Child's Play: High Tech Play

Do high-tech toys and games inhibit kids' development of important skills, or simply promote them in new and different ways?

If you want a better balance of play in your child's life, limit total screen time to no more than two hours a day. And be sure you leave plenty of basic toys around, such as blocks or dolls, that promote free, imaginative play.

By Anne Chappell Belden

When she's not searching for fairies in her back yard, 8-year-old Ella sits at her computer, logs on to and navigates a blue, kimono-wearing penguin avatar she named Ayako Jr. through an icy igloo world. She chats with other penguins on the site and plays games to earn coins she then uses to shop in penguin stores.

"I like the games, but it's really exciting when I buy things for my penguin," Ella says. Ayako Jr. is the proud owner of a fur coat, a bathing suit, a blue scarf and five multicolored pets known as "puffles."

Ella also likes the site's social aspect. "I have a friend, and she calls me up and we meet on Club Penguin," she says. "Sometimes, I don't really remember I'm on the computer because I'm having a lot of fun, having a real conversation."

Fear not - Club Penguin is not a place where young penguins waddle wild. The site filters chat and has 70 moderators policing the activity of about 4 million users each month. Ella says she reports unruly penguins. "Once I asked if anyone wanted to be friends and someone said 'Sure … NOT!' I felt kind of sad and said, 'That's not very nice and I'm going to report you' and I reported her."

Welcome to a 21st-century playground, where kids of all ages plug in, turn on, log in and toggle electronic devices in the name of play. From early childhood on up, kids are playing with automated toys, computers and video games; they're meeting friends and strangers on social-networking Web sites and in virtual fantasy worlds. They are growing up in a digital age and are drawn to all the technology.

"To me it's all good," says Ella's mom, Wendy Belden. "This is the world we live in. Live in this world and don't pretend it isn't here. The future is technology."

What's the Worry?

Still, all of this tech play has advocates of more traditional play wringing their hands. Automated toys, computers, Web sites and video games use structured, sedentary play environments. That means less active, less creative kids, they say. They cite years of research linking free, imaginative play and simple toys, such as blocks and balls, to the development of physical, cognitive and social skills children need. They worry that today's kids are losing out.

But are they? Some researchers believe that even within structured electronic play environments, there's room for exploration, creativity, boundary-testing and empowerment. Furthermore, kids may be learning social and cognitive skills needed for living in both real and virtual worlds.

What's good and what's bad about high-tech play? And how do we steer kids to the best that technology has to offer, while balancing it with traditional play? Here's what child-development experts, media researchers and parents have to say.

All the Bells and Whistles

Stroll through one of the big-box toy stores and you'll find electronics marketed for babies, from remote-control musical mobile light shows and beeping, flashing bouncers to DVD players - all promising to provide healthy stimuli for infants as young as 3 months old.

Talking potties and personal computers claim to develop a toddler's cognitive, motor, social, emotional and language skills. Stuffed animals have gone high-tech with teddy bears that read stories to preschoolers and plush animals that kids can "bring to life" on the wildly popular site. "Plug-in-to-your-MP3-player" Chat Diva dolls are crowding out lower-tech Barbies™. Even squirt guns are now motorized. … All of this before you even reach the store's ever-expanding video game section.

Bernadette Chew's toddler, Rebecca, spends two to three hours a day playing with high-tech toys, from software on her mom's laptop to robot toys. "Her eyes light up when she plays with high-tech toys, and she seems to prefer those because there's usually a lot of buttons that create an effect when she pushes them," says Chew, who is a Web developer.

Chew installed a program called AlphaBaby on her computer so that when Rebecca hits the keys, a letter or shape pops onto the screen. "She loves that!" Chew says.

But advocates for more traditional play don't.

"It doesn't surprise me that children and parents are fascinated by electronic toys, but that doesn't mean they are good for children," says Joan Almon, founder of the Alliance for Childhood, a group of educators, child-development experts and others who are trying to restore a traditional childhood of downtime, simple toys and outdoor play.

Almon believes that high-tech toys inhibit creative play. The more the toy does, the less the child can do, she says. "If you compare it to the rich world of imagination, where children can take very little and make it come alive, then it seems to me that an electronic toy is a very poor substitute."

The Pitfalls of Edutainment

What to Look For

Experts on both sides of the play debate offer these tips on identifying the best Web sites, electronic toys, and computer and video games for kids.

Gaming and Social-Networking Web Sites

Look for:

  • Parent sections - Be wary if there are none.

  • Human moderators - People who observe activity and language on the site.

  • Filtering software - To ensure that language is clean.

  • Ad-free sites - Club Penguin, for example, charges a $5.95 monthly membership fee but carries no ads.

  • No external links - Banner ads can send children away from the main site and onto Web pages that aren't child-friendly.

  • Consumerism - Does the site just market products, movies or TV shows to your kids?

  • Creativity - Does it allow children to create, design, explore or share in an imaginative way? Go online and explore for yourself.

  • Safety - How does the site handle personal information?

    Electronics, Computer and Video Games

    Look for:

  • Open-ended games that allow kids to create, design, experiment and explore. Play experts say good toys are "90 percent kid, 10 percent toy."

  • Programs that help a child expand her interests, such as music programs that allow her to compose her own music or drawing programs that allow her to take her artwork to the next level.

  • Games that make kids think, reason and strategize, rather than simply manipulate a figure through a game experience.


  • Toys billed as educational for babies and toddlers. Be wary.

  • Video games rated "M" or "A" - they are for mature players. A "T" rating means it's OK for teens. Just because your child's friend is playing Grand Theft Auto or Halo doesn't mean that it's appropriate.

  • First-person shooter, gory games and games that reward antisocial behavior. More than a decade of research has found these games are inappropriate for all children and harmful to some.

    Sources: High-tech play researchers, including Yasmin Kafai of UCLA and Mitch Resnick of MIT; and traditional-play advocates Diane Levin of Wheelock College and Joan Almon of the Alliance for Childhood.

  • Many parents enter the realm of high-tech toys in the name of education. They purchase Leapster Learning Systems and reading and math software for the family computer. In fact, 69 percent of parents of babies to kindergartners believe that computers help facilitate their children's learning, according to a 2006 Kaiser Family Foundation study.

    Jennifer Sorenson says her son, Gunnar, 2, learned his shapes from a computer game and he can recognize letters and numbers on other computer games.

    Nikki Klugh says she "bribes" her kids to use educational computer programs; if they don't spend time with Leapster, they can't play video games. "Some of the educational software is actually fun," she says, "once you get past the point that you are going to be learning something."

    But child-development researchers and educators caution parents to steer clear of computer programs that claim to teach early academics to babies and toddlers. The evidence doesn't bear that out, they say. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) goes further, recommending no screen time for children under age 2, so that they can learn instead through hands-on, active exploration in the real world.

    High-tech toy advocates don't discount these concerns. Some educational software sends the wrong message about learning, even to older kids, they say. Mitch Resnick, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher who consults on the use of computers in education worldwide, doesn't like software that dictates choices for kids to click on and then tells them whether they're right or wrong.

    Resnick, the principal investigator for MIT's Lifelong Kindergarten research group, develops technologies that help people, particularly kids, learn more creatively. He's convinced that future success in our high-tech world depends on today's children learning how to problem-solve by thinking and acting creatively - not by relying on machines to provide all the answers.

    "If kids grow up with the sense that the computer is the all-knowing device and you go to the computer for answers, that is a bad mind-set," he says.

    What Do Tech Toys and Games Offer?

    Used correctly, technology can help kids improve their creative, problem-solving skills, Resnick says, noting that the best software expands, rather than limits, play. "My top rule is to look for applications that allow kids to experiment, explore, design and create," he says.

    "If we use computers as the medium, a new material to create with, the same way we use finger-paint or crayons or clay," he continues, "it's possible to use electronic toys to create with and expand the play experience."

    By way of example, Resnick points to his collaboration with the LEGO company on "programmable bricks," which led to the Mindstorms line and helped kids understand common machines. With traditional LEGO bricks, a child might construct a castle. With programmable ones, he could add a drawbridge with a sensor that lowers the bridge when activated. This demystifies real world sensors, such as automatic doors at grocery stores and street lamps that light up when activated.

    "We don't want children to see those as magic," Resnick says. It also gives kids a better understanding of their own senses and about the process of design.

    Resnick's latest creation, Scratch, is an online software program that allows kids to design their own interactive animation, stories and games and to share their creations on the Scratch Web site.

    When it comes to the pros and cons of high-tech play, however, nothing has attracted so much attention as computer and video games - both for their content and addictive qualities. Nearly 80 percent of American children play them on a regular basis, with 7- to 17-year-olds playing an average of eight hours a week, according to the National Institute on Media and the Family.

    Games with violent action have drawn fierce criticism, with opponents citing decades of research into the effects of media violence. Studies have shown that children who play violent video games are more likely to experience aggressive thoughts, feelings and actions, and less likely to behave in positive, social ways.

    But what about nonviolent games? A growing number of researchers are studying how playing video and computer games will help children develop skills they'll need in the future. The best games, they say, build kids' skills in multitasking, research, problem-solving, strategy and collaboration.

    A 2005 study by researchers at Harvard Medical School's Center for Mental Health and Media suggests that video games and other high-tech toys enhance creative play and even help kids deal with strong emotions. Researchers Dorothy Salonius-Pasternak and Holly Gelfond found that many video and computer games:

    • allow kids to assume various character roles in a make-believe setting;

    • support a free, unstructured space where the imagination can flourish; and

    • may also help children confront and learn to regulate feelings of fear and anxiety, mastery and defeat, power and powerlessness, in a virtual world that may arouse fear but is ultimately safe.

    Their report even addresses concerns about the decline in more traditional play: "Electronic play may have the potential to restore some of the critical elements of children's play that have been compromised due to the increased supervision and control of children's free time and imaginations."

    What about problem-solving? Alex Chisholm, co-director of MIT's Education Arcade, an education research group, says he has seen kids explore and test the limits of a video game in ways the designer never imagined. "That, in and of itself, is a creative activity," he says. "Kids get that it's trial and error, and one could argue that that is the hallmark of scientific investigation - to ask a question, test it and move on."

    Socializing and collaboration? Yasmin Kafai, a UCLA researcher who studies how to build learning opportunities into online worlds, says video games are often so complex that kids can't move ahead without finding friends and sharing strategies to solve problems. "That's a very valuable skill," she says, "knowing who to ask and how to find the resources."

    Online Playmates

    The popularity of fantasy/social-networking sites for the pre-MySpace crowd, such as Club Penguin, Imbee,, and, have major media companies like Disney and Nickelodeon launching their own virtual theme parks. The best of these sites give kids the ability to socialize with peers and a sense of freedom to create identities and explore online worlds.

    "I observe an incredible amount of socializing going on," says Kafai, who has consulted for, a science-oriented virtual city in which "citizens" can participate in science, math, art, civics and economics games and activities.

    The best online worlds allow children to learn how to contribute to a community, Kafai says. At Whyville, kids can write articles for the site's online newspaper. In one edition, for example, they addressed the issue of race and called on their online community to create more dark-skinned avatars because there weren't enough of them.

    "That's an example of what community can foster - a caring element," Kafai says.

    However, education professor Diane Levin, author of Remote Control Childhood and an outspoken critic of automated play, worries that social-networking sites for kids engage children in a limiting environment that someone else has created. For example, depending on the safe chat settings a parent chooses in sites like Webkinz and Club Penguin, kids may be limited to selecting from prewritten text snippets when they converse online.

    "The idea of remote-control children who have to fit into a mold that's been created for them prevents them from being active agents who learn to build and master their own worlds so that they won't be conforming robots," Levin says.

    Other critics express concern that these sites' promote materialism, prompting kids to "succeed" by getting more "stuff." They purchase items virtually (accessories for their penguins) and literally (Webkinz dolls or site memberships to gain access).

    "At their core, they're really about training children to shop," contends Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and co-author of Consuming Kids. The care of the pets on these sites, consists of buying things for them, Linn says. "They don't require nurturing or making things or kindnesses in that way. It's all about shopping."

    Striking a Balance

    Need Leads?

    If you're looking for high-tech toys, games or software that has passed muster with experts who are on the lookout for the best, most engaging and creativity stimulating products for kids, check out the recent award winners here.

    Still, with many educators and child-development experts increasingly worried about a decline in traditional play, parents may want to pursue the same thing they seek in many areas of family life: balance.

    Levin and other play advocates urge parents to ensure that open-ended, free play is dominant in children's lives so they have the freedom to explore and create without limitations.

    "The ideal is to delay (electronic toys) as long as possible," Levin says. "Limit as much as you can, be thoughtful about what gets in and when it gets in, be connected with your child about it and deal with the lessons he or she is learning."

    Once kids do start using tech-based toys, child-development experts recommend limiting this play in the same way parents should be limiting TV viewing. To promote more active, imaginative play, the AAP recommends that kids have no more than two hours of total screen time (TV included) per day.

    Klugh limits her four Xbox-loving sons to two hours a day on weekends. "If we allowed them to, they would spend all their time on the video games," she says. Instead they play chess, create LEGO structures, build forts and catch frogs and bugs.

    Club Penguin gives a nod to concerned parents with its "egg timer" feature, which helps them control when and how long their kids are on the site. "It's unusual to have a Web site telling its customers that it's OK to leave, but the founders are parents and they understand the value of getting children off the computer and playing outside," says Karen Mason, the company's communications director.

    Ella is limited to one hour on weeknights and up to two hours on weekends. And that's just fine with her. "I like Club Penguin," she says, "but I also like to play outside."

    Anne Chappell Belden is a freelance writer and journalism instructor.