"I don't know," the store owner said Wednesday. "We don't carry the hottest new toys."
At her shop specializing in classic wooden toys and other unique playthings, Soelter hadn't heard about the winner of the 2012 TOADY Award -- the acronym stands for "toys oppressive and destructive to young children."
The TOADY recognizes a toy deemed the year's worst by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an activist group concerned about corporate influences on kids. This year's winner is the Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey, from Fisher-Price.
It's a purple stuffed animal with -- get this -- a place on its tummy for an iPhone or iPod touch. The target age is 6 months to 3 years old.
A how-to video tells how to download a free "Monkey App" that turns a smartphone into an integral part of the toy. Without a phone, the monkey that aims to teach ABCs, numbers and shapes still responds to touch with talk and music.
Does a multitasking stuffed monkey deserve the dubious prize? Or does the Apptivity Monkey simply reflect life today? Why not put smartphones into the hands of babes?
Soelter doesn't have an advanced degree in childhood development, but after 31 years of running her store she knows what makes an age-appropriate toy.
"Babies haven't changed. They don't need loud, bright, noisy things," Soelter said. "To me, for an infant just 6 to 9 months, we're about wooden blocks. We sell very few items that have batteries."
Early childhood experts agree with the toy shop owner.
Louise Vlasic, chairwoman of Everett Community College's Early Childhood Education Department, said that in our culture there's little escape from screen devices. "But from research in the field of early childhood, it's very evident the importance of limiting screen time. Interaction or relationships with parents and other adults or children are more essential to promoting social and emotional development."
Kelly Davidson, director of EvCC's Early Learning Center, cited the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation that parents avoid screen time altogether for children under age 2.
"It's so tempting. I absolutely understand why parents succumb," Davidson said. With children fascinated by screen technology and parents so busy, a smartphone or tablet seems like a fine way to occupy little ones. "I will tell you, it would probably become their favorite thing," Davidson said of the techy monkey.
What's so bad about screen time for tots?
"The most important thing at that age is to build secure relationships, and after that, language," Davidson said. "There's lots of research that they don't learn language from a screen, not even a video. It has to be a live person talking to you."
She also worries about children being sedentary. "Give them things that satisfy them visually, why would they move their body?" Davidson said. Also, she said, a screen can't take the place of imagination.
Fisher-Price, a subsidiary of Mattel, Inc., didn't mention the TOADY in an emailed response to my inquiry about the year's worst prize.
"Fisher-Price makes hundreds of products that cover a variety of important play patterns from classic play, to imaginative play to digital play and everything in between, all of which encourage children's development," said the statement, sent Thursday by Fisher-Price spokeswoman Juliette Reashor.
Calling smartphones and age-appropriate apps a "new developmental tool for children," the Fisher-Price statement added that "parents can still keep a well-rounded toy box that includes both traditional and tech toys."
Among other TOADY nominees were a LEGO Friends Butterfly Beauty;http://search2.lego.com/?q=Lego%20friends%20butterfly%20bubeauty%20fhosp&lang=2057&cc=US#cc=US;lang=2057;q=LEGO%20friends%20butterfly%20beauty%20shop Shop (marketing encourages girls to "get primped and pretty") and a 7-Eleven Slurpee Machine. Another year, the TOADY went to a Dallas Cowboy Cheerleader Barbie.
Josh Golin, of the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said one aim of the prize is to point out trends.
"This toy stood out for incorporating a screen into a toy that's perfectly fine without one," Golin said Thursday. "Stuffed animals are wonderful toys. They're a comfort, and become children's real friends when they use their imagination."
Hear that, Santa? No hurry. The kids have years to beg for smartphones.
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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