PERSPECTIVES: A Conversation with Warren Buckleitner, Children’s Technology Expert

WBMarch 27, 2012 | Warren Buckleitner has been reviewing children's technology products since 1983. He is the founding editor of Children's Technology Review and creator of the Dust or Magic Institute. He is a regular contributor to The New York Times and Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine. A former preschool, elementary school and college teacher, Buckleitner holds a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology. Toy News Tuesday editors recently sat down with Buckleitner to get his opinion on the future of technology and play.

TNT: Were you fascinated by technology as a child? What was your favorite toy growing up? What led you to what you do today?

WB: Hmmm. When I was a child, technology consisted of light bulbs and black and white TV. I had a well-worn teddy bear that was certainly the pre-cursor to the Beanie Baby, and loved running around the house in my pajamas with a towel for a cape, being Superman, and later Robin. So I guess I was under the spell of licensed characters. Erector sets were the LEGOs of the day, and we loved making space ships out of overturned chairs, using blankets to make it dark enough so we could use flashlights. Looking back, I know that I was making sense of the biggest news story of the day: the Apollo space effort, and it reminds me that there will always be a place for toys that help children represent -- or make sense of -- the things going on in the outside world.

When I was in high school I tutored a fifth grader and a teacher that I respected told me I had "the knack" for teaching kids. That planted a seed; and I went on to become an elementary teacher. It was in 1982 at the dawn of the microcomputer that I realized computers were about to change everything. So I decided to be a technology reviewer. That was 12,000 reviews ago. 

TNT: What types of tech-infused toys did you see at Toy Fair 2012 that excited you… and why?

WB: The term "Big Apple" certainly had a new meaning during Toy Fair 2012. There were app-related toys everywhere this year. On one hand, I was pleased to see that the toy industry is starting to come to grips with this new multi-touch reality, and I thought some of the augmented reality apps were very cool. However, I doubt that many of these efforts will be profitable and I'm not convinced that the "buy the toy, download the app" model is simple enough to work. I'm also curious to see how the Video Game industry responds.

Every year, I like to put toys in the context of Moore's Law. We're now at a point where a $30 doll can have a huge vocabulary and fairly good AI, and a coin-sized battery can power a bug-sized robot for a few weeks. Motors and LEDs can be paired with a sound, light or motion sensors; so toys can empower children in ways never before possible. These recent abilities can be used to add to, or take away from engagement, but more often they take something away, by adding complexity to the experience or by blurring the play pattern. So while it might have a high novelty effect, it actually weakens long-term engagement.

TNT: Where do you see toy companies headed as they continue to incorporate tech elements into their toys?  And what should they keep in mind when developing toys that will engage the next generation of kids?

WB: There are certainly gaps. One of the most obvious is with programming and construction toys. K'nex and LEGO are great, but they're limited to 45 and 90 degree angles. The O'Reilly Maker movement is taking off because children want to make their own robots, with hot glue guns, cardboard, balsa wood and cans of parts from dissected toasters.

Other technologies that will shape and drive play in the near future: Android tablets (I've now counted eight, to be released by this holiday), tiny rechargeable lithium polymer batteries, and an increase in candy for the senses, including bright LEDs and haptic feedback.

Also, you may not be able to see them or hear them, but a flock of Angry Birds is attacking traditional business plans. Tablet-based play will remove several waking hours from every child's day... this isn't a fad. By the time you finish this column, another dozen children's apps will be released that are either free or $.99; and children want them. The winner will always be the one who can best engage the child. This requires an understanding of the DNA of play. Who better qualified to do that than professional toy makers? 

TNT: In terms of those tech toys that successfully deepen and enhance the play experience – how do you expect them to impact kids in their development? How will this next generation differ from those that came before it?

WB: I'll have to get back to you in 200 years. But we do know that (a) children will always have the same basic needs – for love, nutrition, and balance in their life (see Maslow) and (b) there are many new capabilities such as motion sensing and multi-touch that can foster exploration, while building a sense of control. It's up to our generation to figure out how to put these new tools to use, in a way that empowers (rather than depowers) a child.

TNT: Looking back at the last 10, 20 or 30 years, can you think of any fleeting tech fads that came out with a lot of fanfare and fizzled very quickly? Can you explain how or why?

WB: Yep. One mistake is to make a toy version of something real, and charge the same or more for it. It happened with both cameras and music players, and it will happen again with tablets. I recall one review that I wrote saying that a product (which incorporated an MP3 player) was doomed at launch, because it required a working Windows 95 or 98 PC. So even if you could get your music synced using the USB, there were no navigation controls, so you couldn't jump around in a playlist. For about the same price, you could buy a "real" MP3 player with essential features. It's also a reminder that complexity in any form kills play -- and that can include little things like prying open the packaging or finding a tiny screwdriver to put in the batteries.

The FLY Pentop Computer was another amazing failure but it had a silver lining called the Tag Reading System. The FLY tried to bring too many functions to the play experience, and the software titles were anchored to an extinct platform, so they died too. By removing the writing features, Leapfrog was able simplify everything, repurpose some of the books, and make the Tag Reading system. So it doesn't always have to end in the dust bin.

TNT: Based on feedback you receive from your readers and/or audience, how do you think societal perspectives about the influence of technology on kids have evolved over the years? Where do we stand at this point in time – are parents and educators embracing technology or are they still a bit apprehensive about it?

WB: Parents and grandparents today are naturally uneasy when they see children so engaged with new things they don't understand, like an iPad. But this is to be expected, as an entire generation grapples with change that is taking place very quickly. Researchers have yet to catch up, and there is no shortage of ignorance about children and technology right now. It will take time, and with time – which includes lots of informal play – will come acceptance.