You see them all around you — toys that beep, buzz, and blink. In fact, some of today's "smart toys" contain microprocessor brains with more power than yesterday's room-size computers. As a result, they have enough "smarts" to talk in clear voices, respond to children's actions, and even adjust to an individual child's interests. While they may drive some of us crazy, they are definitely a part of life for many of today's young children. Although they are not appropriate for the classroom, it makes sense to stay informed about what's out there so that you can help parents decide which new "smart toys" will support your curriculum.

Recommending Smart Toys to Parents
Here are examples of ways in which high-quality smart toys can help children build skills in different curriculum areas:.

Learning About Cause and Effect

Smart Toy: Intelli-Table, a joint venture between Microsoft and Fisher-Price.
Description: An electronic busy box, this toy consists of three different activity rings that snap inside a portable toddler-high table. At the center of the table is a coffee plate-size translucent disk, full of lights and surrounded by buttons and switches.
How It Works: Each time the child touches the plate, she hears a sound and sees a light pattern. The toy is highly responsive, and the patterns build upon one another, which makes them fun to play with. For example, when the child moves a bus in one direction, she hears "out" and sees a bright burst of lights moving out. A movement in the other direction illustrates "in." But if the bus is moved a third time, another pair of opposites is illustrated such as "near" and "far." This surprise element makes the experience intriguing to explore.
Skills Reinforced: There are a total of three activity rings, including: "Basics" (including opposites, letters, and number concepts), "Music" (including pitch, animal sounds, and instruments), and "Games" (including a memory game).
Age Range: The Intelli-Table is best suited for younger preschoolers (ages 1 to 3).
Price: $70 (requires 4 "AA" batteries)

Music

Smart Toy: Music Blocks, Neurosmith.
Description: An open-ended, lap-size toy with five colorful square blocks, each with different symbols on each side, and a Mozart cartridge.
How It Works: Children place the blocks in any order and press the play button, letting them create a variety of tunes. Additional cartridges are available, containing rhythms, Bach, opera, surfer music, and jazz. The blocks' symbols represent different instruments such as woodwinds, trumpets, and voices, and the various block colors represent two-measure phrases of melody.
Skills Reinforced: Recognizing instruments, comparing/contrasting sounds, music appreciation, and one to one correspondence.
Age Range: 2–7
Price: $69.95; additional blocks, $19.99 each

Smart Toy: Little Smart DJ Jazz 'n Jam, VTech Industries LLC.
Description: A 24-note keyboard that lights up when you press a key
How It Works: Kids can record their own compositions and play them back for a large group, or simply experiment with the 40 voices, four drum sounds, or the microphone.
Skills Reinforced: Music, comparing/contrasting sounds, music appreciation, one-to-one correspondence
Age Range: 3 and up
Price: $39.99

Early Language

Smart Toy: Little Linguist, Neurosmith.
Description: A very simple smart toy with 15 plastic characters and language cartridges (one for each language).
How It Works: Kids play with the toy by placing the characters on the base and inserting it into the base. As this happens, the toy recites the character's name in Spanish, for instance "el perro" for dog. At upper levels, the toy teaches colors and more complex sentence structure.
Skills Reinforced: Exposure to English, Spanish, Japanese, and French languages, word recognition, color recognition.
Age Range: 1–5
Price: $69.95, additional cartridges, $19.99 each

Letter Recognition

Smart Toy: Phonics Writing Desk, LeapFrog.
Description: A table-top toy with large, letter-shaped buttons and a "magic-screen" with a pen-shaped stylus so that children can practice writing letters.
How It Works: The bright, colorful letters are interesting and easy to press. There are six different activities, offering both open-ended choices that let children explore the letter names and sounds, and directed questions that ask children to find letters, sounds, or spellings of three letter words. The best part is the unique feature that lets children practice writing the letters with a stylus. The sound is clear and easy to understand, important for a phonics toy, and a help button is available at any time.
Skills Reinforced: Letter recognition, sound recognition, word recognition, eye-hand coordination.
Age Range: 3–7
Price: $34.99

Smaller and smarter computer chips mean a bright future for smart toys. The tinny, robotic voices of the past have been replaced by clear, easy to understand speech with a vocabulary of thousands of words. Not only can many toys "talk," but soon they'll be able to also "listen," thanks to voice recognition technology. Imagine, for example, a delivery truck that can obey a child's voice giving commands, such as "stop," "go," "left," and "right." Other toys will be able to remember what a child has done from day to day and adjust the challenge accordingly. Still others will link directly to the Internet to download new content. Certainly, there will be an increasing number of options and possibilities. As teachers, we need to be aware of these options — encouraging parents to take the best and leave the rest.

Don't Forget the Batteries!

All smart toys require alkaline batteries, which can add to the price of the toy (especially considering that it will probably be used extensively). The good news is that each of the above toys turns itself off if it isn't in use, and many can be plugged directly into the wall with an AC adapter.

Remember: Virtual play will never be a substitute for hands-on learning. It's important to remind parents that the most valuable learning experiences for young children are comprised of concrete experiences with real, developmentally appropriate materials.

Remember: You know better than anyone the value of hands-on, tactile experiences for young children. Play with smart toys is a great supplement to traditional toys and materials.

CALLING ALL READERS!

There is ongoing controversy over whether or not smart toys are appropriate for early childhood classrooms. Do they belong in the home, in the classroom, or both? Write to us at Scholastic Early Childhood Today, 555 Broadway, New York, NY 10012-3999 and let us know what side of the fence you're on.


 

Warren Buckleitner, a contributing editor to Early Childhood Today and Scholastic Parent & Child, is editor of Children's Software Revue. All the software he recommends has been tested with young children.