WHITNEY: Re-evaluating toys in the house

My living room, my basement and the trunk of my car are all packed with toys.

The living room is overrun with some of the noisiest, most over-stimulating Christmas gifts I’ve ever encountered. The basement and trunk are similarly stuffed, except those toys have met the end of my tolerance and are headed out on a journey to someone else’s house after a brief layover at the thrift store.

Thanks to the generosity of my family, who typically are wonderful people, our house is overwhelmed with battery-operated toys incessantly shouting, singing and blinking. Even after my daughter has gone to bed, if I happen to step too close to the talking suitcase — yes, the talking suitcase — it begins to sing and shout.

“I like to travel with my suitcase/ by boooooaaat or plane / They take me a thousand miles away!”

The iambic pentameter of the suitcase song needs work. No rhythm at all.

“Let’s go to France to see the Eiffel Tower!” “Hola is Spanish for hello!”

If my daughter can’t yet wrap her brain around “no, don’t touch that,” she surely can’t comprehend the concept of foreign language or it’s application in translating words to communicate with people from other countries. Just because the talking suitcase tells my child that Spanish exists and that it has a different word for hello doesn’t mean she’s going to bilingual any time soon. Same goes for you, Dora.

These toys taking up space in my living room and driving me insane are touting some kind of learning experience, and I’m not buying the educational value they’re trying to sell.

When I started thinking about the suitcase that shouts about Spanish, the house that sings abstractly about shapes and colors, the pushcart that interrupts itself and sometimes says things like “the chicken says blue triangle!” I started to wonder about the impact on my daughter. Had anyone ever determined whether or not these toys had real educational value? Maybe I was just projecting negatively on these toys because I found them annoying. I mean, I did hear Olivia reply “hi” one day when the house hollered “HELLO!” Maybe she IS learning.

I did some research and found one study that came close to examining the questions I had. It’s titled “D is for Digital” and it was conducted in 2007 by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that creates educational shows for children, like Sesame Street. People who study such things call these toys “electronic learning aides,” or ELAs for short, and they say the market is saturated with them. This study examined more than 300 ELAs in a variety of formats, from toddler’s tablets to pre-teens video games to interactive children’s websites.

Despite these kiddie gadgets being part of a $500 million per year market — perhaps larger if you adjust for time since the study’s completion — very few of these toys were developed with the use of children’s education research, the study concluded. In fact, only two of 69 “educational” video games reviewed in the study were based on educational curriculum, despite the fact that universities can offer the toy industry plenty of research on how children learn.

“University centers do all this research and then they file it away. No one sees it or is able to think about how to apply findings,” Linda Simensky of PBS Kids says in the resulting report.

Researchers concluded that consumer advocacy groups and federal regulators “need to better describe educational effectiveness in interactive media products for children,” researchers write.

What this tells me: There’s an entire industry being built not upon research that could better our children, but upon parental guilt and fear. A busy mom feels less guilty if she occupies your child with an “educational” toy. A well-meaning dad wants his child to be ahead of the learning curve, so he buys a Leap Pad. Whether these ELAs are effective means nothing once you’ve spent your money.

Draw your own conclusions about how to stock your playroom, but before you do I’ll offer one last anecdote.

Before bedtime one Sunday, a bevy of shouting toys sat silent and unoccupied as a little girl played with a piece of masking tape, a jar full of crayons and a tablet of paper. The little girl smiled and laughed, and so did her mom and dad. The little girl learned to hold a crayon and stick tape to the wall, dad learned how to draw hearts and mom learned to cherish the little moments. By the time they said good night, the tablet was filled with scribbles and mom didn’t have a headache. It was a good time, batteries not included.