Study: Educational Toys Often Don't Educate

Despite claims that they help kids learn, the majority of educational video games have little if any research to back up their claims, says a study released at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

According to "D Is for Digital," a study released by the newly created Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, only two of 69 "educational" video games studied were based on educational curriculum, said Terry Fitzpatrick, executive vice president of distribution at Sesame Workshop.

"These games claim educational value but with no research to support these assertions," Fitzpatrick said. "With cell phones, iPods and portable DVD players our children are engaging with media more than ever. — Now is a good time to step back and take a look at where we're going."

The center studied more than 300 digital educational products aimed at children ages 3 to 11. According to the study, few of the products used children's education research in their development. In 2006, the Top 20 video games for kids earned more than $500 million.

"The use of consumer electronics is quite widespread among kids starting between the ages of 4 and 5, which is the average age that kids start using a computer," said Anita Frazier, a research analyst at NPD Group. "Over the last three years of our studies, we've found that not only has the use of these devices — computers, cell phones, personal digital music players, gaming devices — increased, but the average age that kids use them has decreased slightly over time, meaning that kids are using them at younger ages.

"Kids are true digital natives and use these devices very naturally, whereas a lot of adults look at kids in amazement as they seamlessly navigate between the physical and digital worlds," said Frazier. "It's quite natural and no big deal for the kids."

"Technology is a mainstay in kid's lives. Clearly, entertainment doesn't have to be mindless," Fitzpatrick said. "Whether they build castles or avatars, kids will always be kids."

The study was released in conjunction with a first-of-its-kind event at the Consumer Electronics Show called the Sandbox Summit, which examined the interaction between children and technology and the implications for the future.

Veteran technology writer Robin Raskin spearheaded the event, which featured support from such characters as Elmo from "Sesame Street," as well as Lauren Nelson, the current Miss America.

"I am a technology optimist and believe that technology can solve most of the world's problems, if not all," Raskin said. "But only if we use it for the good things. … It was vital to me that the conversation sort of go to these academic things all the time and this was a way to bring that conversation to a wider bunch of people."

Kids' relationship with technology has been the subject of much discussion, with critics calling out MySpace in particular for the number of sex offenders on its site.

In addition to MySpace, many more kid-centric sites encourage children to spend money or "points" for avatars, outfits and activities. While some critics believe the practice simply creates tiny consumers, many companies argue that it teaches a necessary lesson about cash flow.

"Learning the rules of earning and spending money is a key part of a child's development. It's like a virtual allowance in a way," Mattel's Rosie O'Neill, who works on the social network Barbie Girls, said at the show. "We do it in a way that's wholesome and that really encourages wholesome behavior."

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