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'Brain-building' toys get taken down a peg

Wandering the toy aisle of Target in Watertown with 17-month-old Marcus , Kristin Botnen of Arlington shakes her head at the array of packages promising to make her toddler smarter, and keeps walking. "My pediatrician recommends free play, not toys with gadgets," she says.

Her pediatrician?

For the first time, the American Academy of Pediatrics is taking a stand on toys, drawing a line between those that lead to healthy development and learning, and those that don't.

"Here's what I tell parents," says Deborah James , Botnen's pediatrician: "It's better for a child to tell the toy what to do than for the toy to tell the child."

Her Cambridge waiting room is stocked with traditional toys, from Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head to big, fat crayons and rolls of paper, from a tool bench to a tea set.

The Academy of Pediatrics is not going so far as to tell parents what toys to buy young children, but it would approve.

"We like simple toys that encourage imagination. That's when learning occurs," says Kenneth Ginsburg , a pediatrician at Children's Hospital in Philadelphia and lead author of the AAP statement on the importance of free play.

"It's not that we think so-called educational toys are dangerous," he says. Rather, a culture of competition and commercialism make s parents anxious and vulnerable to marketers' claims that a toy will give a child a leg up academically. New parents are most susceptible, he says.

James was flabbergasted last week when the mother of a 1-week -old asked how she could stimulate his brain. "He doesn't need products," James assured. "Hold and cuddle him, smile and coo, talk to him when you change his diaper."

"The claims that a toy can boost your child's IQ or enhance development -- these claims do seem to be proliferating," says Kathleen Kiely Gouley , an assistant professor at New York University Child Study Center . A mother of young children, even she feels the pull.

"I remind myself that I create educational opportunities and facilitate learning in every interaction," she says. When the mail arrives, she gives some to her 19-month-old, who transports it in his dump truck. He may hide or sort it. She might ask for the red envelope. He might color an envelope green. "Maybe there's a mail toy with buttons or lights, or a video about postmen, but that's not the same. If all he had was a pot from the kitchen to put the mail in, it would still be better than an 'enriched' toy."

Real learning
Chime With Rhyme , by Purple Pebble Games , is a toy whose package claims to "jump-start reading success" and help "master essential pre-reading skills." The packaging for "Sorting Shapes Cupcakes" by Learning Resources says the toy "teaches shape recognition, fine motor skills, and hand-eye coordination."

"There's no question, some adults look for toys that make these claims," says Sally Lesser , owner of Henry Bear's Park , an independent toy store in Arlington, Cambridge, and Brookline . She mostly carries toys that allow children to interact with the world using their senses, like the toy kitchen utensils that line a wall of shelves, but she has Chime With Rhyme and the Sorting Cupcakes.

"I don't mind selling them," she says. "But can I say with certainty that the claims on the box are true? No. In fact, some of the claims" -- she holds a toy whose box reads "Makes kids very smart" -- "are ridiculous."

Claims like these feed into parents' fears that their child will be the one "left behind," says Tufts psychologist David Elkind, author of "The Power of Play."

"Parents increasingly are getting the message that good parenting is defined by 'enrichment,' and enrichment is defined by videos and a string of formal activities," Ginsburg says. "It worries us to see parents thinking enrichment is a substitute for the kind of play that we know makes children smart."

Psychologist Susan Linn of the Judge Baker Children's Center and Harvard Medical School urges parents to avoid toys that promise to "leap" a child ahead, skip, or otherwise speed up learning.

"The human brain is built on scaffolding," she says. "You need one step to get to the next. A 2-year-old may be able to reel off the numbers from 1 to 20 from a video, but that doesn't mean he's learned as much as the child who counts to three because he's played with 1-2-3 blocks."

Rick Locker , spokesman for the Toy Industry Association, says the majority of toy manufacturers comply with federal regulations that require a "reasonable" basis for marketing claims. But, he adds, "There's always a few that don't."

In her office last week, James says, "A 9-month-old had the time of her life playing with the exam table paper." She learned about cause and effect (crinkling caused a noise); trial and error (gentle crinkles made a less satisfying sound); constancy (crinkling produces some noise every time); and limits: Mom said "No," every time it went in her mouth.

"Now that's an educational toy," James says.

Toy tips

If you're ever found yourself feeling susceptible to marketing that would have you believe that this one toy or video is what will make a difference in your child's life (and let's face it, who hasn't?), resist the temptation by reminding yourself about these characteristics of good toys and good play:

* If it seems like your child is too young (or too old) for the activity, keep in mind that the age labelling on a toy refers to safety, not to what's developmentally appropriate. Trust your instincts; you know your child's capability far better than a toy manufacturer.

* A good toy is free of branding. That more fully allows a child to use the play to fit his own needs rather than to unwittingly follow a script.

* If you could only afford to buy your child one toy, buy blocks. If you could only afford two toys, buy two different kinds of blocks.

* A young child learns something from almost every play encounter (and almost any encounter can be turned into play for a young child). Good questions to ask of a toy: What will my child learn from this? Is there something this toy will keep my child from learning? For instance, a child may learn to memorize the alphabet from a counting toy or video, but there is more learning likely happening when you read to him, point out the sound in a "b" word, and then spend the next day looking for other B sounds in objects in his world. This can happen from a video or game, too, but only if you engage in it with him.

* Get down on the floor and play with your child. Let him be the boss of the play. Continue to do this until he reaches an age when he doesn't want you to.

* "Want a smart kid?" asks Kenneth Ginsburg, spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "Read to him every day. What kids love when they are small, more than anything else in the world, is being with their parents. When some of that time is spent reading, it says, 'Reading is wonderful, it's a way to explore the world while being connected with other human beings.' That's very powerful."

Contact Barbara Meltz at