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Kids don't get building blocks of learning from high-tech play

The year Nancy Carlsson-Paige’s first grandchild, Jack, was 22 months old, he got lots of presents at Christmastime, but what he most enjoyed was something of his own creation. He tossed a plastic ball in the air, and it landed in a nest created by a kitchen stool that was turned upside down, legs poking in the air.

‘‘Stuck! Stuck!’’ he cried excitedly to Nanny, who, like most other grandmothers, knew that her delight in his discovery and her tolerance to play it with him over and over would add to his pleasure. But there was something else about the interaction that buoyed Carlsson-Paige, an author and early childhood education professor at Lesley University.

‘‘He watched my face, read my signals,’’ she says. ‘‘If the ball hit me, he knew to be sad. We would experiment by throwing it harder and softer. If I picked up the ball and dropped it into the stool, we would laugh and laugh. It was a rich experience.’’

Jack was getting a crash course in human communication, with chapters on empathy and compassion. In a world where more and more toys have batteries, buttons, screens, or agendas, it’s a lesson early childhood educators worry too many children are missing. Wheelock College professor Diane Levin has even coined a term for children without it: compassion deficit disorder.

Unfortunately, parents unwittingly abet the process with the toys they buy.

‘‘The ability to relate to others builds slowly over time through many, many little everyday experiences,’’ Carlsson-Paige says. ‘‘The more we give them toys that take them out of relationships instead of putting them into them, the more, little by little, they are missing out on the slow construction of social skills.’’

Compassion deficit disorder is a metaphor, of course, not a literal condition, and it’s the concept behind the TRUCE Toy Action Guide, published for the 12th year by Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (, based in Somerville. Levin, a cofounder, says this year’s ‘‘Toys of Value’’ list focuses on open-ended toys such as blocks, easels, and props for dramatic play.

Contrast that with the Toys ‘‘R’’ Us 2006 Fabulous 15 Best of the Holiday list, which includes only two toys that don’t use batteries or a screen, or with Hasbro’s Something for Everyone 2006 Holiday list, which boasts the return of the Baby Alive Doll, whose updated version requires four batteries so she can ‘‘eat and poop, just like a real baby,’’ and Star Wars Force Action Lightsaber, ‘‘the most authentic lightsaber-playing experience ever,’’ batteries not included. Of the 26 toys included, all but four are electronic or require batteries.

In response to questions about its list, Hasbro issued a statement saying, ‘‘As technology has increased in our everyday lives, Hasbro has incorporated some of that technology to produce some wonderful products to enhance the play experiences of children, but only where it makes sense. ..... We encourage [parents and caregivers] to be involved in all aspects of their children’s day, including television viewing, computer time, reading, playing and just having fun.’’ Toys ‘‘R’’ Us declined to comment.

Levin and others who study the relationship between toys, play, and development say toys with electronics bypass the process by which young children learn about cause and effect, including cause and effect of the human kind, such as body language and nonverbal clues. The more high-tech toys a child has and the younger he or she is when they’re introduced, the bigger the potential problem. The first three toys on the TRUCE ‘‘Toys to Avoid’’ list, for instance, are a Baby Einstein video for 9-month-olds, and two electronic learning systems by Leap Frog and Jakks.

‘‘These kinds of toys entice parents ..... but they undermine the process of being an active agent, of being a problem solver,’’ Levin says. That’s a major factor in compassion deficit disorder, she adds. (Levin and Carlsson-Paige are coauthors of ‘‘The War Play Dilemma.’’)

Educational psychologist Jane Healy of Vail, Colo., says what children need in the first two years of life is a responsive human being, not exposure to a screen or battery-operated toy.

‘‘There’s a critical part of the brain thought to be responsible for reading signals and feeling empathy and relating to other people, part of the orbital prefrontal cortex, that develops early on. But it needs input from real-life people,’’ says Healy, author of ‘‘Your Child’s Growing Mind.’’ ‘‘It’s appalling, the toys that talk in electronic voices to young children, to babies, at a time when what they need is the lilt of the human voice, its nuances and the facial expressions that go with it.’’

In a typically developing child, the process of reciprocity begins in infancy when parents coo, babble, and make silly faces at their baby. In the toddler and preschool years, it’s firsthand experience they have in the three-dimensional world — moving objects, pushing and pulling them, touching, smelling, and dropping them — that help them see cause and effect.

It’s open-ended toys — blocks, clay, puppetry, animal figures, sand, markers, chalk, paint — that preschool teacher Sarae Pacetta hopes parents choose this holiday season.

‘‘Parents think they aren’t doing a good enough job if they can’t provide toys that have buttons and make sounds. It’s just not true,’’ says Pacetta, who teaches at the Lee Academy Pilot School in Dorchester. ‘‘I’d rather see a child playing with empty cereal boxes and tubes from toilet and paper towel rolls than with electronic toys.’’

The TRUCE list reflects that sentiment. It includes ‘‘Shoe Box Gifts,’’ which involves taking an empty box of any size and decorating and filling it with open-ended items around a theme. A rescue/first aid ‘‘shoe box’’ might include a flashlight, bandages, eye patch, toy stethoscope, and surgical mask. Larger boxes can be recycled and decorated to create a car or spaceship, a house or a cave.

Tufts University professor David Elkind says there is no electronic toy on earth that compares favorably to a board game. ‘‘Here’s just one thing they process from it,’’ he says: ‘‘.‘Grandpa made the effort to spend time with me, to enjoy my company.’ There is no cost-benefit analysis to the sense of security that builds and the compassion it generates, and no mechanical game can provide it,’’ he says. His newest book, ‘‘The Power of Play,’’ is due out next month.

Carlsson-Paige, who is the mother of actor Matt Damon, has three other grandchildren now. This year, as always, she’s looking for unstructured, low-tech toys that are not tied to the media. Among her favorite gifts over the years: her homemade play-dough (for her recipe, visit, generic plastic animals, Bristle Blocks, fat chalk, oversize drawing paper, and markers of all kinds.

What will she give her newest granddaughter, Isabella, born five months ago to Damon and his wife, Lucy?

‘‘She’s just about at that stage where she loves to reach and touch things,’’ Carlsson-Paige says. ‘‘I’ll find a book that has a tactile experience on each page, some large [non-toxic] beads on a string that will be fun for her to push and pull, and a few rattles. Rattles are a wonderful gift because she can see how she makes the noise happen.’’

Barbara Meltz can be reached at

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