Are you after an educational toy for your child this Christmas? Well, we’ve found that the latest best-selling hi-tech toys, such as those from LeapFrog and VTech, may be exaggerating their educational claims.
My daughter came home from school the other day and confided in me that her teacher had shared ‘a secret’ with the class. The secret was that ‘when you’re playing, you’re actually learning as well’.
For her benefit I feigned surprise, but like most parents I’m more than au fait with the educational value of play.
It’s this educational promise that’s at the heart of hi-tech toys, such as the recently released tablet-style LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer and the VTech Innotab and other similar tech toys from the same companies.
No wonder they’re on the Toy Retailers Association’s list of Dream Toys for 2011.
Manufacturers’ educational toy claims
The manufacturers claim that their products can ‘encourage logical thinking, visualisation skills and hand-eye co-ordination’ and ‘heighten curiosity’.
This kind of education comes at a cost, ranging from a relatively modest £18 up to a pricier £80 for the newer tablet-style devices. So, we were keen to see whether the manufacturers could back up these claims with hard evidence.
VTech gave us written statements to support each claim, but no empirical research. For example, it told us that its My Laptop teaches visualisation skills ‘by the engaging and simple graphics that allow children to easily interact with the laptop and encourage repeat play and memory skills’.
LeapFrog gave us a white paper that lists eight research findings, such as ‘engaged readers are active readers who often experience higher levels of reading achievement’, then cited peer-reviewed studies to support each of its claims.
Do their educational claims stack up?
We ran these claims past a panel of academic experts to see whether they’d stack up. Our experts concluded that, while the toys offered some educational benefits, some of the claims were overblown.
The panel felt the claim that the VTech’s My Laptop could ‘teach early computer skills’ was unlikely due to a poor quality screen and an A-Z keyboard, rather than a Qwerty one.
They also struggled to use the LeapFrog LeapPad Explorer’s ‘nifty stylus’, which is supposed to ‘let children perfect their writing skills’.
There’s no doubting that these devices are fun. I won’t forget the look on my own daughter’s face when she unwrapped one of the laptop-style devices from her grandmother, or how she exclaimed with joy ‘look a laptop, mummy!’ And she’s learned from it, too. In fact, I had learnt how to use the devise by watching her.
There’s certainly value in these toys in terms of fun but, as our research shows, parents shouldn’t take their educational claims at face value.