So much for the age of innocence. Kids? toys can now go online to update their vocabularies and keep your little ones playing for longer.

So you thought the few years before the kids make it to school might be the time when you know more about technology than they do?

Sorry. Toys have gone online. Globes download national anthems and recite up-to-date exchange rates. Dolls use USB connections to learn new words and even pre-schoolers have computers designed just for their tiny fingers and developing brains.

These new online toys are very impressive. Oregon Scientific?s SmartGlobe comes with a special talking pointer and has an enormous amount of information built in. It can play games of ?find that country? or quizzes. But the most extraordinary part is that it?s always up to date, thanks to a USB connection and online updates.

That means toys can stay at the top of kids playlists even when their initial novelty has worn off. ?One of the big benefits in offering these online games is that manufacturers can enhance and update the games without asking parents to buy new ones,? explains Gail Carvelli of toy maker Hasbro.

Eye candy

Another by-product of this trend is that interactive toys are unusually well-designed to attract younger and younger children.

One company that has ridden the trend to increased sales is LeapFrog, whose new ClickStart console allows children as young as three to become familiar with the desktop environment.

Sharon Delman, LeapFrog?s US Marketing Manager, says parents are keen for their children to gain skills, but not so keen to hand over their hardware to toddlers. ?We spoke to mums who acknowledged that they want their kids to develop computer and pre-school skills, but they don?t want them to use the family PC,? she explains, ?That?s where the important financial records are and they don?t want to risk having files deleted ? or destroyed by spilled milk.?

LeapFrog?s answer is to turn the TV into a PC for three- to five-year-olds. With its brightly coloured QWERTY keyboard (in the shape of a dog) and desktop interface, the recently released ClickStart is very clearly aimed at getting toddlers familiar with computers but also at keeping them in the family room.

Pre-school internet

Fisher-Price?s latest offering is also aimed at very young children. The Easy-Link Internet Launchpad is a web surfing tool for toddlers who can?t use a keyboard. There?s no need to read, type or click: the gismo simply plugs into the computer in a heartbeat. The child then inserts a character figure into a slot and the Launchpad takes them safely to that character?s website. It?s like a series of physical bookmarks the kids can play with and then plug in.

How young is too young?

Kym Macfarlane, Lecturer at Griffith University, believes that today?s toddlers will be entering a world which is incomprehensible to most of us. ?Allowing children to access technology at an early age will allow them to be far more discerning and feel more comfortable with the technology they will need in the future,? she says.

However Macfarlane says that the child?s level of comfort assumes that kids will have their parents with them when they use computers. She is also a firm believer in moderation. ?There is a danger when children don?t have balance in their lives. Children can learn a great deal from technology but they also learn by playing outside. They learn by doing ordinary everyday things.?

Joanne Dwyer who lectures in Education at the University of Western Sydney has some concerns about some of the toys which are based on ubiquitous characters. ?There is a risk of overloading on popular culture for very young children, ? she warns. ?There is a real danger in exposing our children to too many characters that are controlled by large corporations. It may be teaching children to respond advertising.?

Source: Australian GO magazine