Video games are good for your 3-year-old.
Or so claim several companies hawking new electronic games for preschoolers this season, despite critics' contention that tots need to spend more time on physical play, and not practicing virtual ABC drills.
"Turn game time into brain time," asserts a magazine ad for VTech's V.Smile, a joystick-controlled system that plugs into the TV. Its television ads feature parents telling kids they can stay up past bedtime and get dessert only if they put in their video time. It dubs the plastic game cartridges "smartridges because they will make you smarter," said VTech's vice president of marketing, Julia Fitzgerald.
The V.Smile is joined by a slew of new junior products that adapt tween technology to tots, from the Game Boy-like handheld Leapster to the Palm Pilot-like Datamax Junior to Playskool's personal video player, the VideoNow Jr. Many made "hot" toy shopping lists.
"Young children today are being brought up digital by their parents — that's the world we live in," said Doug Lowenstein, president of the Entertainment Software Association. "We've moved into the era where there's something for everyone in games."
While some parents race to embrace the new technology — V.Smile's user reviews on Amazon.com are nearly all positive — many child-development experts still question whether preschool video games are the learning equivalent of vitamin-fortified Cocoa Puffs.
"They all purport to be educational, but I have yet to see a video or computer game with educational software backed by any scientific research," said Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Children's Hospital Boston. "They're backed by market research about what parents will buy.
"The claims they make concern me because parents believe them," said Rich, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. "I think parents want to believe them because they want to get their kid quiet in a corner."
Experts especially fret about games for preschoolers because children's brains are developing so rapidly at this age, forming lifelong habits and learning patterns. At this developmental stage, "interactive" should mean talking to adults and using their whole body and senses, not getting feedback from a screen, they say.
While experts interviewed insist they're not anti-technology, they still wonder: "Why the rush to get more kids in front of more screens for more time?"
Children age 6 and younger already spend an average of two hours a day watching TV and playing computer and video games, according to a Kaiser Foundation survey.
No studies show video games are damaging, because there isn't any research on media's effect on children this young, said Claire Lerner, a child development specialist with Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.
"What we do know is that kids learn best from three-dimensional, real-life interaction," she said. "Video games aren't necessarily bad for kids, but they're definitely limited. They take time away from more enriching experiences."
For young kids, "everything is 'educational,' " said psychologist Susan Linn, associate director of the Media Center of the Judge Baker Children's Center. "The question is, what are kids really learning? They're learning to turn to screens for stimulus when preschoolers should be out exploring the world.
"If we want to raise children who are creative thinkers and problem-solvers, then we need to look for toys that foster that kind of play."
Games might help children memorize 1-2-3, but "the difference is it's rote learning that's disconnected from real-life experience," Lerner said. "Knowing a number or counting is meaningless unless it has a functional application."
LeapFrog, which makes the handheld Leapster, declined an interview with The Times. "My concern is that the article will cast an unfavorable light on educational toys," wrote LeapFrog's public-relations manager, Jaeme Sines, in an e-mail. "If the article is taking a critical look at the [educational-toy market] in any way, we'll have to pass on the opportunity."
For several years, established platforms such as GameBoy and PlayStation2 have targeted preschoolers with character-based games like Winnie the Pooh and Elmo. PlayStation's EyeToy games, which use a digital camera to capture players' body movements on screen, also appeal to younger kids. But the handful of titles were mostly intended for little brothers and sisters using their older siblings' hardware.
Nearly seven out of 10 households with children ages 2 to 17 own a video-game system, according to a 2000 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center.
Only a small number of computer or video games are rated EC for "early childhood," meaning they're appropriate for age 3 and up, says the Entertainment Software Rating Board. The more common rating is E, for "everyone" age 6 and up. These may contain "minimal" violence, comic mischief and/or mild language.
Some attribute the flurry of new tech games solely for preschoolers to a survey by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation last fall, which discovered half of 4- to 6-year-olds have played a video game, as have one out of 10 of kids under 3. Nearly a quarter of preschool boys play video games (handheld or console) in a typical day, usually for about an hour.
"I have a feeling somebody read our report and said, 'Wow, there is a market for this,' " said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the foundation's Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health. That wasn't the intention of the first publicly released national study of media use among very young children, but "there does seem to be a surge in video games for really little kids," she admitted.
"The first to blaze the trail were videos and TV shows for kids who can't even talk," Rideout said. Then there was computer "lapware" for parents and toddlers. Now toy companies are trying to turn parents' skepticism toward video games — four out of 10 parents say they "mostly hurt" learning — into a positive.
Saying "yes" to games
VTech looked at the rising use of video games and wondered, "How do we take this trend and make it work for moms?" vice president of marketing Fitzgerald said. The goal was to "help parents feel good about saying 'yes' to video games.
"Kids are moving away from toys at an earlier age and moving toward electronics and video games," she explained. "We wanted to take the play pattern that kids want to do and make it good for them."
As a mom of a 3-year-old wrote in her review of V.Smile on Amazon.com: "I love the fact that he has fun while he's learning his ABCs, colors and shapes without him even noticing. ... Before I purchased this item my son would only play with his Nintendo GameCube or his Sony PlayStation2 and I would feel guilty letting him play because the game systems weren't teaching my son anything. But now I let him play as long as he wants. So trust me it's worth it!"
Fisher-Price knew kids already watched TV, so it figured parents would be receptive to enhancing that experience with its InteracTV, which asks kids to answer questions posed by characters on special DVDs. "TV viewing is a large part of a young child's habits during the day," said Chuck Scothon, senior vice president of marketing and brand development. "Moms see a passive activity turn into an interactive exploration."
Rich of the Center on Media and Child Health agrees preschool games and TV shows are better than, say, "Grand Theft Auto." "I'd rather see them do something innocuous, as long as parents aren't deluded into thinking it will make geniuses out of their kid," he said.
"The question parents need to ask is not 'Is this more educational than Mickey Mouse?' but 'Is this more educational than other activities?' " said Rich, who helped write the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy statement on media use. "There are so many more important things preschoolers should be doing than playing video games."
Take drawing: Kids are better off with crayons and paper than with a digital paint program, said Dr. Alvin Poussaint, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The physical act of holding and manipulating a crayon is a precursor to learning to write.
This lukewarm reception is ignored by some parents, especially techie GenXers who love their own video games and work with computers.
"For those parents that get tired of having to share their Xbox with their kids, [especially] the ones who have trouble understanding it but still want to play like daddy, this is such a great idea," wrote a "gamer dad" of 2- and 3-year-olds about V.Smile on Amazon.com.
V.Smile gives "the same benefits as playing educational computer games," Fitzgerald said. "But now mom can use her computer again. In our research, we kept hearing from moms: 'Get them off the PC.' "
A majority of parents say computers help children's learning. Nearly a third of kids under 3 and seven out of 10 children ages 4 to 6 have used one.
Not all parents are swayed by video games' allure, however. Julie Herness of Bellevue, mom of a 4-year-old daughter and 7-month-old son, lets her daughter play computer games but is holding off on video games, especially handheld ones.
"I think it's a shame when you see families out to dinner and the kids are immersed in their little portable gaming devices," she said. The games are "kind of anti-social when they're used in a way to keep kids quiet in the car rather than engaged in conversation."
Stephanie Dunnewind: email@example.com.