Fisher-Price Easy Link Internet Launch PadEvery holiday season, more and more electronic beeps, bells, and whistles are marketed to the youngest children. I cringed and grimaced (but nodded, too) as I read a story in the New York Times this morning, “For Toddlers, Toy of Choice Is a High-Tech Device” by Matt Richtel and Brad Stone.

Among this new generation of tech toys is Fisher-Price’s Easy Link Internet Launch Pad (pictured). Designed for preschoolers, it plugs into the family PC (Windows only) via a USB cable. It gives young kids who aren’t yet reading or using a keyboard access to a very limited number of online games, while forbidding them access to Mom and Dad’s hard drive.

Toddlers and preschoolers catch on pretty quickly that whatever it is that parents, caregivers, and older siblings do at the PC must be important – after all, those grownups just sit there, completely focused on that screen instead of paying attention to them – and so they want to do it too. And they know they don’t want a “play” cellphone or laptop, parents and toy manufacturers tell us; they want one that actually works. The Times story says:

If you give kids an old toy camera, they look at you like you’re crazy,” said Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. Children “are role-playing what they see in society,” she added.

That seems to be the case even when youngsters are not old enough to have any clue how to use actual gadgets.

Yunice Kotake, of San Bruno, Calif., recently purchased a Fisher-Price Knows Your Name Dora Cell Phone for her twin year-old daughters. But a few days later, she returned the play phone to a local Toys “R” Us, after she found that the girls seemed to prefer their parents’ actual phones.

But isn’t this excessive fixation on technology bad for a young child’s development? It probably is; the story quotes pediatrician Donald L. Shifrin of Seattle, who says that “tech toys cannot replace imaginative play, where children create rich narratives and interact with peers or parents.”

In libraries, especially libraries that make toys available either in the children’s area or for circulation, we need to be doing some serious thinking about our role in the world of tech toys. More and more of them will appear in the years to come, and they change so quickly that we shudder at the notion that we could possibly keep up with the demand for them, once we let them into the children’s area of the library.

How should we handle these new tech toys? It might not be a bad idea to let some of it into the building and see how it works with our young users; but we should never let go of the thing we do best – demonstrating the power and charm of the book, the song, the rhyme, and the story.

For these very young children, it’s important that they see that the adults in their lives find books at least as important as their cellphones or their laptops. For a great many adults, that’s a big demand; but preschoolers will always look first at what their elders are doing and take their cues from them.