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Turning Baby Into Baby Einstein

Do educational products for babies really give babies an advantage?

Report Card on Smart Baby Goods continued...

"The toys can't hurt," says John Colombo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., noting that researchers have found general stimulation to be good for the growth of young minds. "A child's best environment is going to involve both stimulation with materials -- personally, I prefer books -- and personal interaction with parents."

Many, if not all, early childhood professionals advocate for parent involvement, which is why psychiatrist Michael Brody, MD, has a problem with videos, DVDs, and computers.

"Parents, because they're busy, think they could have their kids watch TV, or sit on their laps with their own computers while they're working," says Brody, chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's committee on TV and media, adding that just because something is labeled "educational" doesn't mean that it is.

The so-called educational media can, in fact, be more harmful, because they give parents a false sense of reassurance that their children are learning, says Brody. He explains that there has been no good scientific evidence of the value of smart baby products.

His main protest, though, is with the electronic media, warning that it may provide too much stimulation for kids and may give them a head start in becoming addicted to the tube.

The bottom line is that children need contact with the real world and with human beings, says Brody, giving a thumbs-up to baby dolls, blocks, stuffed animals, and toy trucks. "These give children a greater chance to develop their imagination and motor skills," he says. "They need to touch, experience, and listen."

Physical interaction is so valuable for very young children that anything else -- such as structured games, flash cards, books, videotapes, and DVDs -- can hinder full development, says Stanley Greenspan, MD, author of Building Healthy Minds and a clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School in Washington, D.C.

According to Greenspan, newborns to preschoolers need the following kinds of interaction with a caregiver to enhance their intellectual and emotional growth:

  • Taking part in activities that exercise multiple senses at once. An example would be a newborn baby following mommy's face and finding her voice.
  • Engaging in activities that build intimacy and trust. Infants experience this when they play with their mommies and daddies.
  • Establishing two-way communication. This could happen in the following scenarios: The baby smiles, and daddy smiles back; the baby vocalizes a sound, and mommy vocalizes something back; the baby reaches for something on mommy's head, mommy smiles, takes it back, and puts it back on her head, and then baby reaches again.
  • Acting as a joint problem solver or scientist with a caregiver. For instance, a toddler could take a parent or day care worker by the hand, asking to help search for a new toy. The little one sees a toy up on the shelf, asks to bring it down, and the caregiver picks him up to help him get the object.
  • Creating imaginary worlds, especially at 18 months to 2 years old. This is a chance for kids to develop their creativity. In order to do this, they need to be able to play "pretend," such as going on trips or out to dinner with a parent. Toys such as dolls, trucks, houses, action figures, and houses do well in promoting make-believe environments.
  • Participating in activities that help promote logical and reality-based thinking. A child, for example, asks to go outside. The caregiver asks why, and the child responds with something like, "Because I want to play."

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