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From Low-Tech to High-Tech: Worthy, Stimulating Holiday Gifts


December 5, 2002

Searching for just the right gift for that special three- or four-year-old on your holiday shopping list? Looking for something that is fun, promotes learning and keeps the child’s interest long past the holidays? A national research organization released tips today on selecting books and technology products to help gift buyers find presents that will put the sparkle in their eyes and enrich their learning capacities at the same time.

“It’s so easy for shoppers’ eyes to glaze over when faced with the vast array of possible gifts in the stores,” said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in New Brunswick. “Most people want to buy gifts for children that will have the double benefit of being fun and educational but its not always easy to know which ones will have lasting benefits.”

NIEER generates research on early childhood education specifically focused on attaining quality education opportunities for three- and-four-year olds. The selection of books and technology as categories for recommendations is due to: 1) the mass appeal of technology gifts making it one of the most popular gift areas, and; 2) the low cost and high value of books for learning and enjoyable parent-child interaction.

“Most of the books can be purchased for less than $7 for paperbacks and $15 for hardcovers, keeping the gifts affordable,” said Barnett. “At the same time, books remain a strong foundation for children’s learning capacities. We’ve included an American Indian choice and a list of books in Spanish for those seeking a varied cultural background.”

Barnett said that at the other end of the spectrum, high-tech gifts have become favorites on many children’s holiday ‘wish’ list. “The onslaught of highly-advertised media products – software, videogames and microprocessor-embedded ‘smart toys’ leaves many gift givers confused as to which ones support a preschooler’s development.”

In an effort to help, NIEER consulted with Children’s Software Revue (CSR) magazine, which sorted through 110 products for preschoolers released this year, and chose just eleven that received passing grades on a 50 item checklist measuring each product’s design characteristics, potential for learning and overall value. For books, NIEER Senior Research Fellow Dorothy Strickland, a national expert on children’s literacy and NIEER co-director Linda Espinosa put together lists of top picks.

“The magic behind a high quality children’s technology product is actually very simple,” said Warren Buckleitner, editor of CSR. “The best toys and software tap into well known play patterns, for instance, having kids collect items on a scavenger hunt (Ollo and the Sunny Valley Fair), or test inventions (Curious George Downtown Adventure). Another critical factor is to make the most of the child’s ability to control the experience by providing an immediate, uncluttered response to each mouse click.”

SOFTWARE KIDS LOVE TO PLAY
The following represent the top recommendations out of 110 products for preschoolers released this year.

Bob the Builder: Bob Builds a Park
Fix up the park via ten games designed for a child with beginning mouse skills. Kids can easily see what they’ve completed with child-friendly progress reports, and can adjust difficulty levels for most activities. THQ, www.thq.com, $20, ages 2-5, Focus: logic, classification, music, Windows

Clifford Reading
Six quality early reading activities perfect for a pre-reader (ages four or five) or for an older child in need of remedial help. Scholastic Consumer Software, www.scholastic.com, $19.95, ages 4-6, Focus: early reading, letter sounds, spelling, sounds, fluency, vowels, Win, Mac

Curious George Downtown Adventure
60 Rube-Goldberg-like puzzles provide a wonderful logical thinking opportunity, all set in the playful world of Curious George. Younger children (three and four-year-olds) may need help, this program is better suited for kids aged five and older. Knowledge Adventure, www.knowledgeadventure.com, $20, ages 3-6, Focus: logic, problem solving, creativity, Win, Mac

Fisher-Price Rescue Heroes Tremor Troubles
Eight playful activities ask children to save the day, and each has three levels to support the program’s longevity. Knowledge Adventure, www.knowledgeadventure.com, $19.99, ages 4-7, Focus: logical problem solving, spatial relations, Win, Mac

Flash Action Colors, Shapes & More
This program delivers straightforward but playful practice with numbers, letters, positional words (like over/under), colors, shapes, and rhyming words. Four additional open-ended activities allow children to apply the concepts. School Zone Interactive, www.schoolzone.com, $14.99, ages 3-6, Focus: classification, shapes, colors, Win, Mac

Ollo and the Sunny Valley Fair
If you choose just one preschool title this holiday, make it this one. In the context of a scavenger hunt, children find plenty of perfectly leveled activities. Hulabee Entertainment, www.Hulabee.com, $20, ages 3-6, Focus: creativity, memory, logic, counting, patterns, sorting, sequencing, music , Win, Mac

FOR YOUR PLAYSTATION
Pajama Sam
This is the PlayStation version of the popular computer scavenger hunt that asks kids take on the role of a child detective and solve a mystery. The graphics, story line and character development are all exceptional, giving the game unusual depth and playability– ideal for the entire family. Hasbro Interactive/Infogames, www.hasbro-interactive.com, $20, ages 3-8, Focus: logic, nutrition, PlayStation

TOYS WITH BRAINS THAT ARE WORTH THE BATTERIES

LeapPad and My First LeapPad
The biggest breakthrough in reading instruction since Dick and Jane, this notebook-sized, touch sensitive book reader allows children to hear words read aloud, in a clear voice. As a child explores each page, she can touch a stylus to any word to hear it pronounced, or to have a picture described. A variety of books are now available for preschoolers. $40, LeapFrog, www.leapfrog.com

Music Blocks
Released last year, this tabletop toy lets children experiment with the elements of a musical selection by placing blocks in different orders. $35, Neurosmith.com

Pixter Creativity System
This handheld creativity toy features a 3 by 3 1/2 inch, touch sensitive, black and white screen and a stylus. Kids use the gadget to scribble, draw, or complete dot-to-dot puzzles. The graphics are crude, with highly pixelated jagged lines, but this is compensated for by the good responsivity, an easy “undo,” and no need for paper! Fisher-Price, Inc., www.fisher-price.com, $40, ages 4-up, creativity

Pretend and Learn Shopping Cart
This shopping cart works just like the real thing– push it around, and fill it with objects and groceries. It comes with ten plastic shopping items to scan using the small plastic scanner that’s connected to the cart’s middle. Children simply touch the scanner’s base to the object and the toy announces what it is. Scan a bunch of bananas, and children hear, “three yellow bananas”. LeapFrog, www.leapfrog.com, $45, ages 2-up, fantasy play

BOOKS WITH LONG TERM IMPACTS:

Dorothy Strickland, a national expert on children’s literacy at Rutgers University and a NIEER Senior Research Fellow said, “When selecting books, look for books that communicate on the child’s level, telling lively, entertaining stories, which cover a variety of topics. Search out the books that are fun for parents to read to their children, which will enrich both the parents’ and children’s experience that much more.”

The following examples of books that will keep the interest of children and provide learning experiences. The books cover a wide variety of topics, may be concept-based (numbers and shapes), are well illustrated and should be enjoyable for parents to read aloud.

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, Viking
Where’s My Teddy? by Jez Alborough, Candlewick.
Ten, Nine, Eight, by Molly Bang, Greenwillow.
The A to Z Beastly Jamboree by Robert Bender, Dutton.
Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, HarperCollins.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle, Philomel.
Freight Train by Donald Crews, Greenwillow.
So Many Circles, So Many Squares by Tana Hoban, Greenwillow.
Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins, Macmillan.
Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson, HarperCollins.
The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats, Viking.
On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, Greenwillow
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. and John Archambault, Simon & Schuster.
Curious George by H. A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin.

Barnett said his favorite book for this holiday season is the picture book, How Raven Stole the Sun, a Native American tale by Maria Williams, brought to life by distinguished artist Felix Vigil. It was created with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

“In addition to these books, a variety of books are well-suited to Hispanic families who provide literacy through their native language and culture,” said Linda Espinosa, NIEER co-director. Examples (all of which can be purchased through Scholastic Books) include:

CALOR: A Story of Warmth for All Ages, by Juanita Alba
La Historia De Johnny Appleseed, The Story of Johnny Appleseed by Aliki, Translated by Teresa Mlawer
Franklin, by Paulette Bourgeois, Illustrated by Brenda Clark,(Series of Books)
El Club Secreto De Franklin, Franklin’s Secret Club
El Diente De Franklin, Franklin and the Tooth Fairy
El Hallazgo De Franklin, Finders Keepers for Franklin
Franklin Dice “Te Quiero” , Franklin Says I Love You
Franklin Miente, Franklin Fibs
Franklin Quiere Una Mascota, Franklin Wants a Pet
Franklin Se Pierde, Franklin Is Lost
Franklin Tiene Un Mal Día, Franklin’s Bad Day
Franklin Y El Día De Acción De Gracias, Franklin’s Thanksgiving
La Hermanita de Franklin, Franklin’s Baby Sister
La Manta De Franklin, Franklin’s Blanket
Colección “Los Cuentos Fantásticos De Las Tres Mellizas,” The Triplets’ Fantastic Story Series, by Roser Capdevila.
El Viaje En Tren, The Train Ride, by June Crebbin, Illustrated by Stephen
Lambert, Translated by Esther Roehrich-Rubio
Clic, Clac, Muu: Vacas Escritoras, Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type, by Doreen
Cronin, Illustrated by Betsy Lewin
Olivia, La Reina Del Circo, Olivia Saves the Circus, by Ian Falconer

Additional books, or books for children of other age ranges can be found in Read to Me: Raising Kids Who Love to Read, by Bernice E. Cullinan, Scholastic 2000.

Media Note: more information about NIEER is available at: www.nieer.org.

Additional source of information: Warren Buckleitner, Editor, Children’s Software Revue Magazine (908-284-0404).

The National Institute for Early Education Research is supported through a grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Trusts (www.pewtrusts.com) support nonprofit activities in the areas of education, culture, the environment, health and human services, public policy and religion. Based in Philadelphia, the Trusts make strategic investments to help organizations and citizens develop practical solutions to difficult problems. In 2001, with approximately $4.3 billion in assets, the Trusts committed over $230 million to 175 nonprofit organizations.