Toys for guilty parents

The hot toy for Christmas is a fish tank that gives your kids self-esteem - or so the marketing says

It builds a habit of caring, encourages the expression of individuality, promotes social skills and is "a huge step forward in any child's development". What loving parent could possibly deny little Jack or Chloe one of these this Christmas?

So what is this all-round wonder toy? A cuboid of see-through plastic, about the size of two shoeboxes, otherwise known as a fish tank. The new Vivo is no ordinary bowl but a "revolutionary goldfish tank", with a little digital clock that lights up every time Guppy and Goldy need a sprinkle of food. It's also part of a growing trend of toys being marketed as providing far more than fun. This Christmas, manufacturers are keen to impress upon us that toys are no longer a mere end in themselves, a pleasure in which our kids can haphazardly indulge, but a clear-cut path to a greater and worthier pedagogic goal. Encouraging your toddler to muck about joyfully is frowned upon as sloppy, self-indulgent mothering. Only a wayward parent would give their child a gift that didn't aid their development.

"There's a simple problem facing a parent - what do my kids do with their spare time? There's this idea of having to keep children entertained," says Tim Gill, play consultant and former director of the Children's Play Council. "We're too frightened to let them out, so we'll buy them some stuff. It's assuaging guilt. Toy manufacturers feed into that anxiety. They try and persuade parents that you need to help your child develop and [they] can do this for you."

So along comes the Vivo, a toy to fill in all those guilty gaps where your parenting falters and fails. Interpet, the producer of this digital aquarium, has employed a clinical psychologist specialising in young people to exhort its plastic box's parenting skills. Claire Halsey's praise for the Vivo is like a thesaurus entry for positive parenting. She lists confidence, friendship forming and the security of a regular routine as just some of the advantages in owning a Vivo. "A key factor in a child's development is self-esteem; with self-esteem, they achieve better and make more friends. So we want them to have opportunities to do well," says Halsey. "This is a small and simple skill [feeding fish when the digital clock flashes] that they can get right - that's a crucial aspect of it. With Vivo, they can say: 'I've got this thing that I can do.' So the more opportunities that you bring into a child's life to do this, the better. And the more self- esteem they have."

Interpet is not the only toy manufacturer or distributor to realise that parental guilt can be turned into gold. British parents spend more on Christmas presents for their children than any other families in Europe, making the UK toy market worth £3bn-plus a year. More than 60 per cent of these sales take place in the Christmas season. By the time the average Bri tish child reaches 16, he or she will have owned £11,000 worth of playthings. Bri tain's toy-boxes are overflowing; each year, 44 million working toys are simply thrown away.

These discarded lumps of plastic are invested with the powers of parenting. Halsey calls the Vivo an "aid to parenting", which is "a tough job", and says how such toys can help us all out. "It's about building up independence and responsibility skills. Our role as parents is to teach them this, and that's a tough job." The Vivo, with its little clock flashing every time the fish need feeding, is particularly good at the parenting role.

Today's toys are supposed to be not only ex cellent parents, but fine educators as well. Hazel Reynolds, chief toy buyer at John Lewis, describes how her team was "very excited" when they were first shown Paper FX last year - a kit with which you can recycle paper into purses, mats or more paper - now a John Lewis Christmas bestseller and on the influential Toy Retailers Association's list of 12 "dream toys" for 2006. "Craft toys such as Paper FX mean that children are learning things without even realising they are doing so," says Reynolds. "These toys herald a shift from passive to more educational toys that address parents' concerns about their child becoming deskilled at playtime."

Reynolds also points out that John Lewis's wooden toys for pre-school children are extremely popular, with "their natural compo s ition [which has a] calming effect on young children. They also promote critical and lateral thinking, and problem-solving skills." Birth to three - when the educational aspects of toys are forefronted by manufacturers - is the fastest-growing section of the market; over the past year, sales soared to £666m. In a country where there is a string of toy stores called the Early Learning Centre, it's not surprising that parents insist on a toy that helps their child achieve. "Parents of pre-school children are looking for something to bring their children on," says Reynolds, "and are very conscious that the toys should be fun but should also stretch the child a little bit. That's what parents expect from toys."

But are we all being duped? Professor Jeffrey Goldstein, chair of the National Toy Council, talks of "so-called educational toys". "What toys aren't educational?" he says. "What toy could prevent a child from being imaginative and creative?" He believes that many claims about the power of toys are being made in ignorance. "We know very little about how children use toys to shape their identities and social lives. We don't really know. We're guessing. We have no database [from which] to judge." Others wonder if some of the stories are simply make-believe. "It's quite easy for toy manufacturers to make claims about the benefits of their products. It's not like medicine: you don't need any proof," says Tim Gill.

Toys are, in the end, just pieces of wood or plastic that we're investing with magical powers. As Goldstein reminds us: "Toys are inanimate objects used by the parent and child. The toy itself doesn't cause something to happen." Whether it's a Vivo, Paper FX or an empty yoghurt pot, nothing can replace the role of family and friends. "It's the context in which toys are played rather than the toy itself," says Roland Earl, deputy director general of the British Toy and Hobby Association. "If the child is playing in an unhappy situation no toy is going to make it better. But if they're playing with their brothers and sisters, friends and family, then they can have fun."

But do we need toys at all? "The other assumption is that kids don't learn anything useful unless parents are teaching them, often through products," says Gill. "Spending time with other kids in the park isn't seen as a learning experience." Goldstein also advocates a more hands-off approach. "It's probably a mistake to restrict a child's play to the thing that a parent thinks is good for the child. If toys are used judiciously by a thoughtful parent, then you can provide a child with a range of options and let them choose. With imposed tasks, the child isn't playing at all. He's doing something else. We need to step back and let children play."

So I decided to take a step back this Christmas and let the kids decide what they want from the North Pole workshop. I wasn't going to feel pressurised into buying anything to make them cleverer or more confident, or to make me less of a nag. I just asked my kids what was top of their Christmas list. They knew exactly what they wanted. They want a Vivo.