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