/ Parenting, Technology

Hi-tech toys aren’t as educational as you might think

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.


Hi. We got given one of these and it has lots of games that are supposed to help my kids spell, read and so on, but in fact they get more excited by tapping out emails to the grandparents on the real computer, as they get something really gratifying in return. The toy itself did, however, make a great cash register in my five-year-old daughter’s ‘shop’!

Andy says:
9 December 2011

I have a Leappad ready for Xmas to give to my 4.5 year old. She loves computers but isn’t ready to have her own tablet (which I considered) as changing from one program or game to another is fraught with the possibility of sending your phone or ipad into freefall as your child deletes important apps, signs you up for £3.50 a throw text messages and turns your operating system into jelly. Hence the Leappad purchase.

However, the apps are vastly overpriced and the arrogance of Leafrog is astounding in defence of online download prices which are double the cost of the physical cartridge and yet have none of the associated costs.

Undoubtedly it will be a short term application. Spending multiples of £20 for each full app would see this outstrip the ipad in costs and there is nothing for free. I’ve played with it and it is slow compared to a real PC but it does have kudos and some limited shelf appeal. In the weeks after Xmas we will see just how good it is.

9 December 2011

My two and a half year old granddaughter loves my iPad.
I have loaded all sorts of apps on it suitable for her age and she has mastered them all. She turns the device on, selects what she wants, be it a story, drawing, games, all of which are educational and fun, or playing the piano, popping balloons, or singing songs. She closes down and switches apps with ease and closes down the machine when she has had enough. She has mastered a sequence of moves to get to draw, she switches on, selects a blank page, selects the tool needed, then the colour, and how to change tools and colours as needed, then selects the rubber or knows how to trash her drawing and start a fresh screen.
She is rather addicted to it and it is only allowed to play with when she needs a quiet time. I think that she would find the children’s versions of this device very boring !

A cheap old laptop has far more potential than one of these things.
Free word processors and drawing programs already exist and photo viewers and slideshow creators are also free.

Kids find a real tool they can learn to use much better and it doesn’t have to have internet connectivity – simply use a USB to transfer letters to the home PC and send relatives, friends mail / pictures etc thus allowing parents to check suitability etc first.

An old laptop can be got for £30