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With youngsters, hands-on toys lay groundwork for learning

NEW YORK — Toys that teach aren’t a new thing, but a growing number call for kids to build with blocks, circuits or everyday items before reaching for a tablet screen.

Play is how kids learn about the world around them, whether the child is a toddler throwing a ball or a teenager playing video games.

The benefit is seeing how things work and what happens when an action is taken.

Through the years, toys have become more high-tech to keep screen-obsessed children engaged with such play.

But there’s growing worry among parents and educators that toys are moving too far in that direction. Educational toys that have a math-and-science bent marketed under the umbrella of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) are now trying to get back to the basics: less screen time, more hands-on activities.

“When kids use their hands, your outcomes are much higher,” said Pramod Sharma, CEO of one such toy company, Osmo.

“It’s very different than if they’re just staring at a screen watching TV.”

With Osmo, kids learn everything from spelling to coding, not by touching a screen but by snapping together magnetic blocks. A screen remains part of it — as an image is beamed onto an iPad through its camera — but the idea is to have kids learn first with their hands, then see their creation move to the screen.

Educators agree that physically putting something together helps educational concepts sink in.

“The way the world comes to us is actually through tactile activities, so tactile toys — where we build stuff — are incredibly helpful,” said Karen Sobel-Lojeski, who studies the effects of technology on children’s brain development at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York.

Bloxels tries to bridge the physical and the digital. Kids build their own video games by putting plastic blocks in a special tray instead of writing out code. Using a phone or tablet’s camera, an app transforms the shapes created with the blocks into digital characters and scenery.

Makey Makey, a startup founded by a pair of MIT students, asks kids to come up with their own electronic creations by combining software, circuits and everyday items such as bananas and doughnuts.

Sobel-Lojeski said toys are most educational when kids can learn how things work by building.

But Juli Lennett, a toy-industry analyst at NPD, said such toys are rarely on kids’ wish lists.

On the other hand, she said, tech toys that have subtle educational value but aren’t specifically marketed as such can be strong sellers.

Lennett cited Fisher-Price’s Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar, which introduces basic coding concepts by letting preschoolers assemble segments that each tells the caterpillar to do something different, such as “turn left” or “play sound.”

“I’m not sure that kids are asking for it, or that their parents just want their kids to go to Harvard, but it’s definitely one of the top-selling toys this holiday,” Lennett said.

Tracy Achinger, a former automotive engineer in suburban Detroit, said her 8-year-old son became interested in coding after starting computer programming classes this year.

For Christmas, she plans to buy him an Ozobot, a golf ball-sized robot that kids can program by drawing different colored lines or using a kid-friendly, block-based programming language.

Achinger’s 3-year-old son will be receiving an iPad. She doesn’t oppose screen time, she said, but thinks parents need to keep an eye on what their kids are watching and playing.

Her older son, she said, has been playing creative games such as “Minecraft” in recent years.

“We try to keep it educational,” Achinger said. “I really think those kinds of games get their imaginations going.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines to shift the emphasis away from banning screen time and toward balancing high-quality content with nonscreen activities.

Which doesn’t mean that every toy with a screen is educational.

Barbie has her own smart home in the form of the voice-activated and Wi-Fi-connected Hello Dreamhouse. And new versions of Elmo, Furby and the Cabbage Patch Kids have apps, which Lennett said are often more about branding than learning.

Sobel-Lojeski said slapping an app on a low-tech toy can backfire. Instead of letting the child imagine how a particular toy would talk or behave, the app fills those gaps.

“It cuts the child off from play that is much more important for development,” she said.

Some of the drive for tech in toys comes from parents who believe that the younger their kids are exposed to technology, the more prepared they will be for a lucrative career someday.

But Sobel-Lojeski said Albert Einstein came up with breakthroughs without ever touching a computer, let alone tech toys, as a youth.

“We can easily be tricked into thinking that all this stuff is going to make our kids more intelligent or better scientists,” she said, “and that’s just not true.”

Some companies that make computers for children also see the value in a construction element.

Kano shows kids how to build a computer in a kid-friendly storybook format.

Kano co-founder Alex Klein said he had to resist suggestions to just put Kano into app form and skip the computer construction. The act of building a computer was key, he said, because it “ created a huge sense of energy and momentum for what followed on-screen.”

But Klein said screens aren’t going away anytime soon.

“You can’t compete with screens with kids,” he said. “So, for us, it’s not about trying to push against what this next generation thinks is good or likes; it’s about providing a new angle on it that’s more creative.”

* * *

Looking for a cool tech gift for a kid in your life?

Here are some toys designed to keep children entertained without sacrificing on education:

Hands-on creating

Tablet screens and apps haven’t gone away, but they’re not enough on their own. These toys allow kids to create and build with their hands.

• Osmo. As kids arrange magnetic blocks or puzzle pieces, their creations show up on the iPad, thanks to a mirror attached to the tablet’s camera. By arranging blocks, for instance, kids put together lines of code to guide an on-screen monster. Another game teaches entrepreneurial and math skills by letting kids run their own pizza shop. The base set costs $30. You then buy add-ons, such as coding for $50 and the pizza business for $40. It works only with iPads for now.

Makey Makey. You connect one end to a computer’s USB port and the other to any material that conducts electricity, such as coins or even a banana. Kids can then turn bananas into keyboards and pencil drawings into controls for video games. The basic set costs $25, though for $50, you get additional clips and connector wires.

Meccano sets. This is for the tween or young teen who is handy with a wrench and has a lot of time. Even the trio of smaller Micronoids sets ($40) require a decent amount of time and significant motor skills. The larger models, such as the $140 Meccanoid 2.0, can take the better part of a day to construct. Once assembled, these robots can be programmed to dance, play games and interact with each other.

Illumicraft. Don’t let the girly colors or rainbow stickers turn you off. The $20 kit combines science and crafting to introduce basic circuitry. Projects include light-up diaries, jewelry organizers, smartphone speakers and picture frames.

Code This Drone. Software company Tynker and drone maker Parrot have joined forces to create this kit, which includes a drone and a one-year subscription to Tynker’s education service. The kit costs $100 to $150 depending on the drone selected. It teaches the basics of coding through games played with an app-controlled minidrone. Kids can program their own flight plan of flips and turns, or build their own on-app drone through an obstacle course as the real drone mirrors the movements.

Programming for preschoolers?

Parents with dreams of future high-tech careers are eager for their kids to learn computer programming.

In some cases, toy makers are reaching out to children still in diapers with coding concepts.

Think & Learn Code-a-Pillar. Kids as young as 3 can “write” code by snapping together a $50 toy caterpillar. Each section signifies a command, such as “go straight” or “play sounds.” Hit the execute button to send the toy crawling in the chosen order. Older kids can program Code-a-Pillar to reach targets placed across a room, or send it through an obstacle course of their own creation. While the kids aren’t learning a coding language, the toy does try to teach cause and effect, as well as problem solving.

Coji. As its name implies, the $60 mini-robot teaches prereaders to code with emojis. It also reacts when tilted or shaken. It can be controlled with a phone or tablet.

Code & Go Robot Mouse Activity Set. With this $60 toy, kids build a maze with plastic squares and dividers, then program their mouse to make its way through to the cheese at the end.

Robots with personality

Kids want more than robots they can guide with a remote or a smartphone. Kids want personality — a little friend to whom they can relate and who recognizes them.

Cozmo. This $180, palm-sized robot is expressive, adorable and fun to play with. A team of animators designed more than 500 reactions for the robot to pick from when it sees someone it recognizes, wins or loses a game, or completes a task. The result is a very cute and human-like buddy similar to Pixar’s Wall-E.

CHiP. This $200 robot doggie cuddles, plays fetch and follows you around your house. When he’s close to running out of juice, he even heads over to his charging pad and parks himself. This little guy is very loud when he zips around the room, so apartment-dwellers with hardwood floors might want to invest in a rug.

Additional realities

“Pokemon Go” isn’t the only way kids can play with augmented reality — the blending of the real and virtual worlds.

Air Hogs Connect: Mission Drone. With this $150 system, kids use an app to fly an included drone over a sensor pad that, combined with a phone or tablet’s camera, places the drone in the game on the screen. As the physical drone moves, so does the one in the game. Kids fly the drone through hoops and shoot down alien invaders. Play is limited by the drone’s estimated 10-minute flying time.

VR Real Feel Virtual Reality Car Racing Gaming System. This $30 car racing game includes a wireless steering wheel and a virtual-reality headset you stick your phone into. It’s not the fanciest VR technology, but it’s a lot of fun for what you pay. The system is set to ship on Dec. 12.

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