Go for the old favorites

    Research finds cheap, basic toys stimulate kids’ minds and vocabularies.

    Holiday shopping during a recession can be a headache for cash-strapped parents. The latest in high-tech toys and learning gadgets can soar into the hundreds of dollars. A local researcher says parents shouldn’t fret – a saving money on cheap toys might be good for their kids.

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    Doug and Julian: Is that a dumptruck or a firetruck? Firetruck.

    There are myriad toys, videos, and gadgets claiming to make your child a genius. Doug Eppler, a father from Wilmington, says he and his wife sought them out for their son Julian.

    Eppler: We were pretty conscious I think as we were shopping around of finding things that were going to help in the learning process. And a lot of toymakers these days are catering to parents knowing that they’re looking to do that. But you also learn pretty quickly that he can learn from just about anything.

    Eppler and his son come to the University of Delaware’s learning lab for experiments on just how Julian learns from toys.

    Roberta Golinkoff, UD’s chair of education, monitors the Epplers’ language as they play with electronic versus basic toys. She says children actually learn better from toys without the electronic bells and whistles.

    Golinkoff: There is no research that suggests that young children profit from these fancy electronic toys. Instead, they profit from things like books and all kinds of art supplies like clay and modeling, and blocks, the old favorite.

    Golinkoff says that’s because basic toys rely on children’s imaginations directing play.

    Golinkiff: The electronic toys determine the way it goes. They ask for answers, often just one right answer. That’s not good for kids. Kids have to learn to think creatively. That’s what play is all about.

    Karen Maidlinger, a mother of a fifteen-month-old, found the same result outside of the lab in her Philadelphia home. She says she sees her daughter thrive with toys that involve figuring out the answer, rather than having a toy tell her what it is, such as a robot that says a letter when you press the corresponding button.

    Maidlinger: I’m not sure you get that much more benefit from that than just in the bath she has these stick on letters that you stick on the tiles and they’re much cheaper and we talk through the letters and numbers as we stick them on the wall. That’s probably more effective really and it’s her mother’s voice versus some random voice on a tape recording.

    As for DVDs and educational media – despite their branding – they actually might hurt children’s language development, says Golinkoff.

    Golinkoff: The research is suggesting that kids who watch a lot of videos like the Baby Einstein stuff, actually have a decrement in their vocabulary relative to children who watch less.

    Baby Einstein and Disney, it’s parent company, did not return multiple requests for comment. Both a 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation study and a 2007 University of Washington study found electronic learning media don’t stand up to their educational claims. So Golinkoff says gift-givers shouldn’t feel bad if they can’t afford the expensive electronic toys this year.

    Golinkoff: I would love to reassure parents that the economic downturn is not going to be a serious problem for their children. In fact, it might be a boon for their kids because if they go back to the old favorites instead of buying the 100 dollars a pop electronic toys, their kids are probably going to enjoy themselves and learn more.

    Karen Maidlinger says her daughter prefers plain old books, anyway.

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