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The Secret of Relativity: "Baby Einstein" Is Only for the Very Young

by on November 29, 2007

There will come a day when nearly all of you dear readers will experience a tiny, ignorant, and distinctly wiffy bundle of joy that you will call your own. This little, bed-wetting cherub of nature will eventually grow into a pouting, greasy catalyst of rampant hormones, and on more than one occasion will attempt to spurn your love with a loud slam of a door or a minor teen tantrum before he himself is ready to head off to bear a family—and create a bed-wetting cherub of his own.

The games are bright and simple. Even I got most of the answers right.

To help you through the early years of this delectable cycle of human behavior, the good Disney company has released a range of products to help young parents educate their little loin-fruit pre-school style in the hope of giving their bed-wetting monsters a slightly better start in life.

Whether this range of products has real scientific foundations is disputed, and I’m afraid I have little qualification to comment on the issue. Being that I am also part of a household devoid of bed-wetting (except on special occasions), I am equally useless in any practical, personal assessment of Baby Einstein‘s success with kiddies. But then, I’m guessing most of you guys and gals haven’t any children to share this range with either, so at least we’re virtually all in the same barrel.

However, with Christmas coming up, many of you may have a nephew, niece or friend at school you feel is in desperate need of getting back to basics. So with that in mind, let’s all have a little more serious look at a couple of the DVDs in the Baby Einstein range.

Part of Disney’s pre-school education series, Baby Einstein: Discovering Shapes (boasting the exciting inclusion of “Circles, Squares and More!”) is the fourth stage activity for children nine months and over.

This is simple, methodical learning. Picture Sesame Street without the humor and catchy characters. The DVD’s main focus is on recognizing basic shapes through a montage of repetitive shapes. This could work as a relaxant for any hypnotherapy session; its aural and visual qualities flow in tandem at a gentle, relaxing pace, exploring shapes and their real life contextual counterparts to music. It’s all incredibly complicated stuff, showing a circle shape, then a wheel, then another circle shape, and an apple, then a square shape followed by a cardboard box—and so on. All of this is done to music. In fact, the inlay even lists the various classical movements that accompany the learning experience, including work from Schubert, Mozart, Strauss and Haydn.

It may look like a chestburster on drugs, but this puppet is to educate, not scare.

This central feature and its rather odd mix of footage (which looks like it has been resourced from some very ancient archive material) lasts thirty minutes. For an adult, this may indeed be the longest thirty minutes of your life. And be warned, for an extra helping of indoctrination, this session comes with a repeat play feature for those unable to master a DVD remote control.

The bonus material on the DVD once again all fits within the theme of shape recognition; mostly it is a set of relatively simple variations on the main feature. There are basic discovery cards for shape and name association, a very basic story time feature where the viewer has to locate shapes that are part of a descriptive image, and a couple of more simple exercises and very basic aural and visual shape slideshows. The name of each bonus feature may differ, but they are all pretty similar. I must confess I expected a little more from the bonus material. Maybe there is a limited amount of interactivity one can create with a DVD—even less so when the topic consists of identifying squares, ovals, circles and triangles—but I can’t help feeling that the DVD doesn’t really look at any creative novelty, which makes this a hard view for any accompanying adult.

This DVD is a very simple, to-the-point learning tool. The few characters that do appear are rather uninspiring sock puppets, but they do get the job done, and by the end of thirty minutes, one should expect the kid to understand some basic shape relationships.

Lullaby Time surpasses those desires for exotic holidays with a selection of relaxing environments.

One technical grumble I have with Baby Einstein: Discovering Shapes is that the disk self-promotes its own range in the oddest places, making it initially difficult to ascertain what is a promo and what is the actual DVD; the Baby Einstein title card pops up again straight after a product promo, which had popped up when I pressed “Start” for the main feature. I was pretty disoriented by this messy use of promotions, and for a moment I wondered if my disk was damaged.

Furthermore, the bonus “About: Little Einsteins” sounds like a background feature to the Einstein project, but its just another Einstein promo. I wish DVDs would stop listing self-promotional features as bonus material. It seems inappropriate and misleading, especially on an educational DVD for pre-schoolers.

Baby Einstein: Lullaby Time is aimed at the ages of three months and over, yet ironically it is far more interesting to watch than Baby Einstein: Discovering Shapes; it has far more variation in stimuli than its sibling, which, given that it’s about getting kids to sleep rather than keeping them awake, is a fairly odd conclusion to come away with.

Nevertheless, the thirty-minute main event is a far more diverse set of imagery and sounds. The theme of this montage of sensory elements—as the title suggests—is about relaxing your child into sleep. The mix of sounds and images—some natural, some artificial—are all aimed at relaxing and calming your child. I must say, it relaxed me, which makes Lullaby Time a far better DVD in my opinion; if the adult can find some personal enjoyment in what is really a simple sensory experience, that’s going to make it a far more enjoyable experience to engage your new child in.

Don’t ask – I haven’t got a clue.

Part of the Baby Einstein ethos is to support the “bonding” between child and parent, and while Discovering Shapes would probably drive an adult to the point of insanity, there is indeed something oddly relaxing about Lullaby Time.

As suggested, there are a mix of images and themes in the main play, including some puppet work, a storybook, some calm natural environments, some gentle textures and some associated elements, such as crib mobiles.

The bonus features are variants or direct elements pulled from the main feature. I personally enjoyed “Sheep Dreams,” which was simply twenty-odd minutes of the quiet, soothing nature scenes—the sort I’d imagine would be great to soothe a sleep-deprived adult, never mind the offspring.

I wasn’t overly keen on the “Toy Chest” feature, which spotlights some of the physical props used in the main feature. While it could be a useful gallery of practical material to help nurture the baby, it feels more like a shop line for products than a bonus feature. I do feel any DVD that is marketed as educational needs to be careful how it treads the line between helping a consumer and selling products to them.

Lullaby Time also has the same problem with trailers as Discovering Shape, so I would whole-heartedly recommend the Disney and Baby Einstein corporations find another marketing approach. It is very indiscreet and I really feel that it’s the biggest disservice to their series.

Adults may find the DVDs soothing images as easy to relax to as their baby, but remember whose DVD it is.

Whether Disney’s Baby Einsteinsis an effective, no-frills educational tool is hard to say. There is a cynical side of me which sometimes feels that the DVDs are aimed as much at the parents expectations than anything that can be quantified by science. That said, I must again point out I have no scientific background; it’s just a feeling I get from the DVDs. For instance, in Lullaby Time, a great deal is made of the bedtime routine: putting your toys away, getting to bed, and mother giving you a bedtime kiss goodnight. To me, that sounds as more like a parent’s desire than an educational point for the child. That said, given these are meant to be encouraging certain developments early on, perhaps there is a scientific reasoning behind this approach. Given the Baby Einstein DVDs offer no background to their studies, it’s hard to determine whether there.

In fact, it’s a great pity the DVDs don’t offer a bonus feature that goes into the background to their process and reasoning, because I think many parents would be fascinated in some of the thought processes which goes into making such a product, and maybe given it’s there to provide education stimulus a little earlier than most, it would help validate their product further.

These DVDs certainly don’t have the charm of the Children’s Television Workshop creations, and don’t expect any Disney sheen. But overall, if you are looking at teaching a baby about shapes or how to relax , these DVD seems to be expert on the stuff. With Christmas coming up, Baby Einstein might offer you a decent baby-focused gift that is a little more than another pair of woolen socks.

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