Smarter toys, smarter tots?

Parents spend $2.8 billion per year on educational toys for infants and preschoolers.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Doreen Olsen has a shelf full of videos that she hopes will do more than entertain her 16-month-old son. Ideally, she says, they'll also make him smarter.

"The sooner [children] are stimulated, the more they'll learn in the long run," says Ms. Olsen, who tries to collect every video made by the Baby Einstein Co. "It's more about the intellectual foundation he's getting than the entertainment."

As a mother aiming to give her child a leg up, Olsen is far from alone. Parents who hope to boost their infants' and toddlers' IQ levels have made the brain- development niche one of the toy industry's strongest sectors since 2000, according to the Toy Industry Association.

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There's one big problem, however, with the nation's rush to raise a smarter generation through the use of videos, CDs, flashcards, and more for the not-yet-talking set: The boom is based more on wishful thinking than hard evidence.

According to experts and child advocates most familiar with recent research, studies refute the notion that

particular products or types of experiences in the first three years will enhance intelligence. On the contrary, they caution, if parents habitually leave children in the care of "educational" videos, children can suffer intellectually from a lack of time spent with another person.

"Most of these producers are basing what they're doing on a study that's not very well respected," says Ranny Levy, president and founder of KIDS FIRST!, an advocacy project of the Coalition for Quality Children's Media. "They are claiming things that have not been proven.... If parents think their kids are going to be intellectually superior because they're listening to classical music, the answer is: very doubtful."

Ms. Levy refers here to a 1993 study (Rauscher, Shaw, and Ky) that sparked a sensation by claiming to document the so-called "Mozart effect." The study suggested that children who listened to classical music at young ages developed higher IQs than those who did not. Findings were widely reported and applied, even to the point that in June 1998, Georgia's then-Gov. Zell Miller began issuing classical music CDs to every child born in the state. Videos produced for toddlers soon made Vivaldi, Chopin, and Bach staples on their soundtracks.

Over the past four years, however, a series of independent studies reported in professional journals have debunked the "Mozart effect" as illusory. Common knowledge in the field of developmental psychology now holds that young brains develop through multisensory stimulation, which may include any type of music, whether it's pop, classical, or a child's own compositions on a xylophone.

"Babies learn through multiple senses being rewarded simultaneously," says Irving Lazar, a developmental psychologist and professor emeritus at Cornell University. "This means the best opportunity for a child to learn is from another person," who can stimulate sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell, sometimes all at once.

But what experts now know about the phantom Mozart effect has hardly curtailed manufacturers' zeal for selling to those who want their children to become whiz kids. Genius Products Inc., for instance, sells a compact disc described as"best of the IQ builder: stimulating sounds for intellectual growth."

The CD promises: "Bring out the best in your baby genius by playing the best music, when it matters most - today!" The cover also reads: "The IQ Builder will give you the opportunity to make a real difference in your baby's education right now, by using the effects of Classical music to enrich your baby's brain."

Cautiously singing their praises

Manufacturers are careful in promotional materials not to promise that children who use the products will be smarter as a result. Much of the intellectual growth suggestion is implied, as with Baby Einstein videos that use classical music. The latest in the series, which is named after history's famous geniuses, was released Aug. 5 under the title "Baby Galileo," in memory of the great astronomer.

Each of the Baby Einstein products aims to foster quality time between parent and child, according to spokeswoman Rashmi Turner.

"We started with classical music because it's timeless and beautiful," says Ms. Turner, director of communications and video production for Baby Einstein, a Walt Disney subsidiary. "Every parent wants to have an aspirational outlook for their child.... Any time you spend with a child, exposing them to beautiful things will benefit them."

Products that seem to give children an intellectual advantage have collected endorsements from independent sources. Baby Einstein and LeapFrog merchandise, for instance, showcase on their websites endorsements from such prestigious authorities as KIDS FIRST!, Parenting magazine, and the National Parenting Center.

Interviews with those organizations, however, shed light on the nuanced meaning of endorsement. In each case, products get recommended because children like them and parents trust them for safe, nonviolent content. But do they increase intelligence? Not likely, even according to those who give a thumbsup.

"Our endorsement means our board of advisers found that babies enjoy them," says Lisa Bain, editor of Parenting magazine. "We're not saying it will make your baby smarter."

"Baby Genius is one of the best," says Cornell's Dr. Lazar, who serves on the advisory board to KIDS FIRST! "But it isn't going to raise anybody's IQ."

"When [parents] see the rainbow sticker, they know their peers have given a thumbs up," says David Katzner, president of the National Parenting Center, where parent panels evaluate a product on the basis of marketing, pricing, and children's enjoyment of it - not whether it seems to boost brain development. "In the parenting world, [peer opinion] is what carries a tremendous amount of weight," he says.

And parents do sing the praises of the brainy toy line, not because they see signs of genius emerging, but because their children seem to enjoy them.

"You should see him," says Olsen, the Newburyport mother. "He's mesmerized and delighted. His little face just lights up."

Videos for children who can't yet follow a story line generally use a formula of bright colors, real animals, simple words, and, of course, classical music. This reporter tested one video featuring seals and other underwater creatures splashing toward the camera. The 2-year-old boy on the unofficial testing couch sat quietly, to his mother's delight. Minutes later, he smiled, pointed, and tried to say the names of what he saw.

"There's something about them that works," says Turner, the producer for Baby Einstein. "Otherwise it wouldn't spread."

Lingering concerns

There may be other reasons why parents spend $2.8 billion per year on toys for infants and preschoolers. By buying the perceived brain boosters, parents may hope to ease their own fears in a success-oriented world.

"This sort of speaks to parents' insecurity," editor Bain says. "They want to give their kids every advantage they can.... We live in a very competitive society and children are a way that people compete, unfortunately. It's very easy to get drawn into that, even if there is no evidence."

Toy sellers also feel a weight on their consciences, although their dilemma is whether to sell a popular product of dubious educational value.

Nancy Streeter, for instance, owns the Eureka toy store in Newburyport, a specialty shop for educational toys. She stocks some hot sellers: the Baby Bach DVD and the Baby Shakespeare video. But she refuses "on principle" to sell compact discs or cassette tapes that hang in a crib and teach a child hour after hour to speak French or German. She describes such products as "overboard," though parents continue to ask for them.

Where Ms. Streeter struggles is in selling flashcards with pictures of animals or plants on one side and names on the other. She stocks them, and parents buy them. Yet she asks herself, when does the desire to educate become overkill, even detrimental?

"Flashcards for an infant?," she asks. "I can't image flashing cards at a 6-month-old. Take them for a walk. Let them see a real flower."

Researchers will never know for sure whether a particular product or type of learning actually increases intelligence, according to Northwestern University psychologist David Uttal. That's because the variables involved can never be isolated sufficiently to draw conclusions. Babies learn from all their stimuli, he says, so to say one product can have a superior effect will always be a matter of speculation.

"It's not a serious area of research," Dr. Uttal says, "because no one will ever know."

In the meantime, experts caution against an unfettered notion that the products "can't hurt." Bain and Lazar, for instance, warn that overdependence on videos to keep toddlers occupied can deprive them of the human interaction that forms the bedrock of their learning.

As long as parents use the so-called brain enhancers as entertainment and as a tool to aid interaction with other people, experts welcome their presence in the marketplace. But they may never be comfortable with the innuendo portending future success.

"Babies learn not from the video, but from you watching it with them," Bain says. "So parents should relax. Enjoy time with your baby. They're learning from everything around them."

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