extracted from TheSundayTimes, 20 November 2011

Tan Xing Qi

Parents like these toys for their kids as they are novel and offer fun learning

Adults have their smartphones, children have smart toys.

While sales manager Melvin Thong, 43, is checking the latest news on his iPhone, his son Theodore is having fun on his mini tablet.

The four-year-old has a LeapPad Explorer, which comes with numerous education apps such as digital reading as well as a camera. The tablet is among a slew of smart toys filling the shelves in recent years.

These toys for children aged 18 months and older are embedded with the kind of technology that lets them interact with the user or other compatible toys.

Some smart toys launched in Singapore this year include the LeapPad; Let’s Rock Elmo, an interactive singing version of the Seasame Street character; Boggle Flash, an update of the classic board game where five electronic tiles can recognise words when placed side by side; Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, a cross-platform video game with smart-chip-enabled action figurines; and talking dinosaurs from Dinosaur Train. They cost from $49.90 to $229.

With Christmas round the corner, parents are snapping them up because of the toys’ novelty and promise of fun learning.

Toy distributors declined to give sales figures but Maxsoft, distributor of Skylanders, says the sales of the game have exceeded its expectations and that retailers have been consistently restocking their inventory in the last few weeks.

Theodore’s mum, IT assistant manger Esther Thong, 39, says the tablet has helped him learn pronunciation and subjects such as geography. “It is learning via a fun and engaging way with e-books and videos. He’s glued to it,” she says.

She and her husband decided against buying an iPad because of the tablet’s Internet connectivity and are concerned that Theodore will be exposed to the Internet without their supervision. Mr Adrian Chua, 39, plays Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure on weekends with his daughter Sarah, six. The multiplayer game has a set of toy figurines that can save the characters’ experience points using radio-frequency identification technology – similar to that found in ez-link cards.

The Nanyang Polytechnic lecturer says the game “can build character” – trying repeatedly to complete a challenge will help Sarah gain a never-say-die attitude and give her a sense of accomplishment.
But surely, the dancing Elmo cannot be considered educational? More like an interactive toy, it “talks” to kids and when the character asks for a microphone, a child can respond and put one in its hand. There is another way to look at such novelty toys’ value.

Preschool principal Doris Lai, 44, tells LifeStyle that some children will take such toys to class during the kindergarten’s sharing session and talk about them. “Other children are fascinated by these toys and this will open up communication and social interaction skills,” she says.

Of course, the oft-heard warning about passive learning still stands.

Ms Frances Yeo, principal psychologist at Thomson Paediatric Centre at Novena Medical Centre, says that when children are used to the stimulating nature of learning through devices, they generally do not like to read physical books.

Mrs Lai adds that building blocks and plasticine toys still play an important part in a child’s development. “These constructive toys can promote creativity and interaction. Usually, when the children finish the construction of their products, they will talk about it to their friends.”

Ms Yeo also cites the recent study by the American Academy of Paediatrics that says parents should limit the time their children spend in front of television sets and the computer, emphasising that children under the age of two should not be exposed to TVs or anything with a screen. She recommends a maximum of an hour of “screen time” for kids aged four to six.

Fully aware of this, Mr Thong limits Theodore’s usage of his LeapPad to 30 minutes. In any case, after 15 minutes of “showering his pet” on the tablet, Theodore turns restive and his attention switches to his favourite toys: his remotecontrolled Lamborghinis and Minis.

With a smile, Mrs Thong says: “Boys are still boys. He still likes to play with his cars, trucks and trains.”