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A Leap in the Wrong Direction

A Leap in the Wrong Direction

Sheri Villers
University of Wisconsin - Parkside

The recent explosion in children’s learning technology is doing more harm than good. These technological toys have a place in children’s lives, but they are threatening to take over traditional means of learning. How will children ever know how important learning is if adults use their time to buy them things instead of teach them things? The products I will be using as examples are from LeapFrog, the self-proclaimed "leading developer of interactive learning toys and books." LeapFrog has developed a set of interactive toys, which are supposed to teach children the basics of reading, math, music, science and geography. The toys utilize computer chips to respond to a child’s every move with a computer voice, lights, and/or sound effects. This paper focuses on the LeapPad system, a toy used to help children learn to read with microchip embedded books, but all of LeapFrog’s technology, as well as many other company’s learning toys, have similar problems.

Currently, LeapFrog has a massive advertising campaign–one can hardly watch any show with a family demographic without seeing their ads. One of my least favorite commercials is one where a little girl is sitting in her room using a LeapPad, an interactive toy that helps children read "books" by sounding out or saying any word that the child doesn’t know. The girl’s parents are standing in the bedroom door looking on in awe as their child plays/reads. The mother says something to the effect of "Look, she’s reading." The father says "By herself?" The mom says "Yes, but she’s almost done with this book." The father says "Oh, no!" and rushes out to the store to buy every LeapPad book he can find. My problem with this commercial is that instead of spending time with their child helping her learn to read, these parents are doing everything in their power to make sure they don’t have to spend time helping her. This leads to my biggest concern with children’s learning technology. It discourages parents from becoming active in their children’s education.

Most child education professionals will agree that the most important thing parents can do for their child is to read to them. Along the same lines, parents need to be active and involved in their children’s education in general. Both of these things are directly compromised by LeapFrog’s learning technology. Instead of parents reading to their children, a computer is reading to them. Reading is not just about sounding out words, which is what this technology emphasizes, but about discussing ideas, meanings and opinions about what is being read. Parents reading with their children is about sharing time together, discovering the wonder of learning together, and showing children how important reading and learning is. Children thrive on having someone appreciate their developing skills. With new learning technology, a computer is complimenting children instead of their parents. Another of LeapFrog’s products aimed at preschoolers is an interactive coloring book. The toy compliments the child on how well they are doing as they color. Are we really to that point in our society when we need to buy a computer to compliment our children’s drawing? It seems that as other technology makes adult’s lives so busy, they feel adding technology to their children’s lives is the only way to compensate.

Another way the adult life seems to have seeped into children’s lives is in attention span and patience. Instant gratification has become the norm in adult society with cell phones, pagers, email, instant messaging and "real-time" everything, while patience is at an all-time low. LeapFrog and other "learning technologies" are breeding even shorter attention spans and less patience in children. Instead of sounding out words for themselves, or asking an adult, or even (gasp) looking them up in a dictionary, children need only touch the "magic pen" (LeapFrog’s term) to the unfamiliar word and the computer tells them. Although I agree that this technology is very useful with children that are having difficulty learning to read, have learning disabilities or are extremely frustrated with reading, it is not necessary for children without these problems. These products change the way children read and color. Instead of using their imagination and following a story from beginning to end, they are force fed certain pictures, sounds, and lights, which break up a story and children’s thought processes. Instead of coloring patiently for a period of time, children come to expect constant praise, music and lights.

Another problem with LeapPad is that they provide less than 40 books combined for all age levels. I find it hard to believe that they can inspire the "joy of learning" by force-feeding all first grade children only 10 books. A variety of books, authors and subjects is key to reading, not just the ability to sound out words. For me, the greatest part of reading was (and still is) going to the library–one of the world’s greatest last stands against commercialization. I could get any one of thousands of books–and it was free. The LeapPad stations range from $40-$70 depending on where one buys them and each book is about $15. I admit, parents can download (from the internet) more activities to supplement the slim selection of books, but that requires buying a Mind Station, which retails for about $40, extra cartridges to transfer information from the Mind Station to the toy, and a subscription to a yearly service ($20-$40 for each LeapFrog device) to get download privileges. This is in addition to the fact that parents need to have a PC (the Mind Station isn’t Mac friendly) and an Internet connection. Other technology products may have cheaper prices and/or a better selection, but the fact remains that these toys are far inferior to a very non-technologic but highly interactive library card.

Even scarier than the price of "learning" these days, is the fact that as technological learning tools become more popular with people who can actually afford them, there becomes an even greater divide between children with different economic statuses. Teachers begin to expect their students to have access to these toys, and may overlook teaching the skills they feel have been covered by "LeapPad learning". Also, the vast advertising campaign shows parents (and children) that this is the way to learn to read. Parents unable to afford learning toys may feel unable to help their children and children may excuse their inability to read on not having these toys.

Despite all of the problems I’ve shown here, learning toys are not all bad. Especially, when they are used, as their name implies, as toys. These toys are best used as a supplement to traditional learning techniques (not as a replacement), or in the back seat on a long road trip. As I mentioned above, the LeapPad could also be useful with extremely frustrated readers. Parents can use these toys in place of toys they feel have little or no learning potential. However, as with all toys, they should be used in moderation, and parents should play along with children instead of using it to keep kids at bay.

The key to children growing up with a love of reading and learning, and becoming productive members of society is not buying them the latest technology to help them learn. Adults must spend the time to help children learn. They need to discuss books and ideas and teach patience and respect for learning. These are not things children can learn from a computer. A final (and scary) image to ponder is another of LeapFrog’s commercials, for a toy that quizzes kids on facts from their textbooks. Two kids are sitting on a couch, answering a question from the toy. The boy chooses the wrong answer (all questions are multiple choice), so the girls calls him "dumb" steals the toy from him and correctly answers the question (there are only three choices left). The toy compliments her and the kids lean back and put their feet up on their textbooks. Need I say more?

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