Baby Cedric Alke loves his "Hug and Learn Baby Tad." At first sight, the green frog looks like millions of plush animals beloved by children. But when the infant gives it a hug, the frog responds with songs and lights. Squeeze his chest? The funny green animal sends Cedric a loud kiss. Press the colorful shapes on his chest and they light up and play cheerful tones.
At 8 months old, Cedric is far too young to grasp the meaning of shapes. What counts, says his mother, is that he gets a response in the form of a light and a song to something he does. "He's so happy when he gets a sound," says Helge Alke. "He's learned quickly that there's a connection between doing and getting something, and the connection is done in an interesting way."
Until this year, interactive toys for toddlers were almost nonexistent in this small town near the leafy rural area of Münsterland, Germany. The same is true also in the rest of Germany, a country that prides itself for its wooden-toy tradition.
While American firms Leapfrog, Mattel, and Hasbro were invading American playrooms and preschools with singing books and blinking animals over the past decade, German mothers kept favoring free play and self-discovery through wooden toys.
But a new trend is taking hold. Many Germans are pushing for change because they are concerned that not enough is being "done" with infants during their preschool years. And now, the Alkes belong to a growing generation of German parents who rely on educational toys, many interactive, to give their children a jump-start in learning.
"Until recent years, the early age was ignored in Germany," says Rheinard Koslitz, head of Darmstadt-based Didacta, an umbrella association that represents those in the education business, which this year selected "early education" as its theme.