Buyer Beware of Brainy Baby Toys

ByABC News
February 12, 2001, 6:26 PM

Feb. 12 -- 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."