One man’s search for a holiday toy that no longer exists — sort of


    The following is a transcript of a conversation airing on NewsWorks Tonight.  Click above to listen to the conversation.

    DAVE HELLER: Hannukah starts this evening, and Christmas will be upon us in less than a month. If you have young children on your gift giving list, you’ll probably soon be going out in search of the latest kids gizmo, or maybe something a little lower tech. Well, our producer, Shai Ben-Yaacov, has been on a mission to find just the right gift for his young son. He joins me now in studio to describe the journey. Shai, I understand you were looking for something that harkens back to your own childhood.

    SHAI BEN-YAACOV: That’s right Dave, and before I tell you what it is, I want to play this sound for you. It’s probably one you haven’t heard in a little while.


    DH: Wait a minute, are you saying you wanted to get your son an actual tape recorder?

    SB: Well no, not exactly. I mean, who uses tape recorders anymore? No, what I want to get my son is the modern equivalent of a tape recorder. And when I say tape recorder, I’m talking about the kind that came in bright colors in tough plastic cases with big buttons that were specifically marketed to kids. When I was a kid in the 80’s, there were a variety of these recorders from companies like Playskool, Sony, Fisher Price. They were easy to use, and the idea is you could leave it with the kid, even one as young as my son, who’s three, and he could use the built in microphone to record himself saying silly things or singing a song. For my generation, this was an essential part of any kid’s toy chest.

    DH: But they were decidedly tactile, whether reel-to-reel or 8 track or cassette.  What is the modern equivalent of such a recorder for kids?

    SB: Well, that’s where things get complicated. I talked to Scott Steinberg. He’s a sort of guru on the subject of tech toys. He wrote a bestselling series of books called the “Modern Parents Guide” series. And I asked him this question: what can I get my son now that does what those old tape recorders did. Here’s what he had to say.

    SCOTT STEINBERG: Well there’s quite a few devices that allow kids to record their voice as well as video. Among them, smart phones such as the iPhone, tablets such as the iPad, Nexus, or Galaxy tablet. And on top of that, you also have specifically designed for children devices, high tech toys or learning tablets such as those offered by Leap Frog and V-Tech.

    DH: Shai, you must have gotten quite a holiday bonus.  Are you shopping for an iPhone?

    SB: No, I’m not getting my three-year-old an iPhone. Call me old fashioned.  So these other things he mentioned, particularly the ones for kids, these learning tablets from Leap Frog and Vtech, they are very cool. They have lots of learning apps and they can do video and yes, many of them can do voice recording. But they cost upwards of $130. And really, what I’m trying to give him is the experience that I had, of having this blank audio canvas to work with.  And while the rest of the features of these tablets are very neat, I don’t really want to spend so much for something that, frankly, a three year old will probably lose or break in short order.

    DH: It does seem like what Scott Steinberg is presenting to you is a much more complex product, more like a computer.

    SB: Right, and in fact, Scott Steinberg says, this is sort of the way of the world with all tech gadgets, not just for kids.

    SS: Multi-functionality is becoming one of the hottest trends in both electronics and the toy industry because what happens is when you can offer customers more value and more pieces and parts in a single device that can substitute for others, this really seems to be the sweet spot where they can get people willing to actually pay a premium for these types of products.

    SB: He also says when it comes to technology marketed specifically to kids, it’s often basically just a simpler, more colorful version of what’s marketed to adults. Hence these “junior” versions of smartphones and tablets. Now Dave, I think it’s worth noting here that mine was not the first generation with access to recording equipment as kids. I also talked with Warren Buckleitner. He’s editor of Children’s Technology Review. He told me that the first toys that could record voice date way back.

    WARREN BUCKLEITNER: The first smart toy might have been Thomas Edison’s talking doll, which had a wax recording mechanism in it, and you pulled a strong. So you could actually record a voice and have the doll talk back. And that was in like 1900.

    DH: Fascinating history, but if multi-functionality is the modern mantra, that really doesn’t really help you find a cheap recording device.

    SB: You’re right…and yet, hearing that these media machines date so far back did kind of put this whole voice recorder search in perspective for me. So I posed this question to Warren Buckleitner.

    SB (talking to WB): You know, I had this tape recorder that I played with as a kid. But really a tape recorder is not a toy. At least it was not a device that was originally devised as a toy. It’s only a toy because somebody at Playskool or Fisher Price decided to make it bright and colorful and market it to me. So as indignant as I am that marketing people have decided to market some other products to kids that I may not want to get for my kid, I was once the target of pretty much that very same marketing. Do you think that’s true?

    WB: Yes. I think that the mistake here in our old fogie thinking is that we’re putting the technology in front of the child. And we have to remember that the reason we liked recording our voice is because it seemed magical. And for today’s child, there are now dozens or even hundreds of ways to capture a voice and play with it using a smart phone, and there are some incredible apps that have come out that let you play with your voice.  And we have to just get used to the idea that things have changed so quickly, and our childhoods are very different from the childhoods that our kids are having.”

    DH: First off, I’m here to say you are no old fogie.  But Shai, do Warren’s words give you any cause for comfort?

    SB: Well sort of, but I still want that cheap recorder.

    DH: Thanks Shai.

    SB: Happy Thanksgivukkah, Dave.

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