Toys of the future spark yearning for the past

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In 10-year-old terms, Daisuke Sekine has it good. Dad works for a toy company, mom used to be a toy designer. That means lots of playthings - Gameboys, Legos, you name it. It also means Daisuke is something of a connoisseur. He sizes up new gadgets with the same appraising eye a state-fair judge turns on a pig.

Recently, he took time to give the Monitor his cogent analysis of the newest computer-driven toys. "They're sort of boring," he declared, mentioning Tamagotchi, a virtual pet that requires regular "feeding."

But Daisuke hasn't seen what's going on at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab in Cambridge. MIT researchers have launched a project called Toys of Tomorrow that aims to reinvent the way kids play and learn.

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"We want to rethink childhood itself," says Prof. Mitchel Resnick, who came to the annual Tokyo Toy Fair this spring with colleagues from the Media Lab and some Toys of Tomorrow prototypes.

Professors displayed a jacket that makes music out of movement, toy cars that learn "dance" moves from each other, and a fluffy sensor-loaded ladybug that responds to its owner's movements.

Computer chips are revolutionizing the world of play by creating "smart" toys that sing, talk, listen, and even need time to "sleep." Furby, a chatty fuzzball, is so "smart" that the US National Security Agency banned people from bringing one into their buildings for fear it may overhear and remember classified information. In the future, researchers say stuffed animals will connect kids to the Internet.

But grown-ups may want to think a bit before rushing to wire the romper room. Adults debate how computers affect kids, but few are asking about the impact of computers inside playthings.

Smart-toy backers say adding technology to toys is crucial for our children's future. Others point to their constructive and fun uses. But while information technology has undergone a revolution, experts say kids' developmental needs remain pretty much unchanged. As a result, some specialists say these toys may be a little too smart for their owners' good, robbing children of some benefits of play. The debate is just beginning.

Ask a kid like Daisuke, and they'll tell you the play's the thing. It's been that way since the dawn of time, but it wasn't until the 1960s that early-childhood educator Maria Montessori coined a phrase to explain why. "Play is the child's work," she said, meaning that when kids dress their dolls or build a tower of blocks, they are gaining skills that will help them maneuver in the adult world. The Toy Manufacturers of America describes how play develops "motor skills and dexterity as [children] reach and grasp, crawl, run, climb, and balance.

"Interaction with other children not only promotes language skills, but also important social concepts such as cooperation, taking turns, and playing by established rules. Toys and games enhance problem-solving abilities, and a child's emotional well-being - feelings of success and self-esteem - benefits from positive play experiences."

"Play is crucial," says Naoko Misawa, a Tokyo-based child psychologist. "Even if it looks useless to adults, it is how kids learn, through communicating and interacting with others."

For millennia, children have gone about their work with essentially the same tools - sandcastles, dolls, dress-up clothes, play weapons. Now these tools are being upgraded and MIT professors, among others, say "smart" toys will provide children with added benefits.

If parents want to prepare their kids for the high-tech future, says Prof. Michael Hawley, the best place to start is the playpen. "It's not only important to put technology into toys, it's vital," he says. "Because it's going to be in the hands of the next generation."

Professor Resnick, who studies how technology can change the way people learn, says traditional toys can't equip children for the brave new world ahead. "The old models of learning just don't work anymore," he asserts. "If all you have are blocks and fingerpaints, there are only a limited number of things you can learn: color, shape, size. With computers, the possibilities are infinite."

This draws a belly laugh from Dr. John Cerio, a child psychologist and professor at Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y. "Were Michaelangelo or Einstein limited because they only had paints and blocks to play with?" he asks. "Limits aren't in the medium, they're in the mind."

Smart toys restrict the possibilities and benefits of play by their very nature, argues Dr. Cerio. "Technological toys usually have a specific goal-oriented function and don't allow for other possibilities," he says. Consider Playmates' Toys Amazing Amy, a lifelike talking doll who needs to be fed, dressed, cleaned, played with, and put to bed. She demands attention, but can also refuse to play, for instance when she's been programmed to sleep. Toy reviewers have described her as "interactive to the point of domineering."

While Amy doesn't go so far as to "die" from lack of proper attention, like Daisuke's Tamagotchi did, she often directs the course of play. That disturbs experts who say that control is essential to a child's positive play experience.

And smart as they are, these toys don't teach some very human basics, says Tom Jambor, professor of early childhood education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

"Those toys can't teach you how to socialize, or use language, or problem-solve," he says, "How do you learn to read people, read their expressions? Or learn to use humor to get out of a tight situation? That doesn't happen when you're trying to give the right answer to an interactive Barney."

Cerio says many smart toys eliminate the need for young imaginations to do much work on their own. And toys that inhabit a virtual world or emulate a living being don't offer kids a real-world context, says Ms. Misawa, the Tokyo psychologist.

Amazing Amy may talk and act like a real little girl, but if she doesn't react when her owner pummels her in frustration, she may send the wrong message. "Sometimes, kids can't figure out that what they see and do doesn't apply to everyday life," she says.

Smart-toy backers reject some of these charges. "We want to give lie to the myth that computers are turning our children into themselves, making them bad users of language," says MIT professor Justine Cassell, who designs smart toys that allow kids to take the lead in storytelling. "Our goal is to show it's not the fault of computers, but the way we use them."

And many specialists find smart toys beneficial. Julie Grassfield, a child-life specialist at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas, uses musical and talking smart toys that respond to the kids in her care.

One toy features large pictures of apples, dogs, mommies, and daddies. When kids press the apple picture, the toy says "apple," and so on. "It not only gives the kids instant gratification, but it builds self-esteem, hand-eye coordination, and language skills," she says.

Some smart toys, like the Lego Group's "Mindstorms" kits, have drawn widespread praise and fans in all age groups. The Mindstorms robot-building kit uses a small computer to enhance the traditional Lego set.

"A really good toy is 90 percent kid and 10 percent toy," says Professor Jambor, who expects smart toys to become more and more popular.

Japan's toy association lists five smart toys among the Top 10 bestsellers of the year, though toy stores say teddy bears, blocks, and Barbies still sell just as well.

Daisuke, who plays high-tech games with his dad and makes low-tech bead bracelets with his mom, considers whether he prefers smart toys or their traditional cousins. "You know," he finally says, "I would just much rather play outside."

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