Germany's new motto: Let's get interactive

Baby Cedric Alke loves his "Hug and Learn Baby Tad." At first sight, the green frog looks like millions of plush animals beloved by children. But when the infant gives it a hug, the frog responds with songs and lights. Squeeze his chest? The funny green animal sends Cedric a loud kiss. Press the colorful shapes on his chest and they light up and play cheerful tones.

At 8 months old, Cedric is far too young to grasp the meaning of shapes. What counts, says his mother, is that he gets a response in the form of a light and a song to something he does. "He's so happy when he gets a sound," says Helge Alke. "He's learned quickly that there's a connection between doing and getting something, and the connection is done in an interesting way."

Until this year, interactive toys for toddlers were almost nonexistent in this small town near the leafy rural area of Münsterland, Germany. The same is true also in the rest of Germany, a country that prides itself for its wooden-toy tradition.

While American firms Leapfrog, Mattel, and Hasbro were invading American playrooms and preschools with singing books and blinking animals over the past decade, German mothers kept favoring free play and self-discovery through wooden toys.

But a new trend is taking hold. Many Germans are pushing for change because they are concerned that not enough is being "done" with infants during their preschool years. And now, the Alkes belong to a growing generation of German parents who rely on educational toys, many interactive, to give their children a jump-start in learning.

"Until recent years, the early age was ignored in Germany," says Rheinard Koslitz, head of Darmstadt-based Didacta, an umbrella association that represents those in the education business, which this year selected "early education" as its theme.

"Finally, politicians and researchers are saying, 'Learning starts from early on and we have to bring parents into the system.' It was science that got the ball rolling."

One catalyst for change last year was an international study that compared basic skills of 15-year-old students around the world in reading comprehension, math, and science. The study placed German pupils 25th out of 32 countries. The study, conducted by the Program for International Students Assessment (PISA), revealed that almost a fourth of German pupils can barely read. It determined that one reason is the lack of attention paid to preschool and kindergarten students.

Germany's dismal scoring spearheaded a new debate on how to make the pre-preschool years richer in learning activities. Ever since neurobiologist Wolf Singer, who leads the Max-Planck Institute for brain research in Frankfurt, spoke about "time windows" between the ages of 1 and 3 - when toddlers absorb everything - the popularity of educational programs has grown.

"The PISA results are alarming for parents," says Jörg Middelkamp, a spokesman for Leapfrog in Germany.

The German toy market has always been a tough one for interactive toy manufacturers, says Werner Lenzner of the market research firm NPD Eurotoys in Nuremberg. "In Germany, more than in other places, parents have traditionally played with their children," says Mr. Lenzner.

"The attitude has been, 'My child learns with me.' But that's changing as people are under more time pressure."

Sales from the electronic toys industry remain dismal, representing less than 2 percent of the toy market in Germany versus 10 percent in the US. But with its focus on the very small ones, the interactive toy market is slowly catching on in Germany.

And interactive toys that incorporate English and music courses for toddlers as well as foreign-language interactive games are part of a booming industry.

While many argue that interactive toys help children speak better and improve their math skills later on, others worry that these toys could further separate kids from their parents.

Electronic toys could deprive toddlers of "social experiences and social relationships," warns Gerald Hüther, who heads the brain research department at the University of Göttingen. Mothers who are emotionally insecure with their children are prone to using them, he argues.

Those toys "produce in the child the expectation that there is always a clear cause-effect relationship," says Dr. Hüther. "The child ... has the illusion that everything is possible if I push the right button."

At Behle, one of the largest toy stores in Frankfurt am Main, the "Hug and Learn Baby Tad" is featured on the shelves for the first time this year. Next to it is a traditional wooden game aimed at teaching toddlers concepts of shapes and colors. But instead of pushing a button to get an answer, they must place differently shaped cubes into the right hole. "Ideally, parents like everything that blinks and makes music," says one salesperson. "They think that the children can occupy themselves longer."

Helge Alke feels the Hug Tad was an investment. She chose the game in English so that Cedric can develop his foreign-language skills. But the challenge for German parents, she says, is to find the right balance between interactive toys and the classics.

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