Toys to foster learning Testing: Consumer Reports rates toys and uses 350 children to pick the best of the bunch.

Education Beat

December 16, 1998|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CONSUMER REPORTS, that always sensible and steadfastly neutral tester of the things we buy, is out with a report on educational toys, just in time for the holidays.

This year, the organization tested 30 toys marketed for their educational value, and 350 kids helped pick the winners.

Don't worry, Consumer Reports magazine says, if you bought the Spice Girls and tried to convince yourself that they have learning value. "Even the ubiquitous Beanie Babies can have a place in a child's development," advises CR.

Sunday, we'll look at some of the toys designed to foster better reading. Today, ratings of a few toys in categories other than reading: Popular Mechanics for Kids Construction Zone Building Kit No. 301. $22. Ages 7 and older. Follow the architectural plan to build a multistory building from plastic and cardboard. Small parts can be a choking hazard to young children. Consumer Reports' child testers loved this kit and said problem-solving was very good.

Super Science Star Theater 935 by Uncle Milton Industries. $35. Ages 8 and older. Projects the constellations and other planets on walls and ceiling. Includes a one-hour cassette tape about the solar system. Older children seemed to enjoy this toy, but the overall reviews were mixed.

Lego Mindstorms Robotics Invention System. $200. Ages 12 and older. Intended to give computer-savvy Lego fans a taste of robot programming. Each set includes 727 Lego blocks and parts for building, plus cables, transmitters, software and other equipment. Pricey, but a good choice for kids with patience who like Lego.

Microsoft Actimates Arthur and D.W. Dolls. $110 each. Ages 4 and older. Based on the PBS television series about a lovable aardvark, the dolls are battery-powered conversationalists that can engage children in endless small talk. For $55 more, a kit lets the dolls interact with the Arthur CD-ROM or the Arthur Web site. Though expensive, the dolls would make fun companions for young kids who like the TV show, according to CR.

Educational Insights Ant Factory. $20. Ages 5 and older. You send away for ants, then watch them work, eat and die. Includes a booklet on ant facts and suggested experiments. Ants can sting. The ants in one shipment escaped into the lab by enlarging the breathing holes in their test tube. Others arrived dead. Scored very good for fun, but below average for problem-solving. Seems to be enjoyed more by boys.

Smithsonian Crystal Growing Set. $27. Ages 10 and older. Contains ingredients you mix with water to grow nine different crystals. Children who enjoy conducting scientific experiments may enjoy this set, which required above-average problem-solving. But don't expect to grow the brilliant stones pictured on the box, said the kid reviewers.

Consumer Reports says you should know a few things before you buy an educational toy. Buy with the child's interests and temperament in mind. For some construction sets and activity and craft toys, play is over when the project is completed. Simpler, cheaper toys are often just as good as high-tech, pricey toys.

Exploitation in the schools

A couple of weeks remain in 1998, but we feel safe in naming the most depressing education journalism of the year and the most egregious example of school commercialism.

The first award goes to Education Week, the chronicler of goings-on in the nation's education industry. The publication's first three issues in December featured a series on sex between teachers and students.

Mary Kay LeTourneau, the Seattle teacher imprisoned for having sex with a 13-year-old student, is one of many, according to Education Week, which tracked 244 cases around the country.

Among the findings: Employees accused of sexual misconduct with students often enjoy reputations as dedicated teachers, coaches or administrators. Apparently, the same qualities of friendliness and concern that make them good educators can also help them prey on students. Twenty percent of the alleged abusers are women.

The commercialism award goes to the National Dairy Council, which took its "milk mustache" campaign into school cafeterias. The milk producers enlisted "Dawson's Creek" star Joshua Jackson to promote a school milk-drinking contest "to help solve the nation's calcium crisis."

Schools were invited to increase milk consumption during October for a chance to win computer prizes worth up to $10,000.

Web site on bullies

Want to know who's to blame for a lot of the troubles in education?

Bullies.

Lydia Brown of Arlington, Texas, was so disturbed by her son's treatment by bullies that she created a Web site -- www.citytraffic.net/stopthebullies.

"This site is for anyone who would like more information on bullies," says Brown by way of introduction to the site. "[I have] a son that was bullied to the point of depression."

Brown's Web site has become a forum for frustrated parents, who often don't know what to do, or what legal recourse is available, when bullies make their children's lives miserable.

Pub Date: 12/16/98

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