High tech dolls teach life lesson

A group of students at El Roble Intermediate School will soon be playing with their new dolls. No, it’s not one last childhood hurrah before they plunge into the teenage years. It’s a lesson on how tough it is to care for an infant, intended to impress upon the 8th graders that teen pregnancy is no game.

Later this month, five of Debbie Foster’s physical education students will take home some high-tech babies, ready to report on whether they are being properly cared for.

The kids took care of less advanced dolls earlier this semester for 72 grueling hours as part of Ms. Foster’s “Baby, Think It Over” program. They have volunteered to test drive half of 10 new babies Ms. Foster recently purchased from the Realityworks company. The RealCare dolls will be linked to computers in the PE office loaded with software determining whether they are nurturing or neglectful “parents.”

The state-of-the-art teaching tools can monitor whether their young guardians are supporting their neck properly, regularly changing their diapers and clothes and feeding and burping them on cue. They can also detect whether kids show abusive behavior, registering, for instance, if the doll falls victim to shaken baby syndrome.

Knowing that some of his friends can be rowdy at times, Joseph Ramos was thoughtful in choosing a babysitter when he went to see a movie. “I actually knew it was going to be important, so I chose my close friend Maxine,” he said.

The most daunting part of caring for the teaching toys is the crying spells they are programmed to have every three hours or so. The youngsters must pick them up and soothe them, even in the dead of night.

“I had to get up in the middle of the night and rock the doll for 45 minutes. I almost had back pain,” eighth grader Charlotte Stradley reported.

Her classmate Morgan Hughes did a good job getting the “baby” back to sleep most times, but says she had “one little abuse.” Once when she was tired she failed to hold the doll’s neck properly, which was duly noted by the computer system.

The crying is likely why few hands were raised when Ms. Foster was looking for volunteers to try out the next generation of dolls.

“Most of them didn’t want to do the test drive. The experience was so horrific, they had no interest,” Ms. Foster said, laughing.

Indeed, Destiny Cazares found parenthood a bit unsettling at times.

“It’s sort of hard to explain. The doll looked real but fake at the same time,” she said. “It woke me up crying and I would look at it, half-asleep, and it would be staring at me.”

Other challenges students encountered will sound familiar to parents everywhere. It felt like a struggle to get out of the house, having to lug a kid, car seat and baby bag. A few of the students noted that they had turned down invitations to outings and parties because they were “on assignment” with their dolls. Others said they went ahead and took their baby to parties, movies, sporting events and even church, only to have the artificial infant begin screaming in the middle of it all.

And then there were the reactions of others to worry about. “People would look at me and they didn’t know if I was playing with a doll or had a kid and which was worse,” Morgan said.

Carly McKay said it was kind of cute, driving around with her mom and seeing the baby doll secured in the backseat next to her real-life baby sister, who is almost two. With two babies in two car seats, “the back seat looked really full.” 

Having the dolls come home was even a wakeup call for parents, Ms. Foster said. “I’ve had some parents say, ‘It was an interesting experience. I’m not ready to be a grandmother.’”

The technology they demonstrate doesn’t come cheap, with the simulated tots costing $1,000 each. Luckily, Rotary of Claremont stepped in with a $10,000 grant to help El Roble foot the bill.

The Rotarians learned Ms. Foster was in need of replacements for her aging dolls—some of which are 20 years old—when they came to the local middle school to instruct 8th graders on disaster preparedness, first aid and CPR. Members of the service club asked some questions and learned how impactful, as well as pricey, the infants are.

Ms. Foster was delighted to attend when Rotary of Claremont invited her to a luncheon to thank her for helping with the CPR unit for the last 25 years. She was floored when the group surprised her with a $10,000 upgrade.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was out of the air,” she said. “I looked like I had won the lottery.”

Ms. Foster hopes to have 350 students take home dolls next year as part of the “Baby, Think It Over” program.

She is hugely grateful to the Rotary Club of Claremont, which was honored at the last school board meeting for its continued support of the Claremont Unified School District.

“I don’t think it’s any too young to start caring for something—to understand the responsibility of caring for a human being,” Ms. Foster said. “It may feel more realistic in high school, when more students are dating, but it’s none too early.” 

—Sarah Torribio



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