Life for my daughter Esme used to be simple. In between naps there were Dora the Explorer cartoons, Roald Dahl books and a smidgen of CBeebies, washed down with chocolate milk. Exercise consisted of walks in the local park and afternoon sessions at the playground. But that was when she was four. Now at the grand old age of six (she's seven soon, as she keeps reminding me) her world is a place filled with hi-tech toys that replicate real-life adult gadgets. These toys shrill, beep and even talk to her. Her world, in brand speak, is the "Youth Electronic Games" market.
It's a world that is bucking the global downturn. Sian Williams, the head buyer at the UK's leading children's retail store, the Early Learning Centre, says this market is now worth £90 million per year and has grown 10 per cent, year on year, over the last few years. It's a trend that she predicts will continue to grow because "children want to play with toys that emulate adult gadgets". Currently, one of the ELC's most popular item is its MP3 player.
The Youth Electronic Games (YEG) market is aimed at children aged ix to ten, and it is forcing traditional toymakers such as ELC to get with the technology age or be left behind. Although there is still a place for more traditional toys, Williams concedes that the ELC "would be mad not to sell gadgets like MP3s or Digi-Cams because the YEG is a healthy market".
Noting the upturn in the YEG market, major children's brands such as VTech and LeapFrog are now concentrating their efforts on coming up with the next hit, razzle-dazzle toy. But a word of warning, don't dare call it a "toy" within earshot of the manufacturers, who like to refer to their products as Electronic Learning Aids or – yet another acronym – ELA.
VTech's Kidizoom digital camera was the best-selling ELA in the run-up to Christmas 2008. Its head of marketing, Clive Richardson, is at pains to point out that this is more than just a toy version of a camera, offering "a balance between fun and learning". Learning through play is the mantra of all the main players in the YEG marketplace. David Lubliner at LeapFrog stresses that his company's products "teach phonics, encourage logical thinking and aid child development".
It was LeapFrog that introduced to the world the "Text & Learn BlackBerry", a product that came complete with a QWERTY keypad and a pretend web browser. "Society moves on," says David. "It's not the same as when we were young. Children are coming into contact with computers at an early age and they want to mimic their parents." And I suppose he's right. While I'm writing an email on the Apple iBook, Esme is on the VTech Knowledge Notebook (a dead ringer for a laptop), practising numbers in French. Technology-wise, Esme has a handle on most of the gadgets in our home. She is at one with the Sky+ remote, she knows how use an iPod, and she's been answering the phone for years. And she's not alone. In fact, being so tech-savvy doesn't mark her out from her friends – like them, she is a product of our times.
And the times keep moving. The next big gadget for the six-to-ten-year-old market is the mobile phone. Smelling new money, the major brands are making their move. Earlier this year Samsung released its Tobi handset, a phone that comes complete with a number of safety features, which is aimed at the pre-teen market. Mark Mitchinson, VP at Samsung Mobile, the driving force behind the handset, says the Tobi is not a cynical attempt to move in on the YEG market. He points out that 90 per cent of children now have mobile phones, mostly handed down to them by parents or siblings. "As more mobile phones fall into younger hands, mobile phone companies now need to produce responsible handsets with bespoke features," he argues.
The bespoke features include SOS presets and a block on unwanted text messages. It sounds just the ticket for responsible parents on the lookout for their child's first handset. But there's a nagging worry. I look at Esme switching between my iPhone and the Samsung Tobi with ease and I am troubled. Where is her childhood running to? I voice my anxieties to Nikki Kerr, a project manager at the children's charity, Kidscape, and she tells me about her two-year-old son who loves to play with the buttons of her mobile phone. "There is such a thing as too much technology too soon. Children are still growing emotionally at six and seven, they don't need the pressure at such a young age. If the parent wants to contact them when they are not with them, they should contact the adult who is looking after their child, not the child itself."
But not long into our conversation, she too gives way to these changing times. "Every household has a computer and teaching computer skills is on the national curriculum in primary schools – products will keep coming. And ultimately anything that is educational is a good thing." Nikki signs off by advising me that, "at the end of the day, it's down to the parents". And with that I press the off button on Esme's latest handset, grab our coats and take her to the park. The sun is shining and I want to hold her hand in the spring breeze. I want her to hold on to her childhood. Today, tomorrow's toys can wait.
Dinky devices: Put to the test
Samsung Tobi mobile phone: £69.99 on pre-pay and contract
Of all the gadgets that Esme tested, the Samsung Tobi was the one with the wow factor. "I want to take it to school to show my friends," she wails. An old hand on the home landline, she finds making a call on the Tobi child's play. She can't work out how to use the other features (this phone is aimed at 10-12 year olds), but she doesn't care, she just wants to phone her friends. www.samsungmobile.co.uk
VTech Knowledge notebook: £49.99
VTech toys rock. They push all of Esme's learning buttons and the Knowledge Notebook makes her feel like she has her very own computer. That said, she gets upset because she can't go online and play on the Cbeebies website like she would on my laptop. "It's not a real computer," I have to explain to her as the crocodile tears start to flow. www.vtechuk.com; 01235 546810
ELC MP3: £30
An easy-to-use gadget with all her favourite songs was always going to go down well in our musical household. We like the noise limiter switch, but we don't like the ear plug headphones (her ears are way too small for the large phones) and the fact that it's not Mac-compatible means hooking up songs in our household is always going to be a problem. www.elc.co.uk; 0871 231 3511
Tapping into children's love of games consoles is key to the success of the Youth Electronic Games market. LeapFrog has designs on taking the Nintendo DS out of children's hands and replacing it with one of their own products. I like the fact that the games have a strong learning element and I have no problem with Esme playing with this toy – at the weekends only! www.leapfrog.co.uk