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Making Smart Choices on Electronic Learning


They talk, they walk, they even seem to learn new things easily. We're not talking about your child, but your child's toys. Book readers, robots, and electronic learning games are more popular than ever. Beyond the hype, you'll find a selection of award-winning products that can help your child become a better reader, memorize important facts, and strengthen problem-solving skills.


Parent's Checklist
Developmental Edge
Extending the Fun

Buying Basics
What is a smart toy? The term is used two ways: It may refer to computerized toys that are programmed to respond to your child's actions (which make the toy seem "smart"). It may also refer to the toy's educational activities (which help make your child smart).

These toys come in many forms, but most share three essential characteristics. They:

  • teach a skill;
  • make learning fun;
  • engage kids to do versus just watch something.

A robot that asks your child to solve a problem is a smart toy; an electronic car that he watches race back and forth is not.

Electronic toys appeal to children for the same reasons gadgets appeal to adults — they're cool. But when it comes to smart toys, the technology should not just be for show; it should have a purpose such as pronouncing letters for a pre-reader or giving visual clues to help your child solve a puzzle.

Check with teachers to see if they recommend specific electronic learning games (your child's teachers might even use smart toys in the classroom). Ask other parents if products they've bought still hold their child's interest, and try out products yourself if possible.

Parent's Checklist
Before buying, see how your selection rates by running it through our checklist:

  • Does it pass the timeless parent toy test?
    Today's computerized gadgets may seem radically different than the toys you grew up with but some things never change, including these four must-have factors:
    - Is it fun?
    - Is it safe?
    - Does it do what it is supposed to do?
    - Is the price fair?
    Any toy you buy should get a "yes" to each of these questions.

  • Does your child participate in the activity or just watch?
    Many toys advertised as interactive won't actually engage your child's senses or her mind. A doll that tells stories is cute, but does it teach anything? Your child should be given activities to complete, challenges to solve, or situations to explore. This draws her into the learning, and it is essential to making sure the game doesn't get old fast.

  • Is this toy appropriate for my child's motor skills or kid lifestyle?
    Look at how the product is made. Smart toys for preschoolers should include big buttons and easy-to-grab parts. Wires or computer chips should be inaccessible. Products made for elementary school students need to be durable. Portable gadgets are great, but make sure they can stand up to being carried in a book bag or accidentally dropped. If a toy is too delicate, it probably is not appropriate for your child. Ask the store or manufacturer if you can replace pieces that break or are lost. For instance, you can get a replacement LeapPad pen for just $5.

  • Is the speech clear?
    Test any toy that teaches reading skills or gives audio directions. The speech should be very clear to ensure that your child understands the game and develops good pronunciation skills.

  • Are accessories required?
    Check whether extra controls or adapters are required. Do you need an Internet connection? If relevant, check that the toy is compatible with your computer.

  • Can you upgrade or get additional activities?
    With some toys you can download new games from the Internet or buy expansion cartridges with additional activities. These new challenges will hold your child's interest for a longer time.

  • Is it user friendly?
    Toys should be easy to set up. Extra benefits to look for are volume controls, the option to use headphones (a lifesaver for car rides!), and an automatic shut-off to save batteries.

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Developmental Edge
You might remember when computerized games where only for teens and adults, but today's smart toys span all ages. Manufacturers are continually researching how to match the technology to age-specific motor skills and school curriculum.

  • Babies & Toddlers — Birth to 2 Years
    As your baby learns to distinguish sounds, he is also developing fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Several musical toys work on sharpening these skills simultaneously. Sunshine Symphony (Ages Birth-1) develops attention and focus using classical music to stimulate your little one's senses and teaches cause and effect.

    By six months of age, your child is ready for interactive musical games that can teach higher-level skills. The Jumbo Music Block (6 months and up) is a large, soft box with geometric-shaped flaps. Your child can use it to practice buttoning and other dressing skills while singing along to songs about the shapes.

  • Early Learners — Ages 3-5
    Your pre-reader or early reader can get a great boost from electronic toys that provide spoken instructions and reading help.

    My First LeapPad (ages 3 and up) is a book reader. It includes a hard base, interchangeable books, and a laser pen. Using the pen, your child touches a page and hears letters, words, or entire stories read aloud. It shouldn't replace parent-child story time, but it is a way for your child to enjoy a similar learning experience when you can't read with her.

    Phonics manipulatives let your child play with or "manipulate" objects that represent letters and sounds. Phonics Tiles (ages 3 and up) uses 26 lettered tiles as manipulatives. Your child moves these magnetic tiles into electronic slots in any order, and the device reads the letters back. She can hear letter sounds, names, and any word she creates — real or made up.

    To introduce math concepts, look for tech toys that teach real-life math skills through imaginative games. For instance, with the Pretend & Learn Shopping Cart (ages 2 and up) your preschooler can play store while she also learns counting skills, the concepts of more than and less than, and quantities.

    While many smart toys focus on one specific skill area, others cover a range of skills. Among them is the much-talked-about Kasey the Kinderbot (ages 3-7), a robot with life-like movements, a friendly personality, and hundreds of activities that teach 40 skills — everything from reading and math concepts, to problem-solving, to manners, to coordination.

  • Elementary Schoolers — Ages 6-8
    At this stage, your child is progressing from learning to read to reading to learn. The original LeapPad (ages 4 and up), with a format similar to the PreK version, will engage him in a variety of subjects. You can buy a wide selection of classic and kid-friendly stories for the LeapPad, as well as books that use reading and workbook-style activities to teach vocabulary, phonics, math, and music.

    When it comes to math practice, your first grader may be tired of flash cards. Try active games like the Talking Math Mat Challenge (ages 4-7). This electronic floor mat/quiz-game announces an equation to solve. Your child does the math, then steps on the right answer.

    Other unique toys that use technology to engage learners include the GeoSafari Talking Globe Jr (ages 6-10) and the GeoSafari Talking Microscope (Ages 6-10). Both involve independent exploration followed by quizzes and activities where your child uses what he has learned.

  • Middle Schoolers — Ages 9-12
    As testing takes on more importance, your child may need to focus on drills and memorization. Portable, quiz-style games are great tools to help your child master vocabulary, spelling, math, history, and other essential facts. Check out The FlashMaster (ages 6 and up), Math Shark (ages 6-13), and LeapFrog's popular Turbo Twist series, including Math (ages 6 and up), Spelling (ages 6 and up), Vocabulary (ages 8 and up) and the multi-subject BRAIN QUEST edition (ages 6 and up). These gadgets are shaped like mini dumbbells; kids twist them to start a challenge. They use graphics, quiz-style games and music to motivate your child.

    For more open-ended play, look for empowering gadgets like the GeoSafari Magniscope (Ages 6-12), a handheld microscope that lets science enthusiasts investigate everything anywhere.

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Extending the Fun

  • Turn your family room into a dazzling game arena. Using electronic quiz games, divide family members and your child's friends into teams, and have players compete for the correct answers and high scores. One player can be the host and announce the scores after each round.

  • Watch your preschooler read to her little brother! Using a book reader, she can share her favorite stories with siblings, cousins, or friends. Let her even teach you how to read.

  • Take your child to a toy museum and show him old-fashioned toys that you or your own grandparents may have played with. What does he think of those compared to his own hi-tech gizmos?

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