?”
Edu-Toys: Do they make the grade?
These days, going to the toy store is like entering a mini-Mensa convention. There”s a whole wall of educational toy products dedicated to helping develop my daughter Zoe”s brain.
The toy industry in Canada is more than a billion dollars. Toys designed to pump up Zoe”s brain development are the fastest growing sector of the business. From gizmo”s that say “hello” in five languages, to CD”s that hang over the crib and teach math –
we”ve bought in big time to infant brain boosters.
When it comes to hoping for the best for Zoe, I’m as guilty as any new parent. But I do wonder – will all these products aimed at boosting her IQ make her smarter?
To find out, I make a play date at the University of British Columbia. Zoe and I sit down with Hillel Goelman, a professor of early childhood development. Goelman has surprising news about educational toys:
“There”s no research, for example, that shows that kids who use educational toys learn things faster, better, more substantially â€¦ There”s no data right now that I”ve seen that
shows these kids outperform any other kids who don’t use these materials…
“What [the] research shows is that parents are buying them. That”s the research.”
But toy companies don’t directly promise to increase your baby”s IQ. They just use terms like “develop” and “discover” all over the packaging. By way of an example, I show Goelman a toy I found that says it has got developmental benefits: “sensory stimulation” and “motor skills development.”
Baby Einstein was founded in 1996 in Lone Tree, Colorado, with the slogan:
“Great Minds Start Little” The Mozart Effect (1997) was written by choral conductor Don Campbell. It put forward the idea that classical music can help babies think better.
The book quickly became a best seller and heralded a stampede of classical music-related children’s products.
Genius Products Inc., maker of the Baby Genius line, was established in 1999. In 2001, Baby Einstein was acquired by Disney.
Goelman explains that “sensory development” means the kid can see and hold the toy. “Motor development” means they can use their fingers to make a sound come out of it.
Using language like “sensory development” can make a toy sound more impressive, and, as Goelman puts it: “much more marketable.”
And it’s the toys’ marketing that parents are taking to heart, hoping they’re good for baby’s brain.
One of hottest products on the market that aims to help make babies brainy is Disney”s best-selling Baby Einstein series of DVD”s and videos – which offer an array of colourful images and lively music aimed at infants.
From ” Baby Beethoven” to “Baby Galileo,” “Baby Newton” and “Baby Shakespeare,” at $20 dollars a pop, Disney”s making millions in a niche market that never existed before.
“We don’t know if they”re learning, or what they”re learning,” cautions Hillel Goelman, a professor of early childhood development at the University of British Columbia. “We know, behaviourally, they”re watching.”
We decided to talk to Baby Einstein”s parent company in Los Angeles.
Rashmi Turner produces the videos for Disney:
ERICA JOHNSON: If my baby watches a Baby Einstein video, will she get a leg up? Will it make her smarter?
RASHMI TURNER: What’s really important about Baby Einstein is giving the parent and a child a chance to interact with one another… We chose the Einstein name, actually, because many people don’t know he was a fabulous humanitarian and really passionate about the world we live in.
Wait a secondâ€¦ They chose the name Baby Einstein because Einstein was a humanitarian? Goelman says educational toy makers can”t promise too much. “They leave it up to the parents to create those links. And that”s why you get a sexy name like “Baby Einstein” instead of “Baby Albert.””
RASHMI TURNER: We know that children are learning from everything that they experience in the world.
ERICA JOHNSON: Have you done research to show these products will help a baby get brighter?
TURNER: We know that children are learning by using these products and interacting with their parents.
JOHNSON: That doesn’t sound like a “yes.”
TURNER: We know that parents and children are interacting with one another.
Brain candy: Can “edu-toys” do more harm than good?
Traditional toys make comeback on top ten list (November 14, 2001)
Broadcast: January 16, 2005
Unlike ‘open-ended’ toys like building blocks, many edu-toys have only one use. Unlike things like building blocks, which can be stacked, knocked down, chewed on and used to build things, many ‘educational toys’ can only be played with one way. They are not “open-ended,” which means they only have one use and rely on simple repetition and imitation.
Things get more complicated when you take a closer look at the mediabased edu-toys. Research has found that letting a baby watch television may actually cause them harm.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis is a pediatrician and lead researcher at the Children”s Hospital in Seattle. Christakis was curious about the rise in attention problems in kids. He conducted a long-term study with almost 1,300 children and found that TV may be too much to handle for developing brains.
The “Mozart Effect” proposes that children who listen to classical music at a young age develop higher IQs than those who don’t.
“There”s something called the “orienting response,”” Christakis explains.
“Our minds are conditioned to immediately stop paying attention to what we’re currently focusing on if we hear or see something that seems strange. Television actually explicitly
exploits that, in the case of young children.
“[TV] rapidly changes images and scenery. Sights and sounds are constantly evolving. As a result, children are unable to disengage from it…
“We’re changing images so very rapidly, it’s unlike anything that anyone could actually experience in reality… Our concern has been that children will view everything else as boring by comparison.
“[The baby] is being entertained, but you can think of it, in a sense, like brain candy. It’s very, very enjoyable for her mind to watch it, but just like candy, things consumed in excess can potentially be harmful.”
Christakis found that for every hour of television toddlers watch, their risk of attention problems goes up 10 per cent by the time they’re seven years old. If toddlers watch two hours a day, the risk of attention problems climbs 20 per cent – and so on.
Dr. Dimitri Christakis “As a cautious parent, you should think first about doing no harm to your child,” says Christakis, “recognizing that in the absence of proof that these things are beneficial, there”s certainly the possibility that they may be harmful.”
One of hottest products on the market that aims to help make babies brainy is Disney”s best-selling Baby Einstein series of DVD”s and videos – which offer an array of colourful images and lively music aimed at infants. I spoke with Rashmi Turner, who produces the videos for Disney:
ERICA JOHNSON: Have you done any research looking at the pacing of the videos, and how it might affect a baby”s brain — a newborn’s brain?
RASHMI TURNER: We at the Baby Einstein Company create products that are based on looking at the world from a baby”s perspective.
JOHNSON: But why haven’t you done the research to make sure that the pace of the editing in the videos is okay for a baby? It’s a simple question … [Turner looks off-camera to the side of the room] You”re looking at the PR personâ€”
TURNER: Well, I’m looking because we”re running out of time, I’m afraid. Dr. Christakis recommends no television for children under the age of
two. Dr. Christakis recommends no television for children under the age
of two – and that includes videos like Baby Einstein.
At the University of British Columbia, child researcher Hillel Goelman says special videos and toys to tweak IQs are just plain dumb: “Where is childhood?” he asks. “Why
don’t we let our kids be children? We”re not letting them anymore.
We”re fast tracking them. We”re saying, ‘With these materials, kid, you”re going to go from baby to Shakespeare really fast.””
It turns out, so long as kids can play, imagine and generally have fun, they can learn from just about anything. In Zoe”s world, that includes chomping on a cardboard box.
SMART TOY ALTERNATIVES
Broadcast: January 16, 2005
Finding the best toys for your baby doesn’t necessarily mean going for the most expensive ones – you just need playthings that meet your baby”s needs in terms of where she’s at in her development. A colorful margarine tub lid can be more entertaining than an expensive store bought toy.
Everything is interesting to your baby. The world is brand new to her, and she has much to explore. You don’t have to spend a fortune to keep your baby happy, interested and learning.
Look for playthings that:
*Are appropriate for your child”s age or stage of development and personality;
*Are open-ended and adaptable (i.e. they can be used in a variety of ways);
*Help your child to explore her senses, such as sound and touch;
*Help her to developing new skills and imagination;
A good toy will both entertain and educate your infant. Entertainment is important because your baby likely won’t play with a toy unless it’s fun and rewarding for her. An educational toy should help in the development of your baby”s new physical skills (pulling, holding and pushing); learning about the world around her and recognizing different shapes and colors.
Developing babies and toddlers do need lots of things to touch, discover and play with, but those items don’t have to come from the toy store.
Common household objects can be very stimulating for your baby. Try:
*A saucepan and a wooden spoon;
*A cardboard box;
*Empty (and clean) egg cartons and colorful food containers;
*A bowl or pan of room-temperature water, with spoons and cups of various sizes;
*A crumpled piece of paper;
Look for items of different weights, materials, textures, flexibility, sizes, shapes, colors, and smells. (A lot of store-bought baby toys are primarycoloured plastic, which might explain why your baby”s so attracted to your shiny metal car keys.)
Babies learn about their world with toys that explore their developing senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch). Good playthings stimulate the senses by:
*Helping her learn how to control her body, muscles and strength;
*Helping her figure out how things work and how to solve simple problems;
*Showing her that she can manipulate the things she encounters;
*Teaching her how to use her imagination.
Of course you will want to purchase toys at the toy store. To ensure the best play value for your dollar, consider whether the toy offers:
*Longevity. Is it a toy that will entertain and stimulate your child for a while, or can you imagine her getting bored of it after a few days?
*Open-ended play. Can your baby play with the toy in more than one way, or does it just do one thing? Does it engage your baby directly, or just entertain her as she watches?
* Durability and wash-ability.
* Appropriateness. Is the toy in line with your baby’s development (i.e. thinking, language, and motor skills)?
* Fun for you too. Can you imagine playing with the toy too? Items that have you playing alongside your baby are ideal.
You should always be aware of the safety issues that come with any item your baby plays with. Be careful of:
*Choking hazards (discard any tags, wrapping, etc., and be sure to check for loose parts that could break off of the toy);
* Sharp edges, points, rust;
* Toxic paint or coating (this is especially important with older toys – the paint may be lead-based);
* Pull toys with long chords that could wind around your baby”s neck;
* Excessively noisy toys.