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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LeapFroggers counter that they never intended to replace parental interaction. The company's stated aim, as opposed to selling toys that teach, is to saturate explicit learning products with fun -- to wit, you won't even find the word "toy" in the company's press releases, and this sort of corporate modesty may help shield it from criticism.

In any case, Wood argues, worrying whether learning toys confuse play and work is the wrong paradigm. "It's completely possible to allow kids to have a blast and, as they are doing it, learning important concepts," says the CEO. "Is Monopoly work because it teaches the concepts of tens? No, you're having fun while you're learning a lot."

Other industry types concur. "Since today's toys are a better blend of education and fun, and parents have less time, playtime had to become value-added," says Imaginarium's Springer.


Now that LeapFrog has conquered the preschool market, it has expanded rapidly in both directions with such offerings as the LeapStart Learning table, a musical and tactile gadget for infants, and the Quantum Leap line, which includes an advanced LeapPad and a handheld computer called iQuest for grade-school and secondary-school students.

As the users of its products grow older, the company need to market to the kids as well as the parents. And if education sounds like a tough sell with the youth, there's also reason to believe the company could succeed. A study released in June by nonprofit think tank Just Kid, Inc. concludes that kids have a powerful need to learn. In the study, children reported daydreaming about "being smart" more often than they dreamed about meeting a famous person, being popular, looking good, being rich, or falling in love. The most important thing in their lives, said 96 percent of the study's young subjects, was "to do well in school." In a similar study by Nickelodeon/Yankelovich Youth Monitor, 75 percent of kids aged six to eleven wished "there was a quicker and easier way to making myself smart."

But the kids will ultimately follow their parents' lead, says Dr. Toy, and parents need to heed a different prescription, which Auerbach calls "smart play." From her research, play provides the building blocks for learning. Play experiences help the child to gain an understanding of the world, act productively with other children and adults, enhance concentration, and expand natural curiosity -- all essential components of mastering the learning process.

For kids, and even for adults, she adds, the value of play cannot be separated from learning. Recess isn't just for blowing off steam, Auerbach admonishes, her head tipped forward for emphasis in a manner that only a former elementary school teacher can effectively pull off.

"Kids need lot of downtime," agrees Jim Steyer, a Stanford education professor and founder of both family-focused media company JP Kids and national advocacy group Children Now. Steyer, who has spent his career studying children's issues, warns that kids getting constant pressure to do educational things or organized activities is not good. "They need a healthy, balanced play diet," he says.


Not all Bay Area toymaking success stories rely on the educational parent trap. "The anxiety level is crazy," laments Judy Folkmanis. "Childhood is not all about education. Learning takes many different forms."

Folkmanis is founder of Folkmanis Puppets, a company housed in a historic brick warehouse a few blocks down the way from LeapFrog. Limited in physical movement by multiple sclerosis but not dampened in spirit, the toymaker has spent more than three decades in the toy business. In 1973, she started making and selling her puppets on Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue to supplement the family income while her husband, Atis, awaited the start of his biochemistry fellowship at UC Berkeley. But when her clever design of a turtle that could retreat into its shell began selling like hotcakes, he gave up science and the couple went full-force into the toy world. Folkmanis Puppets now makes more than two hundred lifelike animals and other creatures.

While her attitude perhaps reflects her business interests, Folkmanis, for one, isn't big on the computerized educational toys now flooding the marketplace.

"Kids learn to establish a relationship with something lifelike, which I think supersedes knowing the ABCs," she says, speaking above the constant noise of an obsolete dot-matrix printer that is busy cranking out orders for her creations. "Parents need to equally value emotional development," she says. "You can't hug a computer board or take a learning tool to bed. These kinds of toys can't be listening companions."

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