Toy Trend Is High-Tech

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2645, 2008-11-07, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 14-16) and their website.

For those of us whose childhoods preceded the invention and proliferation of the microprocessor, the children's toys of today can seem exceedingly — and at times, excessively — complicated. Furthermore, these newer toys tend to be more expensive to purchase, operates, and repair (in those increasingly infrequent cases where repair is actually possible). In addition, the newer toys are generally more energy dependent — in the form of batteries, in most cases.

Consider just two popular types of playthings: The miniature airplanes currently flying the skies are made of metal and plastics, directed by a handheld radio controller, and typically powered by a two- or four-stroke gasoline engine. They are far more complex than the ones they supplanted, which were made of Styrofoam or balsa wood, directed by gusts of wind, and powered by elbow grease. Many of the high-end dolls now sport built-in microchips and voice synthesizers. Decades ago, the closest equivalent was an old Raggedy Ann with potato chip fragments in her hair and the best efforts of a five-year-old budding ventriloquist.

The implications of the increasing sophistication of children's toys, in terms of the development of storytelling skills and imagination, will be discussed in a moment. But first, we should consider the major trend seen in the design, manufacture, and marketing of the toys that can become the constant companions of our young ones, and thus can have a dramatic impact on their mental and physical development.

Technology in the Playroom

Possibly the predominant theme in children's toys, during the past couple decades, is the incorporation of the latest technological advances into their design of these products — even those directed at infants who are too young and lack the motor skills for using regular toys, but can instead be entertained by colorful and multifaceted mobiles that run on electricity. This theme is evident in the products highlighted by industry groups, among other market players (no pun intended).

Every year, the Toy Industry Association (TIA) — the primary industry group within the United States — organizes the American International Toy Fair. ("American International"? Is the entire world now under our national dominion?) Each annual fair gives toy makers an opportunity to shop their latest wares to the major retail outlets, such as Amazon.com, eToys.com, Radio Shack, Sears, Target, and of course Wal-Mart.

At the recent Toy Fair '08, winners in a dozen categories were announced, including Toy of the Year, Most Innovative, Infant/Preschool, Electronic Entertainment, Educational, Activity, Game of the Year, Specialty, Outdoor, Girl, Boy, and Property (e.g., a theme park). In most of these categories, high-tech entrants took top honors. For instance, voted best toy overall was the Air Hogs Havoc Heli Laser Battle, by Spin Master, Ltd. In this game, each of two players has a radio control unit (with built-in battle sound effects) for flying a small battery-powered helicopter and shooting a laser at the opponent's helicopter, which is sent earthward in a tailspin when hit by the laser.

The Electronic Entertainment Toy of the Year was the Power Tour Electric Guitar, by Tiger Electronics, which appears to be a division of Hasbro, the second-largest toy maker in the world. Styled to look like a Gibson SG, the "guitar" has no strings, but instead an electronic strum sensor, in addition to sensors on the fretboard. It has a built-in speaker and two knobs that allow for special effects. You — er, I mean, your children — can select from one of several playing styles, including metal, punk, and rock. It has half a dozen songs built-in, and uses lights on the fretboard to show beginners how to play the songs. It can be connected to an MP3 player, so anyone can play along to their favorite songs.

Fun Aerobics

Fortunately, not all of the new toys coming out will limit the child's activities to twitching thumbs on an RC (radio controlled) device or a video game console. Toy designers, manufacturers, and shoppers are looking for ways to encourage (increasingly obese) American children to put down the TV remote and potato chips, get off the couch, and rediscover the joys and health benefits of vigorous physical movement.

An example of this worthy idea is the Smart Cycle Physical Learning Arcade System, developed by Fisher-Price. It is designed to be a combination stationary bike, arcade game, and learning center, which plugs into a television set. As the child pedals, he progresses through Number Fields, Letter Creek, Math Mountain, Shape Lake, and other included modules. He can steer toward or away from each element on the screen, depending upon the changing list of winning elements. Sadly, continuous cycling is not required, because a joystick can be used for playing games and other activities. But at least children can race against the clock, cars, or even another player. Additional cartridges can be purchased, with games involving popular children's characters. Kudos to the TIA for declaring it both the most innovative and best educational toy of the year.

The winner of the Outdoor Toy of the Year was the RipStik Caster Board, by RipStik USA. Unlike conventional skateboards — which are quite rigid and must be propelled forward by pushing off repeatedly with whichever foot is not planted on the board — the RipStik allows the rider to utilize a twisting motion to move forward, without ever having to push off the ground. It is able to accomplish this with a concave deck that is split into two parts that pivot, with each deck having traction plates for better foot control. In addition, the RipStik has inclined casters, necessitated by the pivoting back and forth while "carving" the pavement.

Counter Trends

It may appear that most new toys consist of blinking lights, bleeping beeps, RSI-inducing thumb controls and joysticks, and in some cases an unhealthy level of violence. Yet there continue to be encouraging forces, in the form of toy manufacturers choosing to make available healthier games, and parents wisely choosing to purchase them. Toy shop owners and other observant parents have pointed out that children generally prefer toys from which they can learn something, without the sense of undergoing formal teaching. This phenomenon seems to be completely independent of how high-powered, colorful, or complicated is the toy or game in question.

Another clear trend is the conscious decision by parents to opt for toys that are more environmentally responsible — oftentimes the simple toys that filled their own childhoods with countless hours of joy and playing together with friends. Such "green" classics may be difficult to come by at the local big-box retailers and humongous specialty toy stores, but they are not difficult to find. For example, San Diego's own PristinePlanet.com offers hundreds of eco-friendly toys, organized into two dozen categories, from Arts and Crafts, to Wooden Toys.

In general, parents can choose to limit the number of new toys they will purchase for their children, and as gifts for other people's children, as well as the ecological impact of those shopping decisions.

Which brings us back to the critical topic of the impact these high-tech toys are having on our children. Has something been lost in all this automatization and computerization? In the eyes of some critics, no longer does a child exercise her imagination by creating the sounds and movements of the toy, but instead she pushes a button and passively waits for the toy to perform the sounds and movements for her. It parallels other forms of entertainment in our culture (or what is left of it). For instance, story telling was replaced by the radio, thus eliminating the need for the story teller to creatively evoke the voices and sounds of the story. On a larger scale, this led to the death of oral history. When was the last time you heard a parent or grandparent passing down to youth the tales and exploits of their ancestors? In time, the radio was replaced by television, thus obviating the need for the radio listener to conjure up images in their minds to match the narrative broadcast over the radio waves.

These may be the rants of oldsters nostalgic for simpler times. Or they may be telling signs of an insidious danger — one that tends to get swept under the rug during the Christmas shopping blitz. Yet regardless of one's personal beliefs about the development of children's intellects, it is clear that children's toys will most likely continue to become increasingly sophisticated and technology-focused, paralleling the similar trend in the adult world. As we well know, technology is a double-edged sword, and should be wielded with our best judgment as to what high-tech toys will promote physical and intellectual health for our children.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.