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Little geniuses

Einstein videos teach infants about art and science. Critics fear parents have found a new babysitter.
Sunday, February 8, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:24 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

When Fletcher Orr was 6 weeks old, his mom, Jill Orr, set him in his little bouncy chair a few feet away from the TV screen and initiated him into an activity popular from coast to coast.

She played a Baby Einstein video, one in a series meant to spur the development of infants 2 and younger.

Orr has noticed a limited learning effect. The Baby Mozart program features a green dragon puppet that says “blah,” and Fletcher, who is now 2, coos the inevitable “blah” as soon as the toy ambles on screen. But what’s more important, Orr has noticed that her son can’t seem to take his eyes off the frisky images on the video.

The nationwide success of the so-called developmental video category picked up several years ago, and it has been on a roll ever since. The Baby Einstein series, which started it all before it was recently acquired by Disney, keeps adding titles to its extensive line of products that expose kids to art, classical music, science, language, poetry and nature.

With new companies such as Brainy Baby and Baby Genius cropping up, developmental videos are now a $1 billion-a-year category and one of the industry’s strongest sectors, according to the Toy Industry Association.

Their enormous success has experts cautioning about the pitfalls of overuse and questioning the educational benefits.

The major concern is that time spent gazing at the screen is time better invested in activities that develop kids’ motor skills and invite interaction with their parents.

In Columbia, too, stakeholders in child development disagree about video use. Educators declare, “No!” Many parents counter, “Yes!”

Are parents admirably dedicated, gullible or overly eager; or are they just anticipating the pressures of a fast-paced, highly competitive world?

Columbia parents might be too busy rearing their kids to analyze why they are rearing them the way they do. At any rate, it’s tough to say how in tune they are to the educational promises audible in product marketing because of a little complexity: These videos happen to double as reliable baby sitters. So as educators urge, “Let’s be cautious,” parents say, “OK, but let’s be realistic, too.”

Whatever their motivation, parents will need determination if they want to check out one of the Baby Einstein videos at the Columbia Public Library. They can enter their names on a waiting list, and if they have a few weeks’ patience, can get their hands on one.

Angela Mustard, children’s desk library associate, said the videos have been a hit since their debut in the library in 2000, but the past few months especially have seen an influx of inquiries.

If impatient parents try to get the videos from Lend & Learn, a playroom under the Educare Boone County program, they will be disappointed.

Center coordinator Tammy Byington disapproves of these materials and tenaciously withstands the wave of parents requesting the center stock them. However, in the two rooms of toys, bicycles, slides and balls adjacent to her office, parents unabashedly admit their kids watch and enjoy the educational series.

The popularity of the educational videos in Columbia mirrors their nationwide success. The reservations of Columbia educators, from guarded acquiescence to mistrust to outright rejection, mirror those of colleagues nationwide.

When it comes to selecting enriching toys for infants, Carol Koenig, an educator with Columbia’s Parents as Teachers program, is a fan of books.

[photo]

The Orr's have three videos of the Baby Einstein series. The 30 minute videos are targeted for children one month to four years old. (CHRIS DETRICK/Missourian)

“They can flip pages and chew on the book, and then talk with their parents about what they’ve heard,” she said. “Kids need human interaction.”

Byington, the center coordinator, said passively watching a video, even an educational video, robs kids of opportunities to bond with parents and develop problem-solving skills at a time when these opportunities are priceless. “Parents are the best toys around,” she said.

For this reason, educators find these materials more palatable if parents sit kids on their laps, join in the viewing and even become part of the show. The Baby Einstein Co. Web site urges parents to do the same.

No research has substantiated the potential of videos to speed up kids’ development. Experts tend to be skeptical. Christi Bergin, an applied developmental scientist with a Ph.D. in children’s development from Stanford University, said kids up to 2 years old develop emotionally and intellectually through parental responses.

“Only by having conversations and practicing skills with their parents do children learn,” said Byington as she exhibited an ad for “Newton in a Bottle,” a video introducing kids as young as 3 months to the world of physics, whose educational claim she deems “unbelievable.”

“Parents are sold a bill of goods that their children will be smarter,” she said.

Amanda Cochran, who thinks her first child, 10-month-old Robbie, might learn to compute much younger with a little help from Einstein, bases her opinion on what she’s heard from “people who know more than I do.”

Promotional materials for Baby Einstein never explicitly promise a speedier development or a smarter child. However, they consistently hint at educational benefits. The videos are “learning tools” that expose kids to the world in “stimulating” or else in “enriching” ways.

[photo]

Fletcher Orr, 2, watches the a Baby Einstein video in the playroom of his parents home on Friday January 30, 2004 in Columbia, Mo. Orr has been watching the 30 minute videos since he was six weeks and enjoys the variety of colors, shapes and sounds the videos present. (CHRIS DETRICK/Missourian)

“Neighborhood Animals,” a Baby Einstein video for kids 1 and older, proposes to take little ones on a “field trip” and introduce them to the surrounding fauna. It opens with the company logo, a baby’s face with precocious glasses and creatively disheveled hair and the motto, “Great minds start little.” The video features a collection of animal puppets swaying to the rhythm of upbeat Beethoven and Vivaldi remixes and footage of the same animals going about their daily business in their natural habitats.

The DVD includes “interactive flashcards,” or pictures of the animals with the corresponding word and a voice-over, to help kids learn their names.

So why all this impatience to get kids into the learning loop? Parents naturally want the best for their kids, and they want their kids to be the best. “Who doesn’t want to have a smart kid and a kid who picks things up easily?” asked Koenig.

According to Bergin, this natural desire to see kids perform and excel, both for their own good and, well, for an innocuous dose of parental validation, or “ego extension,” has become a wider social pressure.

“These videos speak to a symptom more general and pervasive in our culture,” she said. “Parents can push babies too hard to produce super-smart children.”

Columbia parents’ expectations of the videos’ educational effect, however, might not be as high as experts suspect. Granted, some parents do expect tangible results.

“When you have them watch things like that, it helps the learning process,” said Cochran, who’s hoping her son Robbie will pick up some French and Spanish from video materials. Amy Sprouse, whose son Abe, 2, watches a video introducing him to different shapes, says, “I definitely feel he’s gaining a different knowledge from videos.”

For the most part, however, the hopes these Columbia parents place on the materials are fairly modest, and their notions of how they work pretty reasonable. Sharon Young’s son Evan, 2, started watching Baby Mozart at 6 months, and, his mom hopes, might one day be less at a loss in a concert hall than his older siblings. But Young sees the videos as more of a downtime activity.

“For me, it’s a little break; for him, it’s a variety in his day,” she said.

According to Koenig, who works with 60 families in Columbia, a lot of the parents fueling the video craze interact with kids extensively, with the TV on or off. As for the concern that these materials are precipitating the extinction of books, McLeod said about Columbia Public Library patrons: “If they take videos, they probably also take books. If they are interested in the development of their children, they’ll look at everything they can.”

And for those who pronounce the baby videos idea a radical step in lowering the boundaries of educational input, Sharon Bell recalled that when her eldest son was growing up about 20 years ago, the fad of the day was flashcards for 6-month-olds to help them learn to read.

“We, of course, abstained from the flashcards,” she said.

Concerns about one-upmanship in educating kids date back to the 1960s, agreed Bergin, and, although the trend to speed things up has picked up over the past decade, the eagerness developmental videos exemplify is nothing new.

In a world saturated with electronic media stimuli, the format of parental impatience has evolved. In fact, the Einstein series was created by an eager new mom, who was frustrated by the lack of products to help her mediate her passion for arts.

But the success of the videos seems to reveal more about modern parents’ need to multitask than about their extreme ambitions.

“Today’s parents are very, very busy,” said Claire Green, president of the Parent’s Choice Foundation, which declares videos to be OK if used in moderation. “Holding one or two jobs and trying to balance raising children and running a household is no small task.”


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