LeapFrog's Game 

The local toymaker wowed Wall Street, but the educational frenzy it spawned may not be in children's best interests.

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Rival companies have responded to LeapFrog's success at the register by filling shelves with new learning toys directed at the same young audience. This fall, for instance, Fisher-Price launches a "get-ready-for-school friend" called Kasey the Kinderbot, a toy it spent two years developing. The large doll-sized robot sings ABCs, does simple math, and imitates animal noises while showing pictures of the animals on a screen in its chest. It accepts cartridges for different skill levels, and gives high fives for correct answers.

VTech Electronics, meanwhile, has jumped the LeapFrog bandwagon with its "Smart Start" line for babies and toddlers. Oregon Scientific has scored with "learning laptops," which helped the company double the size of its toy division over the past four years. The company's Barbie B-Book laptop is now second to LeapPad in sales within the electronic learning niche, and it also makes a Hot Wheels version for boys. "The proof is at the register," says Brian Rubenstein, Oregon Scientific's national sales manager. "Parents are looking for laptop-style products to jump-start kids, to help them learn pre-computer skills."

Driven by the LeapPad boom, 22 percent of preschool toys are now peddled as "educational," and that proportion is rising, says Reyne Rice of NPDFunworld, which tracks the toy industry. "Parents as a whole are having kids later and have more money to spend," says Rice, "and they are responding to the public notion that the window for early learning must be seized at younger and younger ages."

Indeed, one of the biggest ingredients in LeapFrog's success was that it hit the right market with the right product at the right moment. Parents these days have less time to spend with their young children than they did in the past. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the proportion of US families with kids under six in which both parents are working has hovered around sixty percent in recent years.

In addition, the toddler demographic is growing. Rebounding from a seven percent decline between 1990 and 1997, birth rates have since reached their highest point in three decades, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. And birth rates for women over thirty -- who have more cash to spend on their kids than their younger counterparts -- have soared. For LeapFrog, it all adds up to a great ride. "There is a push for kids not to get left behind," says Diane Cardinale, spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association, "and toys are the best way introduce things rather than to say flatly, 'This is school.'"

Unlike the companies behind toy crazes that pried every lemonade-stand nickel from the palms of young consumers -- Beanie Babies come to mind -- LeapFrog has focused its marketing efforts on busy moms and dads. The strategy has paid off -- a playroom strewn with educational toys now has the same sort of social cachet as a Harvard sticker on a Volvo station wagon. "There is a certain fashion to toys," says Sandy Springer, director of merchandising for Imaginarium, an educational toy retailer operated by Toys R Us. "Parents today are more savvy about what's out there for their children. If you give too many generic toys and not enough educational [toys], you are not seen to be an intelligent, in-the-know parent."

It's not just the parents. The learning frenzy is also fueled by pervasive marketing that tries to cast just about every plaything as educational. Manufacturers and retailers of children's products from mobiles to Matchbox cars are hyping the learning angle, and even the simplest toys have fallen victim: Rattles now "inspire confidence" in infants, and the red rubber playground balls we all know from elementary school are now said to foster an understanding of rules in toddlers. One Amazon.com teacher review of Baby's First Blocks from Fisher-Price claims, "The toy naturally introduces your child to important mathematical concepts," in addition to allowing the kid to "to practice visual discrimination." A wooden puppy-shaped xylophone from Babystyle isn't billed just for early music development, but also as "great for developing baby's hand/eye coordination." And at KBtoys.com, Crayola Sidewalk Chalk is peddled, not to draw hopscotch games or simply have fun, but to inspire your budding "little outdoor artist."

Imaginarium rates its products through a system of "learning values." What a parent might understandably mistake for a basic toy -- the Bruder 24-inch Mercedes-Benz Green Garbage Truck, for instance -- the company says will instill learning values like mathematical, visual, and motor skills in addition to introducing "environmental consciousness" (due to the recycling symbol on the truck's flank).

This is precisely the sort of over-the-top nonsense that worries Dr. Toy, an East Bay child-development expert and author who in the adult world goes by the less-colorful name of Stevanne Auerbach.

Auerbach is a fan of LeapFrog, but not of the hype it has helped spawn. Of course parents should care about what their child gets from a toy, but not every plaything has to instigate a specific skill, she says. Imagination, creative thinking, and emotional development can be fostered simply by experiencing the world, and targeted "skill-building" has become far too prominent on toy-store shelves.

Auerbach is far from alone in this opinion. More than a few child-development experts fret that all the focus on education has encouraged parents to allow less and less time to let their kids just be kids. While most of the academics have good things to say about LeapFrog, they also warn parents that no electronic device can replace interaction with adults and open-ended imaginative play.

"There is an increasing feeling among parents that there is this tremendous educational race on that starts as soon as their children are born," Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology at UC Berkeley and author of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn, told Education Week in January. "So it's a waste of time to them if their children are playing dress-up when they could be learning their vocabulary. That is pernicious, and some people are really exploiting that to make money." (Gopnik, too, has served as an advisor to LeapFrog.)

Simple play is far from being a waste of time, says Brian Gulassa, who teaches toy design at Oakland's California College of Arts and Crafts. On the contrary, he says, today's kids have so little time to actually play that parents need to protect true playtime even more vigorously. The designer, who has worked on several LeapFrog products, adds that his second-grader son Max already has three hours of homework. Unfortunately, he says, many parents don't really recognize their children's time constraints. "They would rather believe their kids are getting smart than have them engaged in imaginative play," he says.

A recent cartoon in the New Yorker mockingly portrayed this dilemma: "So many toys -- so little unstructured time," sighs one baseball-cap-wearing, backpack-toting youngster to his pal.

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