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Toys that teach haven't varied much over time



I want to thank you, these many years later, for insisting that "educational toy" isn't an oxymoron.

Sure, my sisters and I wanted Christmas toys that didn't remind us of school, but you were smart enough to know that learning can be fun. You made sure we had electronic toys (that is, battery-powered) that made learning fun.

I remember one that looked like a bread box. You drew a card from a pack of questions and placed it atop the box between two wires. You inserted one wire into the question hole to the left, the other into the answer hole on the right. If your answer was correct, a green light flashed. (I don't remember what happened with wrong answers.)

I thought of this Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when we visited a store in Columbia called Zany Brainy to shop for toys for your great-grandson. In some ways, educational toys have changed, I observed. In others, they haven't.

The basic idea hasn't changed one bit. You're asked a question and given a chance to respond. If you're correct, you get praise. If you're not, you get encouragement. But the computer chip makes today's toys fully interactive. These toys talk to kids and "listen" to their responses.

Such high-tech toys reach down to kids in diapers - "baby Einsteins," they're called - and up to teen-agers. Some toys are fairly simple. There's the Phonics Pond, for example. It's an electronic pond full of plastic buttons in the shape of purple fish (representing consonants) and green frogs (vowels). The kid might be asked to press letter A. (Hint: It's on one of the green frogs.) If he or she touches the right frog, the response is "Great job!" or "You did it!" and on to the next letter.

The Phonics Pond is one of many toys obviously directed at parents concerned that their kids aren't learning enough in school about the relationship between letters and the sounds they make, called phonics. When I visited the same Zany Brainy store in 1998, interest in phonics toys, and sales, were on the rise. They're still there, and they've been joined by toys that emphasize writing (the LeapFrog Writing Desk), math (the LeapFrog Math Desk) and other subjects and skills.

(LeapFrog, which didn't come on the scene until 1995, is the fastest-growing company in toyland, with sales this year of nearly $500 million, according to The Wall Street Journal.)

The world of learning toys gets evermore high-tech: the VTech Handheld, for example. You've never used a Palm Pilot, Mother, but this is similar. Directed at kids age 5 and up, the palm-sized computer has a screen the child touches with a stylus not unlike the wire we used to stick in the holes of the cards. For $39.99, the kid can play about 20 games that teach reading, math, music and art. It's called a "portable learning companion," and for extra money a parent can buy an accessory that downloads more games and activities from the Internet.

Some of the new toys are trying to ride the coattails of the wildly popular Harry Potter. The Voyager Adventure Pack, for example, presents the "Quiggle Caper," asking kids to "help Professor Bumblebrain before the Quiggles take over the town."

Every year, it seems, one learning toy becomes wildly popular. This year, it's a robot aimed at children ages 3 to 7. I want to tell you, Mother, Kasey the Kinderbot is a far cry from the toy with the cards you bought us circa 1949. This fun-loving kid from Fisher-Price does high-fives and the hokey-pokey. It speaks three languages and teaches reading, math, problem-solving, singing, dancing, manners and "taking turns."

Fisher-Price represents Kasey as "your get-ready-for-school friend." For $65 to $75 - depending on the store - you can buy that friend. Moreover, Kasey, unlike other toys, gets rave reviews from such reliable toy critics as Parents magazine.

When we were 9 or 10, we loved what are now called "action toys." They were particularly popular in the years after World War II, and they're popular today. You can buy G.I. Joes, monsters and space alien computer games in the same stores as Kasey the Kinderbot and the Phonics Pond.

But in these parlous times, Mother, when war seems on our doorstep and terrorism more real than imagined, I thought you'd like to know that there are still educational toys that flash a green light for a correct answer.


Your Son

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