- The Washington Times - Monday, December 24, 2001

Countless girls will wake up tomorrow morning to find countless dolls wrapped up for them under their twinkling Christmas trees.But, as toy expert Stevanne Auerbach says, "Barbie doesn't necessarily teach girls how to balance their checkbook."
There's little wrong with a child opening up a Barbie, Ken or G.I. Joe doll Christmas morning. But educational toys, the kind that mix play with valuable learning lessons, can help transform playtime into vibrant learning experiences.
Toys as simple as Lego or as complicated as JumpStart CD games can expand a child's intellectual horizons, experts say.
Ms. Auerbach, a San Francisco author who has written a series of books under the name Dr. Toy, says "an educational toy can be almost anything, if you spend the time playing with it and talking to your child about it."
Toys built to impart a lesson, though, can have long-term benefits for a child.
"Educational toys help to unlock the potential in the child for learning a new subject and a new experience," says Ms. Auerbach, who has spent the last 30 years studying toys and children's services.
Such toys do more than teach reading and math skills. Construction toys, from Lego to Lincoln Logs, teach spatial relationships and sequencing, skills needed to prepare children to read.
Ms. Auerbach lists dozens of smart toys on her Web site, www.drtoy.com. Among the items she praises are Fisher-Price's Play with Letters Desk, which for about $30 helps children by pronouncing the letters placed on the board surface.
Learning Resources' Tick Tac Tock Game, which helps children tell time, costs about $14.
The Washington Times, on the Family Times portion of its Web site, lists educational toys grouped by age brackets.
They include Hasbro and Baby Einstein's Baby Shakespeare Find-and-Rhyme, which for $29 helps toddlers with language and object skills, and for children 3 to 7 Fisher-Price's See and Say: Kids Around the World, a $35 item that teaches geography.
Ms. Auerbach applauds the quality and amount of sound educational toys available now, compared to years past.
Toy manufacturers, she says, have an incentive to provide learning toys.
They realize there's a sustaining quality [to such toys]," says Ms. Auerbach, who estimates that up to 25 percent of the toy market is dedicated to educational fare. "The hot toy seems great this year, but they [children] don't play with it next year."
Parents, who want to stretch out their toy budgets, want more than a one-season fad, she says.
Part of that drive can be credited to home schooling, with parents seeking better ways to educate their children, even during play.

Money shouldn't be a stumbling block for parents concerned about their child's educational playtime, says Lynn H. Fox, associate professor of education at American University and dean of its school of education.
Ms. Fox says toys that promote a child's imagination can be as simple as a passel of art supplies or some building blocks.
"Dolls allow for conversation and role play," she says. "Games get into social interaction, learning rule-taking, taking turns."
"If you just want to get an inexpensive present for a young child, there's finger paints, washable markers, Play-doh," she says. "They can learn about colors."
Some toys possess a wealth of educational opportunities, but only if supervision is provided.
One example is a children's microscope kit, a wonderful item if the child is instructed to prepare slides and adjust the various lenses.
Technology can be an effective teaching tool. DVDs, for example, hold great potential for offering viewers the chance to interact and adapt the material presented.
"We haven't fully tapped into the learning potential of that yet," Ms. Fox says.
Other high-tech goodies for advanced children include digital cameras and computer art software that lets them dabble in graphic design.
"You get kids 15 or 16 years old, they're taking photography courses in high school," she says.
Gifted children can benefit from these tips, though parents may want to skew the recommended age levels two years higher to keep them engaged.
A parent can make few mistakes with educational toys, she suggests. Even a learning clunker, like a cartoon video, can possess a lesson or two within its plastic spools.
"Anything can be a wonderful learning tool in the hands of the right teacher," she says. "You can take the same video and talk about what's going on, stop the tape and interact [with the child]," she says. "Then, that experience is very different."
Caroline Begley, a mother of three from Potomac doing some last-minute shopping last week at her town's Toys Etc. store, looks to mix traditional toys with educational ones. A recent toy she bought for her 5-year-old son mixed his love of dinosaurs with a scientific look at how their bones are discovered.
"It taps into his interest and maybe it gives him more of a sense of what it's like to be a paleontologist," Mrs. Begley says.
"I look at a toy for both its educational and play value," adds Tracey Hughes, a mother of three from the District also shopping at Toys Etc. That task is made easier by toy companies who bring excitement to their products.
"Educational toys don't look like fiber cereal," Ms. Hughes says, referring to their appealing values.

Some educational toys, if they aren't under the tree come Christmas morning, may be hard to find.
Ms. Auerbach says limited shelf space forces some larger shops to display quicker selling items such as Barbie dolls over educational fare.
She suggests scouring the Internet and perusing smaller toy stores more willing to promote such products.
Diane Cardinale, public information manager at the Toy Industry Association, in New York City, says some toy companies are reluctant to produce educational products.
"A lot of manufacturers shy away from it. They don't want to be too preachy," Ms. Cardinale says.
Leap Frog is one manufacturer that takes the opposite tack, with glowing results. Ms. Cardinale says its Leap Pad Learning Center, which phonetically sounds out words in its illustrated storybooks, proved to be one of last season's top five selling toys.
She also praised Neurosmith's Jumbo Music Blocks, which at about $60 are oversized blocks with zippers, snaps and buttons. The toys help improve motor skills while playing a variety of songs.
She says parents, like a few manufacturers, are torn.
Some give their children educational toys because they want to help their children make the grade in a competitive world. Others want playtime to be just that.
"Parents say toys are supposed to be fun," she says.
Connie Iacomini, director of Silver Spring Child Care, takes a low-tech approach to her children's activities.
She says the worst kind of toy, from an educational standpoint, is one in which the push of a button engages an activity or result.
"There's a lot of the toys available that don't use much of the children's imagination," Mrs. Iacomini warns. Such toys appeal to parents, and grandparents, eager to see an instant smile on a youngster's face.
"Things have gotten a lot more automatic [with] a lot more batteries. that's not always a good thing," she says. "We don't use anything that requires batteries."
A quality educational toy is "something they can use their imaginations on and their creativity with," she says. "Blocks are wonderful, Lego are wonderful puzzles are still your best buy."
For parents looking to plug their children into the computer age, she recommends the JumpStart educational CDs, which help children of all ages tackle learning lessons, from early math to colors and shapes.
Ms. Auerbach says the best plan for a child is to play with a variety of toys, from a stimulating set of watercolor paints to some of the more creative toys now available.
Perhaps the only misstep a well-intentioned parent or uncle might make, says Ms. Fox, is to not heed the directions on the box.
"There's nothing more frustrating for a child where some assembly's required and the person doesn't take responsibility for it," Ms. Fox says.
For more tips from The Washington Times, visit https://www.washingtontimes.com/giftguide/01gg_educate.html


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