Picture this: Next to--and plugged into--your computer is a pirate ship as big as a breadbox with pinkie-sized crew members you can place at a steering wheel, map table and cannon. As you move the crew and navigate the ship through an iceberg obstacle course, sensors pick up your movements and match them on a computerized version of the ship on your computer screen. A booming voice coaches you along, letting you know when you've hit too many icebergs and are in danger of sinking the ship.

You're totally absorbed, and as you play, your hand-eye coordination slowly improves. You progress from avoiding icebergs to slaying sea monsters with your cannon and fighting skeletons with swords as you sail toward Pirate Cove, where clues to a hidden treasure await you.

These activities boost your problem-solving abilities and symbolic capabilities. But if this "smart toy" is successful, you won't notice all this, because you're 5 years old and you're having too much fun.

It's the combination of the fast-paced, interactive world of computers with characters you can touch and manipulate that makes smart toys so popular with children, says developmental psychologist Helen Shwe, PhD.

She helped create the pirate game, called "Redbeard's Pirate Quest," and many other smart toys working at software companies in Silicon Valley. Her most recent job is director of developmental research at LEGO Lab in San Mateo, Calif.

Technology's reliance on psychology

Shwe never imagined she'd work in high-tech when she began her doctoral program in developmental psychology at Stanford University in 1993. She'd never even played a computer game. But now she spends her days talking megabytes to computer engineers while she translates Piaget for software experts who design smart toys for kids.

She landed her first job in the industry early in graduate school when she learned that Hasbro Interactive was looking for someone to test its children's software with preschoolers. When Shwe completed her PhD in 1998, she went to Zowie Intertainment, a smart-toy company that was purchased by LEGO last April.

Working for a toy company wasn't the job Shwe dreamed of when she decided to study developmental psychology, but it's been a dream job nonetheless. The best part, she says, is working with children and seeing their responses to the toys.

"Even in a toy's most primitive stage of development," Shwe says, "you see children's creativity in responding to challenges, their satisfaction when a problem is solved or simply their delight when they're having fun. I also have the intellectual stimulation of designing research in creative but valid ways--valid, that is, for our purposes."

Her studies are strong enough to guide product development, but they are not of the same rigor she learned at Stanford, she stresses. Nonetheless, her work provides far stronger results than those obtained when, as has been the tradition, game developers rely on computer engineers to test their products, says Shwe.

"They just don't know how to design an experiment to take into account that they'll be working with potentially hungry, irritable children and anxious parents," she says.

Along with conducting experiments and focus groups at different stages of product development, Shwe helps assess the age appropriateness of a product's activities and language. She also addresses issues that require her to delve more deeply into her knowledge of psychology--for example, questions such as which camera angle would best encourage cooperative play or how a toy might teach children something basic about physics.

Jennifer Grasso, toy producer at LEGO, recently went to Shwe with a question about a toy for 3- to 4-year olds. She wanted to use visual "thought bubbles"--those cartoon-like images above the head of a character, such as a piece of food in a bubble that indicates the character is hungry. Grasso wanted to know if a 3-year-old would "get it," and because she was on a tight deadline, she needed to know fast. Shwe was not only able to get to the relevant research--which indicated "probably so"--but she also pulled together an initial focus group of children to confirm her answer.

Shwe's responsiveness is part of why she is so highly valued on the team, says Grasso.

"Helen doesn't wait around until there's a pressing need," Grasso says. "She's always recruiting kids of varying ages and their parents so that when something comes up, she can move quickly."

Ever-younger technophiles

Because most of the technical staff are in their 20s and early 30s and don't have children of their own, Shwe has also taken the lead in setting up observation times in nursery schools, so they don't lose touch with the children they are designing toys for. And she offers 30-minute weekly seminars and discussion groups on various aspects of child development.

In addition, Shwe has used her influence to help address concerns about the negative effects of violence on children's development found in research by developmental psychologists. In "Redbeard's Pirate Quest," for example, there is violence--swordfights and cannon fights, to be exact--but the cannons shoot at sea dragons, not at other ships with people aboard, and characters have sword fights with skeletons, not other people.

"To have a pirate game without cannons and sword fights just wouldn't sell," said Shwe. "Kids want this kind of action. So, we found a compromise we thought worked well." One of her latest challenges is to help LEGO design smart toys for ever-younger children. She's currently working with 3- to 5-year-olds.

"It's incredible to see them comfortable with a computer when they are just toddlers," she says.

Margaret Schlegel is a writer in Falls Church, Va.