Should Toys Talk to Kids?
Having a toy that talks is a persistent childhood fantasy. Adults have been trying to bring that fantasy to life ever since Thomas Edison installed miniature, hand-cranked phonographs in porcelain dolls. Over the years, toy manufacturers have experimented with toys that say prerecorded phrases or tell entire stories when a child pulls a string or presses a button.
More recently, toys have become truly interactive, equipped with software that makes them seem responsive to children. This fall, Mattel announced development of Hello Barbie, a new version of the iconic doll, which, with the help of a Wi-Fi connection, analyzes what a child says so Barbie can respond with something appropriate. CogniToys has introduced a talking dinosaur named “Dino” that answers questions and responds to commands. Both toys are supposed to “learn” as a child uses them, so their responses become tailored to the child.
These new talking toys ranging from a baby doll that can “read” 70 words to a “talk back” doll that repeats what a child says in a squeaky voice. Then there are programmable “pets” and radio-controlled robots.
Some people think all this responsiveness has educational potential. One intriguing study found that children who played with toys programmed to say their names and other personalized information were more attentive when the toy presented unfamiliar material.
At the same time, many experts feel that young children, in particular, are better served by toys that allow them to control the script. Playing is a way for children to work out their own ideas about the world, and toys that seem amusing to adults may actually limit a child’s imagination.
Think carefully before purchasing the season’s most seductive talking toys. Here are some questions worth asking:
Will the toy work? Before choosing a talking toy, be sure your child is developmentally ready to manage the controls. Think about whether the toy will challenge or frustrate your child. Consider durability too. A toy that breaks down or has technical glitches will interrupt the flow of play.
Does the toy gather information about the child? Whenever a toy connects to the cloud, parents have to assume that anything a child says in its presence is being recorded. What use will companies make of those recordings? The Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood worries that Hello Barbie will “eavesdrop” on children. “It’s creepy,” says Executive Director, Dr. Susan Linn, “and it creates a host of dangers for children and families.” Others are concerned that toys that depend on Wi-Fi will become targets for hackers.
Is the toy a good role model? Some toys are surprisingly sassy. Other toys embody exaggerated ideas about gender — hypermuscular action figures or heavily made up dolls. If a toy is going to function as a child’s friend, it should be a positive influence.
Is the toy affordable? Interactive toys tend to be expensive. Talking Barbie, for example, will cost $75. Think about whether the price matches the play value of the toy.
Does the toy stimulate imaginative play? The toy does the work, so your child becomes a passive consumer of entertainment. Once the novelty wears off, your child is likely to be bored, a sure-fire indication that the toy isn’t giving your child room to think and grow.
It’s important to understand the limitations of talking toys. Children need to become skilled with language because it’s the best way to share information, express feelings and build a sense of closeness with other people. Toys that talk may be amusing, but they cannot help a child develop understanding and empathy. That’s something they can learn only in the company of living, breathing, caring people.
Carolyn Jabs raised three computer-savvy kids, including one with special needs. Visit growing-up-online.com to read more of her columns.