Savvy school leaders know the key to engaging students is to understand their tastes and interests. That’s why a snapshot of the hottest selling items this holiday season—which reveals that even children as young as preschool are gravitating toward high-tech gadgets, instead of more traditional toys—has important implications for schools.

For educators teaching in classrooms with little access to technology, the iPhone on six-year-old Hilary Roberts’s wish list can’t be a good sign.

“She’s not after a doll,” says her father, Scott Roberts, an internet executive from San Francisco. “There’s not one traditional gift she’s asking for this year. She’s asking: ‘Can I have an iPhone?’”

With one weekend left before Christmas, the toy industry finds itself on the defensive, beset by a host of consumer electronic products. Besides Apple Inc.’s offerings to worry about, toy makers are competing with resurging popularity of entertainment systems from Nintendo Co., Sony Corp., and Microsoft Corp., along with several recently released video game titles—such as “Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.”

The competition reflects the toy industry’s, and educators’, ongoing struggle against “age compression,” the phenomenon of young children reaching for items used by older kids or even adults. These days, children are grabbing for more adult experiences at ever-younger ages, making it ever harder for traditional toys—and, by extension, traditional classroom techniques—to capture kids’ imagination.

According to market research firm NPD Group Inc. of Port Washington, N.Y., children begin playing with computers at age five-and-a-half; CDs and DVD players around age six; and music players around age eight—all slightly younger than two years ago.

What’s more, toy purchases are expected to come in fourth this year in overall spending, after electronics, clothes, and gift cards, according to a recent study by the National Retail Federation.

Responding to the desire among ever-younger children for high-tech devices, the toy industry has fashioned electronic gadgetry of its own, cheaper than the adult alternatives and more geared toward young kids, including video game tie-ins for preschoolers and branded consumer electronics such as digital cameras. This year, toy makers also have released a host of social-networking web sites aimed at snapping up potential users of MySpace and Facebook before age compression overtakes them, too.

Evelyn Viohl, the design vice president at Mattel Inc., says the game plan has been changing to realign operations with the fickle tastes of children, particularly the hard-to-get ’tween set of kids ages eight to 12 who flock online.

“We’re in a different place than we were in four years ago,” she says of her own design labs, where it’s not a question of combating high-tech gadgets, she says, but rather making a “fusion of different play patterns with electronics.” That has meant more dependence on engineers and “designers [who] are into gaming” to bring in new product lines that will appeal to tech-savvy kids, she says.

The fruits of this push are already apparent online. The company enters the holidays with Barbiegirls.com, a social-networking site for girls tied into a Barbie-shaped MP3 player. The site, where girls are invited to join a virtual world based on the brand, is free to users and takes its cues from Second Life, an adult-age virtual world without the branded theme. More than 8.4 million users already have registered. Competitor MGA Entertainment Inc. also released a site of its own, Be-Bratz.com, for its sassy Bratz doll.

These sites follow on the heels of other popular social-networking sites for preteens, such as Webkinz and Clubpenguin.

The sites seem to have enough appeal to wean youngsters from game consoles, says Richards Gilbert, a consultant in San Francisco. His 10-year-old daughter heads straight to Walt Disney Co.’s Clubpenguin networking site, where cartoon avatars waddle around in a snow world. “You could take all their toys away,” he says. “Just give them a computer, Xbox, and gadgets, they’d be happy.”

Today’s toys are getting more high-tech, even for preschoolers who usually reach for low-tech building blocks. The Smart Cycle Physical Learning Arcade System, from Mattel’s Fisher-Price unit, is a miniature treadmill-like bicycle toy that has proved a hot seller this year, marketed to parents concerned with childhood obesity. But the pitch also has extended to what the company sees as tech-thirsty toddlers—the toy ties up to a video game that simulates a bicycle ride.

Hong Kong-based VTech Holdings Ltd. is offering a line called the Tote & Go Laptop Plus, a kiddie computer with an LCD screen that teaches three-year-olds math, language, and music lessons. (Thanks to products such as this, it’s easy to imagine a generation of children who already are accustomed to learning from a computer before they even start school—yet who begin school in an environment with little access to technology.)

And some companies have pulled the gloves off entirely this holiday season, creating lines of kid-oriented gadgets they hope will compete directly with consumer electronics.

This season, for instance, Nickelodeon—a unit of Viacom Inc.’s MTV Networks that also licenses toys—launched NPower, a line of digital cameras, music players, and DVD players branded with characters such as SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer.

“I like to think of kids as the chief technology officers of their families,” says Leigh Anne Brodsky, president of Nickelodeon’s consumer-products division.

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NPD Group Inc.

Mattel Inc.

VTech Holdings Ltd.

Nickelodeon