Walk down the aisles of any toy store, and chances are you’ll see an assortment of claims on the boxes. Some products say they'll teach babies about phonetics and reading. Some toys claim to help children develop math and problem-solving skills.
But researchers say many claims are just that. Remember the craze over the Baby Einstein series? The videos paired classical music with images of playful puppets, toys and scenery and became hugely popular because they were thought to be educational. After several studies failed to prove learning results, the Walt Disney Co., the owner of the company, offered refunds in 2009.
Despite the Baby Einstein controversy, analysts say some companies have not reined in their claims. Last month, a Canadian company began selling the VINCI, a tablet computer designed to teach babies as young as 1 week old. Its tagline: “Inspire the genius.”
The educational toy market is vast. Sales of toys for infants and preschool-aged children jumped 6 percent, to $3.2 billion in the U.S. last year, according to figures compiled by the market research firm NPD Group.
“I don’t see them slowing down,” said Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children’s Technology Review, a sort of Consumer Reports for children’s products. “There have been dozens of products that have claims, sometimes in the title – JumpStart, Brighter Child, Smarter Baby, the VINCI, Baby Mozart. All these titles allude to giftedness.”
The problem, Buckleitner said, is there is no evidence that the products actually teach children what they claim. Moreover, it’s difficult to prove, or disprove, that a child is learning something specific from a toy or product.
"The constructs of learning and intelligence are so difficult to measure and define,” said Buckleitner, who has a doctorate in educational psychology. “There are culturally defined variables, and so there’s a lot of interpretation. It’s not an exact science.”
Federal agencies regulate the safety of toys, but there’s less of a priority placed on monitoring the marketing pitches.
“Nobody checks the ads and says, ‘No, you can’t say that.’ That would be prior restraint,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs. “Unless it’s doing someone harm or grossly misleading, you have to give the benefit of the doubt to the people making the claim.”
Advertisers are targeting both parents and children with their pitches.
“The real crime going on here is how unregulated the industry is – both the toy makers and the marketing,” said Dana Friedman, president of The Early Years Institute. The New York-based nonprofit conducts research and provides resources about early childhood development. “The amount of money going into marketing for children is staggering and scary.”
Friedman advises parents to pick toys that provide opportunities for exploration.
“Generally speaking, the simpler the toy, the more complex the play,” Friedman said. “The more complex the toy, the more simple the play. You want to find toys where children have options for what they do with it. If it’s a toy that can only be used in one way, don’t get it.”
She urges parents to follow guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics: no screen time for children younger than 2 – whether from a TV, computer or smartphone. And seek out impartial nonprofit groups that evaluate and rank toys; she suggests, among others, the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio.