Hi-Tech Toys for Toddlers

The Consumer Electronics Show has always been geared to appeal to the little kid in us. Oooh, new toys. Drool. I want. But at this year's CES, 14 companies as well as children's groups are gathering for the first annual "Sandbox Summit." The goal: to figure out how kids—as young as 3—play with technology and what gadgets they're going to gravitate toward as they get older.

Any parent with a child between the ages of 3 and 11 can tell you: technology has crept into nearly all aspects of playtime, nearly every type of toy. Look no further than venerable toymaker Fisher-Price, which is selling its Easy Link Internet Launch Pad—for "safe" browsing—to the preschool set. And LeapFrog's ClickStart My First Computer gives children ages 3 and up a keyboard to help them learn computer basics, using a TV screen as a monitor. "There's a lot more quality stuff out there," says educational psychologist Warren Buckleitner, the editor of Children's Technology Review.

As an example of the "quality stuff," he points to a product by WildPlanet called Hyper Dash that came out just in time for this past holiday season. Armed with a talking joystick-shaped tagger, children are told to seek out various disc-shaped targets, identified either by numbers or colors. The tagger is embedded with a Radio Frequency Identification chip that identifies the discs and a timer that clocks how quickly the kid has hit all his targets. It's the perfect blend of technology, learning and exercise, says Buckleitner. Wild Planet is unveiling a younger version of Hyper Dash for kids 3 to 5 at CES this week called Animal Scramble, due in stores in September. The company will also put out Hyper Jump, which is a cross between Simon Says and Dance Dance Revolution: the child must tag the correct number (or color) with her hand or foot depending on the questions, some of which involve basic math.

Those items are exactly the kind of techy, educational, fun toys that children's groups like Parents' Choice Foundation—the nonprofit that spearheaded the Sandbox Summit—want to see more of. "We see how play and technology are merging," says the foundation's Claire Green. "There's no putting the genie back in the bottle." Now, Green adds, it's a matter of getting toy manufacturers to keep enhancing their product lines.

To help make its case, Parent's Choice invited Carly Shuler of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop to deliver a 50-page study at the summit that analyzes the current interactive media environment for preschool and elementary-age children. Shuler's conclusion? "There's a ton of products for kids, but not a lot based on research," she says. "We need to bridge the gap between academic researchers and what's going on in the industry." Shuler and her team studied more than 300 products sold to kids and found that "most" do not take advantage of available research regarding children's educational needs. Among the findings, the survey yielded only two educational videogames (in an industry that, according to Shuler, generated $500 million in 2006 for the top 20 titles alone) based on explicit educational curriculum design available in the market.

Such numbers have not escaped the attention of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which takes a less sanguine view of wiring kids too early; the academy advises against screen time for children age 2 or younger, and it recommends no more than one to two hours a day of quality programming on televisions or computers for older children. "Manufacturers have found a new demographic to target and they're targeting it with, shall we say, innovative methods," says the AAP's communications chairman Don Schifrin. One example of such "innovative" marketing on display is Mattel's virtual Barbie Girls world. Girls can guide their avatars through an online world, interacting with friends and earning points they can use to decorate their rooms. And how do they earn points? By watching commercials for Barbie products.

A less cynical approach to designing online space for kids can be seen at the Zula Patrol exhibit here. The popular science-oriented public television program is collaborating with IBM to launch a membership-driven social networking site called Zula World in May. Presumably the new site won't bombard Junior with advertising. Or, for that matter, get him hooked on a game before demanding money from Mom and Dad if he wants to keep playing—something Buckleitner says sites like Webkinz and Nick Jr. have turned into a science. He's currently drafting a paper for Consumer Reports' WebWatch Group on the topic.

Buckleitner does like toys that aren't necessarily initially designed with kids in mind. Children, after all, love mimicking their parents (which partially explains why companies like Kajeet have begun making cell phones for eight-year-olds). Buckleitner is a big fan of the LED flashlights he's seen at CES: they're a reliable source of light, good for kids afraid of the dark, and they're fun to play with. But he has been most impressed by the Nintendo DS, the touchscreen portable gaming console that sells for just $120. There were more children's products sold for the DS than for the Macintosh in 2007. (In fact, the DS, which debuted only in 2004, came in second behind only Windows.) "It's the huge story for '08," Buckleitner says. "There's now a horse software designers can ride into living rooms across the country, and it's made by Nintendo." Meaning that with a little luck there may be more high-quality educational and recreational offerings for kids on display at next year's CES.