Judge Mike Pinsky doesn't feel that this Baby Einstein knockoff measures up.
"Your child's future is our inspiration."
For half a century, television has been the babysitter of millions of American children. Recent studies have suggested that unrestricted television viewing among toddlers may increase the chances of developmental difficulties (including ADHD) in later years. In spite of this, a cottage industry has developed in recent years around educational programming for very young children. Leading the way has been Julie Aigner-Clark's Baby Einstein series, currently owned by Disney. The early discs in that series based their pedagogical method on the so-called "Mozart Effect," that idea that classical music aids cognitive development. Thus, the Baby Einstein series takes a fairly literate approach: poetry, art, live nature footage—all combined with whimsical imagery and bouncy, original arrangements of classical music. The formula has proven tremendously successful, mostly because Julie Aigner-Clark and her team stay focused on providing each Baby Einstein feature with its own lively personality. The result: a commercial juggernaut for Disney that has dominated the toddler video market and shows no signs of weakening.
But today, there is plenty of competition on video shelves for your baby's attention. Having a toddler myself (20 months old at this writing), I have screened a lot of these different series with my wife, who as an elementary school counselor knows a few things about childhood development. Most of these knockoffs are disappointing for one reason or another. And we seem to come back to Baby Einstein again and again as the standard by which to judge all others.
One of Baby Einstein's more prominent competitors is the Brainy Baby series. Judging by the two installments I have seen— Brainy Baby: Peek-A-Boo and Brainy Baby: Laugh & Learn—Aigner-Clark and Disney have nothing to worry about.
Brainy Baby: Peek-A-Boo runs 45 minutes (too long for a toddler's attention span to begin with) and consists of "peek-a-boo" games interspersed with seemingly random "educational" segments, none over two minutes in length. A voiceover narrator points things out to your child, saying things like "pretty colors" or "look, it's a monkey." Baby Einstein has always made a point of telling parents to interact with their children during its programs, pointing things out and asking questions. In other words, Baby Einstein videos are not meant to babysit toddlers (although I expect lazy parents use them that way regardless). However, Peek-A-Boo gives parents nothing to do, no room for interaction. The toddler in this case is expected to talk back to the television, repeating what is said or responding to the quickly-answered questions.
Educational segments in Peek-A-Boo seem arbitrarily chosen and assembled. One moment we are watching children play with toys; the next, we are off for some rainforest footage. Then we are counting cupcakes. For toddlers especially, teaching is built on reinforcement. Peek-A-Boo, however, is a hodgepodge. For example, the cupcake counting scene is isolated, with no other counting activities surrounding it (much later in the program, there is another brief counting scene). No repetition, and complete disconnection from the other content. Other sequences are restricted by the patronizing voice of the narrator. There is inconsistency in age-level as well, as segments that appeal to infants (the "peek-a-boo" games) mix with more complex association puzzles ("What goes on the hands? Is it the gloves?") appropriate for much older toddlers. Sometimes the lessons do not even make sense. For example, a language development segment for basic vocabulary picks random pairs of words and then sticks the objects together in bizarre combinations: balloons tied to bananas, apples playing drums. Was this written using a dartboard?
Production values here also do not suggest a thorough approach to the material. Where Baby Einstein is known for its entertaining puppetry and clever musical arrangements, Brainy Baby: Peek-A-Boo lacks a discernable personality. The children are often generic and unenthusiastic, and the original music (when the program does not fill with library classical tracks) is fairly tuneless (and oddly muted).
Brainy Baby: Laugh & Learn is not much better than its counterpart. In the course of its 45-minute running time, I counted nearly two dozen completely unrelated segments. A spelling lesson (too advanced for children aged six to 36 months, as recommended on the package) switches to a segment showing circus-themed toys, then object sizes, matching faces, a random rhyming game, then some counting. Later we get a segment on ocean life. The whole thing feels like a collection of leftover material from the more specifically themed Brainy Baby installments (Brainy Baby: Animals or Brainy Baby: Shapes and Colors), randomly assembled. No wonder pediatricians are concerned about these sorts of educational videos and their relationship to attention disorders. I felt my own brain start to wander as I watched these discs.
Extra content on these discs is fairly minimal. Each has a video storybook and some DVD-ROM links. Each also has the same set of bloopers and behind-the-scenes / testimonial featurette.
Of course, the real test of any of these educational videos is how my daughter reacts. Rachel watched about half of Peek-A-Boo in silence, never visibly reacting to anything on screen. With Baby Einstein, she constantly points things out, dances to the music, and even applauds. Perhaps her unfamiliarity with the program was a factor, but frankly, she just seemed disinterested in its generic approach and lack of personality. She wandered back to check it out periodically before going back to playing. Only the ocean life and "blocks" segments in Laugh & Learn provoked any noticeable excitement.
My guess is that if my daughter were a judge here at DVD Verdict, she would find Brainy Baby guilty on all counts.
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