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The early learning centre

The Independent
Educational baby toys can really stimulate tiny minds, and the market for them is booming. But there's still no substitute for parental interaction, says Helena Pozniak


Try this for educational play. "That's wonderful, you've emptied your milk and now you're rubbing it in my carpet." Or, "now you're licking the toilet seat". Anyone who thinks toys don't have a place in the lives of the under-ones is wrong - even if their role is merely hygienic.

That educational electronic toys were the fastest growing sector in the toy market last year, followed closely by infant toys, reflects the desire of parents to teach their children ever more, ever younger. "People are really getting into early learning for their children," says Katy Chan of electronic educational toy company VTech.

And baby toys are a busy market - new parents with time on their hands love buying them. Research sponsored by Fisher-Price found 97 per cent of parents said they played with their child to encourage them to learn.

Very young babies respond to sound and smell - visually they can only really focus as far as the breast or bottle but they've already heard their mothers' voices in the womb. Singing voices help babies learn language. Music soothes them.

Bring on the host of musical products, from Baby Einstein - whose range includes rearrangements of classical music and strangely appealing visuals set to classics, through to singing pram companions. "Products like Baby Einstein are good for auditory and visual stimulation, show cause and effect, and develop concentration through repetition of a theme - although a young baby won't be held for the whole video," says Dr Sarah Nicholson, a child psychiatrist with an interest in neuro-development. "Visually most won't be interested until after six months."

Although the music your baby hears doesn't have to be classical, many parents find it easier on the ears. The cuddly "Little Singing Alfie", part of VTech's Smart Start Baby Series and suitable from three months, sits in the pram, speaks to your child and has an interactive tummy which lights up, sings tunes and even counts. "Remember all high-tech toys are a parent substitute," warns Dr Nicholson. "But they have a place if they encourage the parent to play with the child." VTech even does a cuddly electronic phone, relaunched a year ago to suit even younger babies - from three months upwards.

LeapFrog's Baby Counting Pal, also suitable from three months up, offers similar multi-sensory learning activities - although children don't generally understand numbers until around the age of three. "All the flashing lights and colours aid spatial awareness - we're not aiming to create Einsteins," says LeapFrog's Theresa Ceballos.

Meanwhile, Lamaze, with their infant development system which aims to cover all stages of sensory and motor development, do an attractive range of bright, durable, mostly cloth toys aimed from birth upwards - their patterned double-sided cot bumper is a favourite. Some of their early toys, such as the excellent Octotunes, are scented too.

Though few parents really do believe in hot-housing their child this early, too many toys don't help. Before the age of one, babies need time to sit back and process what they have absorbed, says Dr Nicholson. "We are so focused on pushing our children, but they need time in the pram just staring at the clouds. Over-stimulation is a big problem."

Gross motor skills - rolling, crawling and walking - are catered for in a range of baby walkers, electronic moving balls and the like, although babies learn these anyway, with or without toys. But they need objects - be they blocks, activity boards, stacking toys - to develop fine motor skills. Cause and effect can be taught usefully through toys - pushing buttons or pop-ups, although babies can learn these skills just as easily - but less practically - by spilling drinks and pulling off tablecloths.

From four months and upwards, babies can graduate to LeapFrog's Learn & Groove Activity Station - an interactive sit-in play centre - or Fisher-Price's interactive Laugh and Learn Home, part of a range aimed at six months and up; fully interactive, it mirrors daily experiences in the home, from which babies can learn a lot.

Singing books - VTech do a good sing-along nursery rhymes product including London Bridge - are fun, and stoke the early stirrings of imagination and symbols. Fisher-Price's "Power Touch Baby", a soft sing-along book, is a kind of convertible toy - add a phone or steering wheel for further play.

Don't forget "lapware" if you are so inclined - CD-Roms aimed at babies as young as nine months upwards - Reader Rabbit Baby, Jump Ahead Baby and many others - so your progeny can explore colours, shapes, numbers and music on a screen.

If this all sounds a little bit pushy - and you haven't even started on the bilingual toys yet - remember then that early toys should encourage you to interact with your baby. So, as Dr Nicholson says, if you prefer technology to wooden toys, all well and good. "What makes the big difference in learning is the interest the parent - or carer - takes in the child - so be it through books or technology, the important thing is you spend time interacting and socialising with your child."