But the wall is about to come crashing down.
At least that is how it will look from the floor of the America International Toy Fair, the industry's biggest annual trade show in the United States, which begins tomorrow at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.
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Fisher-Price, synonymous with Elmo and Power Wheels, will introduce a digital music player and digital camera for children ages 3 and older that will be sold during the 2006 holiday season.
Tek Nek Toys will show off a small digital music player with built-in speakers and flashing lights, called CoolP3 Fusion, for children 4 and up. Emerson Radio will introduce a SpongeBob SquarePants speaker system for MP3 players and SpongeBob SquarePants digital camera.
In perhaps the most extreme example of the trend, a company called Baby Einstein will introduce a baby rocker with an MP3 adapter and speakers.
But proponents of traditional make-believe play, who objected last year when toy companies marketed digital electronics to "tweens"--children 8 through 12--are expected to protest even more loudly when they are advertised to toddlers.
"This is a big leap," said Reyne Rice, a toy trends specialists for the Toy Industry Association. "A 3-year-old with a digital camera is unusual."
But the financial incentive to develop the technology has grown. have proved to be a bright spot in an otherwise slumping toy industry.
From 2003 to 2005, sales of children's electronics rose 3 percent, to $600 million, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
No wonder, perhaps, that last year Hasbro introduced a digital video camera for children ages 8 and older and Disney introduced an MP3 player for children as young as 6.
Executives at Fisher-Price, a division of Mattel, said the company's MP3 player and digital camera, both priced at $70, are specifically designed for young children, with a rugged design that can survive repeated four-foot drops and big easy-to-use buttons that simplify the technology.
The Kid-Tough Digital Camera, for example, has two view finders--much like a pair of binoculars--rather the single window found on the adult version; two large handles to steady it before shooting a picture; and a two-step process for deleting unwanted pictures verses the four- or five-step version on a typical camera.
Because not all preschoolers can read a song title before hitting the play button, the Digital Song and Story Player relies on easily recognizable icons to symbolize each song, like a star for "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" or a barn for "Old McDonald."
Both products take a minimalist approach. The digital camera has only five buttons. "We analyzed what kids did with these products and what appealed to them and threw out what they didn't need," said David Ciganko, vice president for product design at Fisher-Price.
Company executives said the digital camera and music player promote creative expression--like snapping a photo of family members, or, perhaps given the age of the photographers, stuffed animals, or learning the words to a children's song.
Lisa Mancuso, vice president for marketing at Fisher-Price, said that with the camera "there is a sense of accomplishment, of 'Mommy, look what I did.'"
With both technologies, however, it is mommy and daddy who will have to do some of the accomplishing. A parent's help is required to download new songs on the digital music player and upload photos to a computer before printing. Fisher-Price said it has developed easy-to-use software that makes the setup fairly simple.
Independent toy analysts expressed concern about the products. Marianne Szymanski, creator of Toy Tips, a research firm based in Milwaukee, said that for the most part digital electronics promote a solitary pattern of play, for example, a child sitting alone listening to music on headphones.
"I am not saying tech is bad, but we need toys that encourage social interaction in the preschool years, not those that don't," she said.
For now, Fisher-Price's rival at Hasbro, Playskool, is steering clear of digital electronics for preschoolers. Lorrie Browning, general manager of infant and preschool toys at Hasbro, said Playskool was using electronics--but inside traditional toys like a new teddy bear, T.J. Bearytales, that gestures while it tells stories.
"What we are hearing more and more from parents," she said, "is that it's really important that children not lose the key basic building blocks for their development."
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