Tips for Choosing Digital Toys for Your Children

Imagine two dozen football fields packed with stuffed animals, dolls, games, puzzles, craft kits, art supplies, wooden toys, sporting goods, trains, cars, an ocean of plastic, and, yes, lots of tech-enabled toys. I attended the world’s largest toy and hobby show to speak at its Toys 3.0 Business Forum on “Interactive Media as Family Connectors.”

I was confident in my examples of families coming together around screen-based apps and games—where they are jointly telling and animating stories, or sharing drawings across miles or generations—but not as certain about my examples of toy/tech combination playthings.  Toys with electronic functions aren’t especially new, but physical products that interact with screen devices (smartphones, tablets) are growing fast, and a hot topic in an industry concerned that screens may eventually render toys and toy stores obsolete. I call these toys that interact with screen devices toy-media hybrids.

Fortunately, I had a day to walk the floor and seek the best and brightest (and…the other stuff).  As you might expect, such a huge exhibition of toys can make it hard to distinguish innovation from imitation, signal from noise.  I was gratified, then, that many of the same principles that underlie the Fred Rogers Center Framework for Quality in Digital Media for Young Children helped me evaluate tech toys.

With the center’s guidance in mind, here are a few guidelines for choosing toys I came up with while at the Toy Fair:

Don’t insert technology when the real-world experience is better.  Toy-media hybrids should offer something neither could do alone.  Playing and trading cards are a perennial family favorite, because they can grow with the child from simple matching to complex strategy games.  Now, specially encoded decks still offer the familiar no-tech card game fun, but when the cards are laid atop a tablet or phone, a video or game based on the card content will pop onto the screen (say, an elephant in an animal-matching card game might launch a video of one in the wild).

The best screen media—and by extension, toy-media hybrids—don’t use every amazing technology available, but choose only those that best suit their goals.  A number of companies showed traditional board games that incorporate tablets or smartphones.  One, however, initially released character-branded mats that played limited games (based on those characters) when plugged into an iPad.  Tech evolution narrowed their market (the mat couldn’t accommodate new iPads and other OS devices) and consumers weren’t eager to buy new mats for each game pack, so the company shifted strategy to a generic, four-player mat, adaptable to all devices and infinite games, including independent games designed using the company’s developers’ kit.

ISM2013_as6910-312x468Well-designed tech toys—like high-quality screen media—leave room for the child’s active contribution.  A toy marketed as “The Ball…Evolved” showed some fun-looking augmented reality and remote control games, but felt as though it distanced children from the most flexible, creative, and fully evolved plaything ever—the ball.

Wearing my Fred Rogers Center goggles, I saw more potential and inspiration than success stories in toy-media hybrids.  For example, one “blaster” toy cleverly snapped together a smartphone to create an augmented-reality shooter game and laser tag. However, sensitivity about gunplay worried some experts.  Perhaps a more prosocial, child-empowering use of this technology is possible—an exploration toy where the mission is not to “blast,” but to photograph items in the child’s environment.

Technology has caught up with our creativity and vision; now, what will we do with these powerful tools?  When Fred Rogers said, “It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives,” he was advising adults to treat children’s play seriously.  The Nurnberg Toy Fair left me overwhelmed, but also optimistic about the intersection of toys, games, and media, as long as we stick close to our content, context, and child trilogy.

I hope toymakers will keep the following principles in mind in the future (and teachers and parents can keep them in mind as well in selecting these new digital toys for our children):

  • Content: How does this tech/toy combination help children engage, express, imagine, or explore?
  • Context: How does it complement, and not interrupt, children’s natural play? and
  • The Unique Child: How do we help parents choose the right playthings for their child’s needs and abilities by describing the philosophy and intent that’s gone into making a toy, not hyping desired outcomes.

 

Photos/ Spielwarenmesse

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