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Keep an eye on kids' toys


Eric Benderoff

Chicago Tribune
February 11, 2008

We live during a fascinating time, with innovative and interesting digital tools released practically every day.

That includes items for the youngest consumers, the ones most important to us, but also the ones most tempted by the cool factor. (OK, some dads are easily tempted too.)

So what should a parent be thinking about when it comes to choosing a technology-based toy for the kids? Is there a way to tell if something is good or bad?

This is not an easy question among the clutter of items available, from video games to caring for a virtual pet, but there are things to keep in mind:

Will that toy engage a child? Will he or she create something? Or is it a game that repeats the same basic skill over and over, such as shooting ducks in a pond?

We've been playing with one tech toy lately in my house that is nothing short of a huge hit -- and for the right reasons.

The EyeClops Bionic Eye was one of the hottest-selling toys this holiday season, so many people are familiar with the $50 item made by Jakks Pacific. But they may not have realized what makes this an engaging and, don't tell the kids, educational toy.

"Why do you like it?" I asked my 4-year-old son after we spent the good part of a wintry afternoon playing with the EyeClops.

"Because it's really gross," he said.

A couple of the neighborhood boys ended up at our house that icky day, too, both 8 and both enthralled with the EyeClops' amazing powers of magnification. We used it on everything we could: the carpet, coins, comic books, a table, skin, action figures, our hair and Dad's favorite, the squash stain on his shirt from a recent feeding of the baby.

Gross, indeed.

The EyeClops is ingenious and simple. It is a magnifying tool that looks like a giant eyeball you plug into a TV's video input. Then place it on something -- a chin with weekend stubble was another favorite -- and watch the kids squeal with joy and disgust as the object, magnified by a factor of 200, appears on the TV.

That's all it does and it works with just about any TV, even the old low-def set we used. Can you imagine a stubbly chin on a 60-inch flat screen? Ewwwww!

The EyeClops gets raves from educators because it encourages kids to explore the universe around them.

"And it's a catalyst for social skills," said Warren Buckleitner, who has doctorate in educational psychology and is the editor of the monthly Children's Technology Review.

"The kid says, 'Hey look at this,' and everyone in the room looks and says, 'Wow,'" he said. "The kid has his hands on the device, and that is a very powerful feeling for them. Every pixel on the screen is in the control of the child, not Viacom."

A report released in January on the educational potential of digital media from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found there is too much emphasis in putting a child alone in front of a computer screen.

"We don't want kids to be locked into a screen relationship," David Dockterman, a professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, said in the report. "How can media help encourage kids to have conversations with each other and adults?"

The EyeClops encourages social interaction.

"Kids learn so much more when they are working with others, including their parents," Buckleitner said.

He noted that video games aren't bad for kids -- he's a big fan of the Nintendo Wii -- but parents need to provide guidance.

Buckleitner pointed to Webkinz, a popular social Web site for tweens. Younger kids often want to play because they see an older sibling having fun.

But "Webkinz can be horribly frustrating for a 5-year-old," he said. The site has multiple menus and windows that are open at once. "It can be too complicated for them."

Parents need to help.

"Sit down with your kids," Buckleitner advised parents who are introducing children to video games. "You want your kids to have a good feeling from the game.

"You wouldn't have a kid ride a two-wheel bicycle for the first time and just let them go. They will fall. It's the same thing.

"Be an electronic advocate for your kid," he added.

If that means taking a fresh look at an old stain, consider that good parenting.

- - -

Tips for buying digital toys

* Look for toys that help kids create and learn. For older kids, try a video camera.

* Easy to control, use. Younger kids get easily frustrated.

* Kids learn more if the toy encourages socializing.

* Try things in small doses. If one video game seems beneficial, try another.

* Trust your gut. If you think something has little learning value, don't buy it.


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