All toys can be said to be interactive in that the child’s interaction with toy gives the child pleasure and enjoyment. In the modern sense, though, an interactive toy is one that provides feedback that changes according to the reaction of the child. For example, decades ago, a doll could say ‘Mama’ when the child pulls a string — an interactive doll would sense the proximity of the child, say ‘Mama’ or perhaps the child’s name, and then say ‘I love you’ when the child picks the dolls up and hugs it.
So, we’ve established that all toys invite exploration, stimulate play and foster creativity. But interactive toys introduce complexity and mutability as aspects non-interactive toys cannot achieve. A child is coaxed into new ways of thinking and will learn new skills when playing with interactive toys without being bored by the same old responses from the toy time after time – that’s the very definition of mutability. And a toy in this category can ‘grow’ in the sense that the complexity of the interaction can change to match a child’s age and their increasing intellectual prowess.
Interactive toys can be introduced into a child’s play environment at an early age. Pre-school children can benefit from the simplest of interactive toys that teach vocabulary, phonics and language fluency. These toys can come in many forms, from electronics embedded in a cuddly stuffed animal to a techno-look device to a software application initiated on a computer. The key point is the ability of the toy to adapt to the actions of the child and provide a new response in a new situation.
Action is the other aspect that applies to interactive toys. Too often in the past an educational or learning toy would consist only of words or images that a child would passively receive. Interaction means the child totally participates in the experience, learning, exploring and experimenting. But, even a toy that fits all these characteristics may still be a failure if it does not provide fun to the child.
Interactive toys can also be the interface between a virtual environment on a computer and an item the child holds and uses. Or the toy can be more free-form, allowing the child to use their imagination to build the world in which the child and the toy interact. Or the toy can work somewhere between those two modes, combining elements of each.
Personality is another characteristic that has become prevalent today with interactive toys. If a child recognises a character represented by the toy as a personality they already know, then the interactive experience is enhanced because the child is already friends with the character. Whether the character is real-life, from a television show or out of an animated film, the toy will already seem to be a part of the child’s life and prove to be that much easier for the child to accept.
Naturally, there is a great deal of overlap of this category with electronic toys – no one has yet figured out how to provide interactivity without some form of electronics. And educational toys are, by their very nature, also interactive. So, have your child try them all.