By Lisa Guernsey
Over the past few years, toy stores have been loading their shelves with new "plug and play" electronic toys aimed at preschool children, toddlers and babies. Packaged as joysticks, keyboards, styluses or just oversized remote controls with bright buttons, the toys are designed to connect to the family television set. For parents, their appeal comes in the manufacturers' promise that children will no longer be passive observers of what is on TV. They will feel the thrill of interactivity, the ability to change what happens on screen.
But in the controlled chaos of most households, "plug and play" may be a misnomer. As parents and grandparents seek the perfect toy for the youngest kids this season, they will need to pay close attention to the recommended age ranges, be aware of compatibility issues with TV sets and remote controls, and be prepared to spend time with the how-to manuals. Here are the hurdles:
It's not exactly as easy as "plug." With many of these toys, parents discover that getting started is not as simple as plugging a cord into an electrical socket. In homes around the country, even within one house, TV sets are configured in myriad different ways, depending on the interplay of VCRs, DVDs, DVRs and cable set-top boxes. It may be easy to find the color-coded hole where the toy's cable should be inserted (these holes are now located on the front of many TVs). But it may not be so easy for parents to put their hands on the particular remote control that powers the TV set that will be used for playtime, and then navigate the settings to the right channels and codes for auxiliary devices.
"The 'easy' setup proclaimed on the box turned out to be 2 hours worth of entering 50+ codes into the machine trying to get it to recognize our 4-year-old SONY DVD player," wrote one reviewer on Amazon.com, who bought the Little Leaps Grow-with-me Learning System by LeapFrog for her 20-month old.
Most parents can't luxuriate with how-to manuals when they have feisty preschoolers pulling on their sleeves or toddlers at risk of gnawing on the cables while mom's head is in the guidebook. And the set-up process is not just a one-time annoyance. In many households, keeping the toys hooked up for future use is not practical, for there is no room in the TV cabinet to hold the console. Playing the plug-in games means pulling them out of the closet and going through the set-up process each time a child wants to play.
Then there are the technical glitches — caused by both child and machine — that require parental troubleshooting.
"The usefulness of it all is lost on me when I am constantly being asked to 'fix' the game," said a mother of three young children in State College, Pa. who has V.Smile TV Learning system at home.
Pressing buttons doesn't always equal "play." Once the games have been started on the screen, the quality of games — particularly their age-appropriateness — can vary widely. Uneven quality can crop up across the multiple cartridges that come with a system as well as in the games offered in one cartridge.
Many games emphasize academic skills, like recognizing letters and matching shapes and colors. Playing the games can, indeed, introduce or reinforce new skills -- if the tasks in the games match the child's level of cognitive development. That's why looking at the age ranges printed on the box can be so crucial. Unfortunately, however, many TV-based learning systems try to please a wide span of ages. The label might say its games are "appropriate for ages 3 to 7" — but yet offer games that drill shapes and letters. A young 3-year-old may not be ready to even recognize letters, while most 6-year-olds would be bored stiff with such a task.
Even when the games are developmentally appropriate, the same cannot always be said for the gaming consoles. Consider, for example, the case of a 3-year-old girl who has started to be able to sequence numbers. When a game asks her to "count the yellow ducks," she brightens up, eager to show that she can do it. "Three," she announces gleefully, as she tries to move the joystick to hover the cursor over the ducks as she counts them. But she is not adept enough to stop the cursor where she wants and it flies wildly all over the screen. Her frustration mounts. She knows the answer but the machine keeps telling her to "Try Again!" She throws the toy to the ground in disgust.
Research on young children with computer and gaming devices has shown that many 3- and 4-year-old children do not have enough fine-motor control to use the joysticks successfully. In fact, games by Sesame Workshop are often designed specifically to avoid the use of a joystick since it can be so difficult to master. Buttons can be hard to use too — particularly if a game requires a child to have a light touch, releasing the button the moment after it was pressed. Press buttons to, say, spell "Jane," and you might get "JJJJAAAAANNNNEEE" instead.
When children are in their late preschool and early elementary years, chances are that they will have much more success managing the controls. Their fine-motor control will be more developed, and for children who have started to learn to read, the text on the screen can be their guide, letting them play independently and at their own pace.
But with younger children, parents should be prepared for a lot of handholding, showing children what to do with the joystick, helping them press the buttons, repeating the directions and explaining what they need to do next. Of course, that's not necessarily a bad thing. Some might argue that it encourages parents to be involved and talking with their children. However, as noted by a mother of twin 4-year-olds who has an interactive TV console that doesn't get much use: Time is at a premium. If she had the time to do all the technical troubleshooting and instructive handholding, she said, she would rather spend it on the floor doing a puzzle with her kids.