Buyer Beware of Brainy Baby Toys

In toy stores across America, shelves are stocked with brainy baby products that claim to boost a child's intelligence.

For parents, they are hard to resist: "I'm a sucker for this stuff," admits Susan Stein. Another mom, Rebecca Ffrench says, "If it's developed to help her learn quicker, sure why not try it."

"A toy used to be just a toy to play with. Now parents realize that toys can be ways of actually [helping] teach their children," says Len Mazzocco, whose toy company, Jack's Pacific, is trying to cash in on that trend with toys that, to use their slogan, "tickle the senses."

The toys are designed to help children develop certain skills. The company's Fun Time Fish Bowl, for example, uses technology to teach colors and expands vocabulary.

Do they really work? Parents increasingly feel pressure to boost their baby's brain power. But child development experts warn that many claims made by makers of so-called smart toys are little more than smart marketing.

Traditional Toys Turning High-Tech

Even basic toys now have sound chips and lights and some sort of element to make them seem as though they're a high-tech educational toy. The traditional stacker rings have even been "upgraded" with flashing lights and music.

Steven Aarons, owner of the Child's Play toy store in Northwest Washington sees the trend. He says, "People do not come in as readily looking for basic toys like wooden blocks, and we steer them toward those toys because our philosophy here is those toys are important. But the fact is, the toys with all the sound effects fly off the shelves."

Aarons has always liked the toy Rescue Heroes because they all portray the "good guys," like firemen, paramedics, rangers and policemen. Through children's imagination, they could provide their own sounds while concocting story lines. But last year, the manufacturer added voices to the newer models, to the disappointment of traditional toy aficionados like Aarons. "This makes me crazy."

Joanne Oppenheim, president of Oppenheim Toy Portfolio and author of the book, Kids and Play, says she has a difficult time finding a walker that doesn't include musical sound chips or lights — or, similarly, a farm that doesn't talk. "One of the problems we're having is finding a toy that is not high-tech," she says. "We're having trouble finding a push toy for toddlers, the kind that toddlers push along when they're learning to walk that doesn't make sound — because Lord knows it is quite enough for a baby to just get up on those two feet."

And the traditional toy farm now comes with miniature animals that make noises. For example, when you place the chicken in its coop, it lets out a cock-a-doodle-doo. "I think a lot of the toys come with so much sound and action, it's as if we simply do not trust that the child can use their own imagination," says Oppenheim.

Oppenheim warns, "There's a lot of snake oil in Toyland, and parents need to be aware of what they bring home."

Beware of Faulty Advertising

First, hundreds of products claim that music, especially classical music, helps a baby's brain develop faster: the so-called Mozart effect. Genius Products even manufacturers a "Mozart and Friends" video and claim in its marketing, "It's a scientific fact: Music can make your baby smarter."

Not quite. For the record, the studies linking music to brain development focused on college students and three-year-olds — and even then, the results are debatable. Child development experts suggest you play music for your child because they enjoy it, but not for the purpose of building brain cells.

"There isn't a bit of scientific evidence that shows that playing Mozart to a baby at this age is going to change their brain cells in the least," says Oppenheim.

Second, some toys are overloaded with sounds and moving parts. And with so much active stimulation, it can spin into sensory overload, causing difficulty focusing.

Third, smart toys that feature a lot of technology are not always smart choices — not when children press buttons and get the same response over and over again.

"Those kinds of toys are hindering children's ability to be creative and to problem solve," says Amy Flynn, the director of Bank Street Family Center at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Here, the idea is that simple toys can best stoke a child's imagination.

"I worry that parents are getting the wrong message that these toys are going to make their children smart," says Flynn. "When in fact, it is the parent and the parent's ability to connect and provide lots of different kinds of experiences for their children."

Child development experts worry that interactive toys might substitute for the more important interaction between children and caring adults.

"Parents can be reassured that if they play with their baby, sing with their baby, talk with their baby, read to their baby and enjoy interacting with their baby one-on-one, the rest is going to happen," reiterates Oppenheim.

Childhood play is about learning and discovery. And batteries are not always required for children to put imagination to work.