Do pre-school children really need hi-tech toys?

The Government’s nascent plans to introduce a National Curriculum for children from birth to five years of age may have met with hoots of derision, but for some the pre-school category is a booming sector. Companies are aiming to capitalise on the claimed educational benefits of toys, and V-Tech is among those in the vanguard of the category, rolling out products such as the V.Smile Learning System (MW last week).

The UK toy market is worth &£2.15bn (Mintel), of which &£345m is accounted for by the pre-school sector, and it is growing. The speed of innovation in the toy industry mirrors technological advancements in other business sectors – but some doubt the benefits of technology-based learning at very young ages.

Psychologist Dr Aric Sigman says research is often commissioned by vested interests, such as the manufacturers themselves, and is not necessarily trustworthy. He adds: “Nothing can rival traditional learning methods. Children under three should not be using screens at all. It is important to expose them to real-world experiences, not virtual ones.”

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, an independent group that lobbies against falling standards and “damaging changes” in state education, agrees. He says: “Children under four are better off playing with toys such as bricks and sand, which will help their development, rather than playing with electronic toys and consoles. I have serious doubts about such toys for children of such a young age.”

V-Tech, which on its website claims to be “the creator of the electronic learning products category”, manufactures the V.Smile, a learning system with educational games that adopt the techniques of typical video games, with levels and player options. Content created by brands including Disney is designed to help children learn about colours, shapes and words.

Emma Sherski, marketing director of toy company Vivid Imaginations, says: “There is a significant opportunity in the pre-school market to deliver educational, endorsed systems that help to encourage development through play. Any extension of a brand around this can only be a good thing.”

Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association deputy director-general Michael Rawlinson says that console-based learning for youngsters is a good thing: “Using a console-based system can help young children develop dexterity skills and hand-eye co-ordination. Such is the interest in technology-based learning that the Department for Education and Skills is investigating the use of computer games to develop children’s education.”

Sheena Horgan, director of Kids Inc, an agency specialising in marketing to children, says brands such as V-Tech that have an association with both pre-school toys and technology-based interactivity are meeting parental demand. “There is a growing interest among children in technology-related, interactive products, and an acceptance among parents that this interest exists, and needs satisfying as an essential ‘life’ skill,” she says.

But Seaton argues that many such toys prey on parents’ fears about educational development and suggests children under three are not dextrous enough to reap the toys’ full potential.

Horgan adds: “What concerns me is the British obsession with everything to do with kids being educational. A basic, important component of learning is having fun. Toys that deliver the two at once have additional learning benefits. But is this a market-driven product, or is it driving and creating the market?”

At least one generation of adults has grown up playing computer games and they see nothing strange in the concept. For them, technology-based games with educational elements for young children are a natural progression.

Nathalie Kilby

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