Parents' Choice Foundation: Reviewing Children's Media Since 1978

Whiz Kid

Whiz Kid

Fall 2007 Toys
Ages: 3 - 6 yrs.
Manufacturer: Vtech
Price: $49.99

While e-toy manufacturers have tried to make inroads with preschool children by offering them electronic books and stylus-based, touch-pad systems, the online games of the Internet are holding more and more allure. That might be why Vtech has decided to try to bring the two forms of play together with the Whiz Kid, a "learning system" that comes with a portable tablet and stylus as well as a USB cord for plugging into the computer.

The idea is that children can play games using the tablet on its own or go a step further by plugging it into the computer and seeing the games become animated on the computer screen. If that isn't enough, there is also the option of going to the corresponding Web site.

There is a novelty in seeing the static game pages turn into little animations, but there is something clunky about having to point a stylus at one image while watching a copy of that image on the computer. Some 3-year-olds, for example, may be more prone to simply touch the computer screen, not making a solid connection between the actions they make with the stylus on the tablet, and the response by the computer. For our testers, the Web site didn't hold a lot of attractions either.

The Whiz Kid tablet sans the computer has more to recommend it. With a comfortable handle for toting around, the toy can take on the air of a prized possession, akin in importance to Mom or Dad's briefcase. The cartridges and accompanying laminated pages are easy for children to insert and place on the tablet without help, making the toy a good option for long road trips. For 3-year-olds, the toy will require more hands-on help with the stylus, as well as guidance in following the directions for each of the games - too much guidance, in many cases, for impatient and active 3-year-olds who would rather simply press buttons and see what kinds of sounds they can make.

The 20 laminated pages and cartridge that comes with the Whiz Kid are part of a package called Wondertown. Each two-sided page includes multiple games, and the sheer amount of possible activities keeps children coming back. Unfortunately, not every game is well designed. For example, the games pages that ask children to trace letters and numbers can be frustrating; it seems that the kids have to form their letters exactly the way shown, without exactly the right amount of pressure and without lifting their pen, to make the learning system respond positively. As one 5-year-old put it, "Why doesn't it like the way I write my 8s? That's the way my teacher taught me!"

But when a child comes upon a game page that doesn't frustrate, the experience is, not surprisingly, much more positive. Often the easier-to-use pages do not require the child to do more than simply touch the stylus to a certain place on the pad, as if pressing a button. A child who is knows her numbers and is starting to do simple math, for example, might love the Hickory Dickory Dock game, which offers some fun games that require careful listening and a little bit of subtraction. In a sing-song voice, the kids are asked: "There were 5 mice in the clock and only 3 mice have run out, so tell me how many mice are in the clock?" Press on the '2' and the machine chirps, "Terrific!"

Sometimes, the positive exclamations go overboard with generic and mindless praise like, "Wow you're smart!" And parents, and perhaps even their children, are likely become annoyed with the constant carnival-like music that plays in the background throughout every game. (The toy doesn't come with headphones, though there is a slot for plugging them in.) But as an electronic book toy, Whiz Kid provides enough variety to keep children interested - as long as they have the good sense to move on from the unsuccessfully designed games that frustrate them and stick with the ones that let them have fun.

Lisa Guernsey   ©2007 Parents' Choice
Author of Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5 (Basic Books, Sept 2007)

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