A year ago for Christmas, my daughter received a Vtech Rhyme & Discover electronic storybook from her grandmother. (See photo at right.) From the start, I didn’t like it. It was loud. The singing voice was grating. (I can still hear it in my mind as I write this. “Twinkle. Twinkle. Little Star. You’re a little star!” Shudder.) It was a toy I would never have purchased. But my daughter loved it. L-O-V-E-D it. It was endlessly entertaining to her. She loved pushing the buttons and turning the plastic pages to hear different songs. What could I do? I let her play with it as often as she liked.
Slowly, but surely, my house has started to fill with other tech toys, a couple of which I even purchased. This means that sometimes, when she activates more than one at a time, the cacophony of things that blink, sing, chirp and warble is truly ear-splitting. Some of the toys are terrific. A few are horrible. But today, none are her favorite toys. That honor is reserved for a set of 10 stacking/nesting cups and a Fisher-Price Noah’s Ark. Neither has a computer chip inside.
The whole experience of watching Pumpkin interact with toys over the past year and a half has gotten me thinking about the debate between high-tech and traditional toys that’s playing out in the marketplace. Companies such as Vtech and LeapFrog are introducing new computer-based toys that promise to teach kids numbers, letters and colors. At the same time, there’s been a surge of interest in wooden toys by companies such as Melissa & Doug.
(One neat sidenote. When I e-mailed Doug about an interview, he wrote this back: “We’d love to spend a bunch of time talking with you about this, unfortunately we’re ‘running’ out to the hospital for the arrival of Melissa’s baby (# 5, yikes!).” I have to give him a lot of credit. I don’t think anyone has ever gotten back to me in those circumstances. I was impressed.)
Back to the tech toy debate: I first became exposed to this divide more than a decade ago when a friend enrolled her son in a Waldorf school. If you’re not familiar with the organization, check out its Web page here. The group’s national headquarters is in Rockland County. The Waldorf folks don’t believe in commercial toys of any sort. They like children to use natural materials like stones, cloths, sticks and wooden shapes to play in purely imaginative way. The idea is that a child’s mind sees a spaceship in an evocatively shaped piece of wood instead of a literal piece of plastic molded at the factory.
I never really considered this path for Pumpkin, mainly because it seems so impossible to wall someone off from the world, which is what you’d have to do. When I interviewed the Waldorf experts, they pointed out that once a child is stimulated by an electronic toy, it’s hard to go back to a traditional toy. That said, I have mixed feelings about some of the high-tech toys around my house. One in particular, an electronic drum, is especially irritating because it’s so needy. It would be fine if it would play music and flash lights when Pumpkin actually hit it. But after just one tap, it goes off into a long medley that doesn’t stop, even when Pumpkin is across the room playing with another toy.
Now, as a technology reporter and fan of computers, I am not anti-technology. As a child of the 1970s, I grew up playing with crayons, dolls, TinkerToys, Lincoln Logs, Legos and Lite-Brite. My favorite toy was my portable record player. Now, I use a computer every day of my life. I have an iPod. I even admit to loving some video games like WarCraft III (not that I have time for them anymore). But I can see the need for balance. Pumpkin’s first high-tech toy was an iPod that she listened to in her incubator. Earlier this year, I wrote about introducing her to baby software that she can enjoy while sitting on my lap. (This was mostly a response to her crawling over and pulling on my leg while I’m trying to work.) I’ve even admitted to using Baby Einstein videos as an electronic babysitter from time to time. But I have resisted the lure of other tech products, and probably will for a while. And even though I don’t anticipate enrolling Pumpkin in a Waldorf school, I’m planning to adopt the idea of a using a basket of colorful cloths for play. (Maybe it will save my laundry from finding its way around the house.)
I tried to explore this debate for a story. You can read it tomorrow in the business section of the paper, and I’ll provide a link here when it’s published. In the meantime, you can vote in a poll on the topic in our forums and share your opinions with readers of this blog. I’d love to hear your thoughts!