Toy makers aim new generation of educational toys at toddlers

Tuesday, March 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP)_ Forget the blocks that helped Jane count to ten or Johnny learn his ABC's.

In an age when parents want their preschoolers on a fast track to Harvard, toy makers are trumpeting a new generation of educational toys that can help toddlers learn foreign languages or recognize classical music scores.

The trend toward increased sophistication in educational toys has been gaining notable momentum over the last three years while targeting ever-younger children, with toy makers now designing products for infants and toddlers under age 3.

The market is clearly there.

``I told my husband, 'Enough with the dinosaurs.' I want educational toys for my child,'' said Elizabeth Rubin, whose son, 3-year-old Alexander, recently was enrolled at a prestigious nursery school in Manhattan.

``I want my child to be introduced to everything at home before his school teaches it,'' she said. ``I am definitely feeling the pressure.''

Among the toys Alexander has received: Mazes of the type Rubin has learned are used as tests for admission to private kindergartens.

Both fueling and paralleling the phenomenon are general advancements in toy electronics and interactivity.

LeapPad, a $54.99 interactive book that teaches geography and numbers, was last holiday season's hottest-selling toy. The manufacturer, LeapFrog Inc., now is coming out with a smaller, more portable $39.99 LeapPad Traveler aimed at 3-year-olds.

Mattel Inc.'s Fisher-Price brand saw overwhelming success for its Intella-Table, a plastic table with interchangeable rings designed to help children's counting, music and logic skills. It's coming out with the High-Flying Language Learner, a $19.99 toy that exposes preschoolers to Spanish and French words.

It is also expanding its Sparkling Symphony line of toys which exposes infants and toddlers to Bach and Beethoven. It retails from $9.99 to $34.99.

Hasbro Inc. has teamed up with Baby Einstein Co. to produce toys that, employing an array of videos, DVDs and CDs, expose infants to Shakespeare, Van Gogh and Mozart.

Jakks-Pacific, known for action figure dolls, is diving in with a collection of musical toys under the brand Baby Genius, including a $39.99 music table that plays, among other classic scores, Mozart's ``Marriage of Figaro'' overture.

So much for teaching toys being a somewhat limited niche.

``It used to be that educational toys was a bad word in the industry,'' Jim Silver, publisher of The Toy Book, an industry monthly, said.

Now, he said, the sector has skyrocketed to a $1 billion business, twice what it was just a few years ago. Silver estimates it could reach $2 billion within the next three years.

But the new generation of educational toys, evident at last month's annual International Toy Fair in New York, isn't receiving universal applause.

Stephanie Oppenheim, co-president of the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Guide, a New York-based annual toy review, said some of the new offerings aren't well-conceived.

``In the end, it could actually harm the child, because some of these toys are too frustrating. They are developmentally off the mark,'' she said.

Oppenheim believes the best type of educational toys are puzzles or building blocks.

She's wary of toys that instruct infants in foreign language, and believes that many companies are making too much of research, which is now questioned by some quarters, that exposure to classical music will increase infants' certain cognitive skills.

``Some toys have cows that moo Mozart. They're probably having composers turning in their graves,'' she said.