Background: The Baby Einstein series is a set of DVDs aimed at children between the ages of 3 months and 3 years. Using mostly puppet characters, with the occasional inclusion of children, the DVDs focus heavily on stimulating children’s senses through sight (mostly through showing bright colorful toys and real world objects from a child’s point of view) and sound (primarily that of classical music though everyday object sounds such as bells and animal noises also play an important role). Poetry is also often used, generally in English, but in the original DVD called “Baby Einstein” (and later rebranded as “Language Nursery”) poetry and nursery rhymes from other languages are employed as well. In addition to the DVDs the company produces many other learning toys and educational multimedia – some of it connected to the DVDs and others not but all aimed at that age range.
The series has nothing to do with scientist Albert Einstein but was named that (a fee being paid for the branding rights to Einstein’s estate) in an apparent appeal to parents, in the hopes of convincing them that buying these DVDs would give their children an early age advantage towards genius. Interestingly, one of the best known stories about Einstein himself is that he was a total academic failure as a kid and only came to his own once he’d grown up, such that connecting him to learning precociousness is rather ironic. Whether the branding ploy worked or not, however, their products became highly popular and Julie Aigner-Clark their creator had herself a very profitable business that at one point was estimated to be in the range of 400 million dollars and their market penetration such that a full 1/3 of US households with babies had at least one of the DVDs. The company has since become a subsidiary of the Walt Disney company. In 2008 it was charged that the DVDs don’t have a provable effect on making kids smarter and there was threat of a class action suit by those whose children had watched the DVDs and had failed to become geniuses. The issue was eventually settled out of court with Disney agreeing to give a refund for a limited number of DVDs to those parents who wanted to return their videos for such. While many parents chose to take advantage of this, there are no clear statistics for those who returned them because of disappointment and those who did so because their kids had outgrown them or had had them on video and had moved to DVD meanwhile etc. The fact is that the series continues to be popular today, long after Disney allowed the refunds and many parents chose to hold onto their copies rather than return them.
Site Review: This is a nice but controversial series. It originally claimed to use methods that would improve your child’s mind but later testing placed this assertion in doubt. Perhaps the most telling point in the debate over this claim was Disney’s offer (see above in the background section) to refund the costs of the product to unsatisfied purchasers.
A large part of the controversy surrounding the videos is whether or not children of the target ages for which they are intended (i.e. the pre-toddler set) should be exposed to television at all. Many researchers assert that the only point to these videos is to use them as electronic baby sitters as the child is to young to retain anything out of the material. They claim that at these ages children should not be exposed to any television at this point in their development.
Whether or not the series actually does all the things originally claimed for it, its content is certainly pleasant and attractive to children even as old as 3 or 4 (depending on the child of course) and they will learn from them. Putting aside the (important argument) of whether children of the ages of the series’ target group (infants to 2 year olds) should be exposed to television, the concepts being taught and the method of doing so certainly have value when done in an off-the-screen environment and so even if the child doesn’t watch the videos they can give a parent ideas for off-TV activities for that age.
Keep in mind that for good or for bad the videos also serve as a full length commercial for the company’s other products. Both the toys used in the videos as well as the puppet characters that star in the videos are available as merchandise from the Baby Einstein Company. It’s not in a pushy way by any means. Their concept is to use toys and they might as ell use their own developmental toys as well as any others. Furthermore it gives you a chance to see the toy in action and even to see how a child naturally reacts to the toy. Nonetheless, it’s useful to remember that you are being marketed to so that the temptation you feel to buy your kids these toys isn’t about your being greedy or a spoiling parent. Your desires are being manipulated by a very slick advertising campaign.
MyKids Experience: My children enjoyed the titles in this series to a greater or lesser extent. By this I mean that they all enjoyed videos IN the series but each child responded more to certain ones than others. My daughter, who today is more language oriented, favored the ones with more talking on them such as baby Shakespeare and Baby Newton while, for example, one of my now more artistically minded, but less linguistically facile sons tended to favor the ones with just music such as Baby Mozart and Baby Bach. The children also responded well to the puppet characters I bought them from that appeared in the videos and at a young age those were among their favorite toys.
It seems to me that the episode that gave the greatest value overall was the original video, originally called “Baby Einstein” and then (later on as the entire series and brand took on that name) recast as “language nursery.” In this DVD the kids are taught classic nursery rhymes and poems of various cultures and in six or seven different languages.
My older kids remembered many of them years later.
Anecdotal: Soon after buying her the Baby Newton DVD, I was pushing my (then under 1.5 year old) daughter in the street one day when she suddenly pointed her finger and said “Otagon.” I followed her finger and sure enough she was pointing up at an octagonal shaped stop sign. Clearly, at least in this case, the video’s creators had succeeded in transmitting the concept of shapes on the screen strongly enough as to enable her to apply it to something she saw outside the screen and outside the framework of a world made up solely of clearly defined shapes.