EDUCATION FEATURE: Educational baby video market booming

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Built around soothing music and simple concepts, such as colors and numbers, Baby Einstein videos are steadily plucked off the shelves at Hastings Music, Books and Video in Clovis, according to Hastings Assistant Manager Fernando Garcia.

Each month, around a dozen copies of the video are sold, Garcia said, defining the Einstein line as a solid, dependable product for the store.

Since being acquired by The Walt Disney Company nearly five years ago, The Baby Einstein Co. has experienced a sevenfold increase in retail sales, growing from $25 million in 2001 to $200 million in 2005, according to a company spokesperson, Melanie Burke.

More and more companies are following suit, rushing to fill the educational video niche.

Launched by a Colorado mother, Einstein products “are designed to encourage discovery and inspire new ways for parents and little ones to interact,” according to the company’s Web site, www.babyeinstein.com.

But no matter the intentions of the company, it is parents who wield the key to making videos educational, according to many child development experts and the creators behind child media companies such as Einstein.

“There is no substitute for engagement with people,” said Vikki Elmore, a behavioral counselor with the ENMRSH Early Childhood Development Program of Clovis.

“Some of these videos are very simple,” she said. “They don’t teach problem solving or social skills. It is just labeling pictures — it’s entertainment.”

Her stance is a refrain among childhood development experts.

“The point is,” said Lucy Cantu, a educational consultant living in the Dallas area, “don’t become solely dependent on videos. Don’t use technology as a baby-sitter.”
Common sense advice, yes.

But Cantu and others in the educational field believe the point cannot be underscored enough, especially as modern-day lives become more rushed.

“You need time to talk with your children, to discuss subjects,” Cantu said.

When working with parents locally, Elmore advises them, “Pick two 15-minute intervals a day to do something the child wants to do, especially from birth to 3. Let them pick the activity.”

Sparked by the latest in child development research, Stephen Gass, a leader in the field of child media who worked with Sesame Street, decided to caulk the chasm between videos claiming to be educational and videos that really are educational, he said.

Gass and a panel of experts created the DVD series “eebee’s adventures” for babies 6 months and older.

“When we saw the market (for educational videos) growing and growing … we were fascinated that not one of them lined up with what we understood, from research, to make sense for babies. We saw lovely images without much of a concept, things just moving across the screen,” Gass said.

His series is supposed to encourage children and parents to play along with eebee the puppet, a colorful, plush character with the developmental skills of a 9- to 12-month-old. Encouraged activities include rolling balls, banging on bowls with spoons and tearing paper, aimed to explore the experiential world of a baby, Gass said.

“There is so much pressure,” Gass said, “that comes with a being a parent. We want to celebrate parents. All we are saying is get silly. Get down on the floor and play.”

In the Harbuck living room, the importance of parental interaction is crystallized.

A voice emanating from the television instructs little Emma Harbuck, 4, to point to the squirrel, one among a host of cartoon characters.

But Emma doesn’t move from her wooden stool until her mother, Stephanie, repeats the instruction in a sweet, high-pitched voice. “Point to the squirrel, honey,” she says, and Emma does.

For Harbuck, educational videos have value.

“It’s a win-win situation for me as a parent,” Harbuck said. “It’s an education tool, that’s my standpoint, and she gets to watch a cartoon.”

Harbuck said she and her daughter watch the videos together for short intervals of about 30 minutes. That is roughly the length of time Emma’s attention is held by the screen.

“We do the activities together, and I am able to give her praise. She doesn’t do it alone,” Harbuck said.

Harbuck has attained the ideal, according to many educational experts.

“Media is a tool just like anything else. It has to be used responsibly,” Gass said.