Having a toy that can talk is a persistent childhood fantasy. Adults have been trying to bring that fantasy to life ever since Thomas Edison installed miniature, hand-cranked phonographs in porcelain dolls. Over the years, toy manufacturers have experimented with toys that say prerecorded phrases (Chatty Cathy from the 1960s) or tell stories when a child pulls a string or presses a button.
More recently, toys have become truly interactive, equipped with software that makes them seem responsive to children. This fall, Mattel announced development of Hello Barbie, a new version of the iconic doll that, with the help of a Wi-Fi connection, analyzes what a child says so Barbie can respond. Cognitoys has introduced a talking dinosaur named Dino, which answers questions and responds to commands. Both toys are supposed to “learn” as a child uses them, so their responses become tailored to the child.
These toys join a crowd of other talking toys, ranging from a baby doll that can “read” 70 words to a “talk back” doll that repeats what a child says in a squeaky voice, from programmable “pets” to radio-controlled robots. Some people think all this responsiveness has educational potential. One intriguing study found that children who played with toys programmed to say their names and other personalized information were more attentive when the toy presented unfamiliar material.
At the same time, many experts believe young children are better served by toys that allow the child to control the script. Playing is a way for children to work out their own ideas about the world, and it may be better for them to be the ones putting words in the mouths of their favorite stuffed animals, dolls, and action figures. Some toys that seem amusing to adults may actually limit a child’s imagination.
In short, parents will want to think carefully before purchasing this season’s most seductive talking toys. Here are some questions worth asking:
Will the toy work?
Nothing is more frustrating than a new gadget that doesn’t work properly. Before choosing a talking toy, be sure your child is developmentally ready to manage the controls. Think about whether the toy will challenge or frustrate your child. Will it be too difficult to use without adult assistance? Consider durability, too. A toy that breaks down or has technical glitches will interrupt the flow of play.
Does the toy gather info about child?
Whenever a toy connects to the cloud, parents have to assume anything a child says in its presence is being recorded. What use will companies make of those recordings? The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood worries that Hello Barbie will “eavesdrop” on children. “It’s creepy,” says Executive Director Dr. Susan Linn. Others are concerned toys that depend on Wi-Fi will become targets for hackers who have already demonstrated an ability to manipulate baby monitors and other household equipment. To minimize security risks, parents should turn off toys when not in use and take advantage of any safeguards provided by the manufacturer. The makers of Dino, for example, allow parents to set up an account so they can monitor and, if necessary, delete what a child says to the toy.
Is the toy a good role model?
If a toy is going to have regular conversations with your child, you’ll want to be sure that what it says is consistent with what you want your child to hear. Some toys are surprisingly sassy. How will you feel if your child mimics the toy?
Does the toy stimulate imaginative play?
Talking toys are often one-trick ponies. The toy does the work, so your child becomes a passive consumer of entertainment. Once the novelty wears off, your child is likely to be bored, a sure-fire indication the toy isn’t giving your child room to think and grow. Many child development experts believe children benefit most from simple toys that give them open-ended opportunities to experiment and explore. If you decide to invest in interactive toys, be sure that your young child also has access to basic toys like building blocks, puppets, puzzles, and art supplies.
Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of talking toys. Children need to become skilled with language because it’s the best way to share information, express feelings, and build a sense of closeness with other people. Toys that talk may be clever and amusing, but they cannot help a child develop understanding and empathy. That’s something they can learn only in the company of living, breathing, caring people.
— Freelance writer Carolyn Jabs is working on a book about constructive responses to conflict. • growing-up-online.com