By Leslie Crawford
As with food, any self-respecting child knows to beware the toy that's supposed to be good for you. So we put the question to the play professionals: If you could invent any learning toy, what would it be? Though some of our young inventors deemed the learning component of the learning toy wholly irrelevant, their toy concoctions offer a glimpse inside what every child instinctively knows and what each parent (and toy company) must never forget: If it isn’t fun, it doesn’t count.
Toy Inventor: Zenobia, age 7
What it teaches: math, fashion, and the fact that fashion and math can go hand in hand
Old-school Barbie garnered notoriety for her bass-ackwards attitude toward numerical learning. This toy aims at redeeming the 11-inch fashion icon by embedding a calculator right into her stomach. "You could press the numbers you want to figure out on her stomach and she would say the answer," explains Zenobia, adding a note about the target audience: "This would be good for girly-girls from 3 to 6 years old."
Might Math Barbie look, well, nerdy — with a lab coat and glasses, say? No, insists the inventor: This Barbie must be available in an array of hair and skin colors as well as clothing styles so that she appeals to all types of girls. "There could even be some for boys," she adds. There would also be an extra modest version with numbers worked into the design of her dress "so you could poke her without taking the dress off."
Toy inventor: Dalila, age 6
What it teaches: social and emotional learning
The Robot Chinchilla is no ordinary robot chinchilla. A bargain at $1, this "very, very soft, rat-sized" robot runs as fast a cheetah, has laser-sharp teeth, knife-sharp claws, can walk "from Hawaii to Mexico," and has remarkable eyesight. "She can see really far away," says Dalila. "Like a tiny lady bug in China."
As Dalila knows, some learning toys aren't just about learning to read and write. This one is all about EQ. "I would invent this toy because it would be nice and cute and would protect people," says the inventor. "It's also friendly to people, but not bad guys or anything."
Toy inventor: Julia, age 13
What it teaches: Scientific principles about climate, water, sun, and rainbows
This compact high-tech mini eco-system that attaches to a window teaches important environmental science lessons, or as the inventor puts it more succinctly, "all about the sun, rainbows, and rain." The recycled plastic sun, rainbow, and rain (fueled by tiny solar-powered panels) feature buttons that activate voice recordings about their respective roles in nature. "I just thought it would be cool if young children could learn about these things," Julia says. "I personally don't know that much about them, and I wish I had learned more. I want kids to see how each of those things came to be, and what they are caused by."
Toy inventor: Sam, age 14
What it teaches: math
Here's a toy that pays for itself – as long as your child's been paying attention in math class. The Money Math Machine marries the design features of an iPad with the instant gratification of an ATM. "It gives you a math problem,” Sam explains. “If you answer the question correctly, it gives you 20 bucks." Note: Parents may be required to preload the device with newly minted stacks of twenties, but like batteries, this is not the manufacturer’s problem.
Toy inventor: Kiki, age 10
What it teaches: Everything
This inventor began with both a deep understanding of her customer and the larger educational landscape. "I've realized a lot of kids my age like electric gadgets, so that's how I came up with it," Kiki explains. It looks like an iPod Touch, but it's educational — preloaded with apps based on fifth-grade standards. An app about Columbus, for instance, not only gives information about Columbus, but adds "fun fun games" and a culminating quiz. "Most educational toys are kind of expensive," Kiki explains, "but the You Learn toy is absolutely free." Another example why inventors need a business partner.
Toy inventor: Sean, age 9
What it teaches: Everything
Watch out, iPad! You've got nothing on The Tap and Learn Super Screen, at least in terms of its sheer size. This super-sized touch pad is six feet square. Just tap one of the many "lesson" circles on the giant screen and you get to play a learning game that teaches "everything from math to grammar." Not only does his device make learning fun, Sean says, but it will "help you get 20/20 on the spelling test."
Toy inventor: August, age 4
What it teaches: physical education
A steal at $5, you get not only one, but two robot dogs when you buy the Robot Friends. "You play with them with a red human ball," August says.
What would you learn, we asked, from playing with Robot Friends? "That's the weirdest question," the inventor responds (given all tlhat ball play, we'll go with physical education). What's important, he adds, is that once you got your Robot Friends, "Kids would say, 'Oh, August invented these!' And they'd say, 'Is August the President?' And you'd say, 'No, he's a kid.' And they'd say, 'Wow! How could kids invent things?'"