Thursday, April 28

Are iPads Good For Kids?

by Jason Toon

Wired co-founder and tech oracle Kevin Kelly posted three anecdotes the other day in which digital kids say the darnedest things. One was about a 5-year-old who saw a TV and wondered where the mouse was; another about an iPad-using toddler who tried to use pinch gestures on a printed photograph; and a third about an 8-year-old asking how people got on the Internet before there were computers. I've heard similar stories from friends about their kids' iPad-born misconceptions of how the world works.


Am I nuts, or are those stores more disturbing than cute - especially the one about the picture-pinching toddler? If this was a story about how a kid hit another kid with a hammer because cartoons made him think it wouldn't do any real damage, we'd all be horrified at the way TV had distorted his understanding of reality. It seems to me that these kids' understanding of reality is equally warped. But Kelly and most of his commenters seem blissfully unaware of any such issues. His grandiose closing paragraph merely smiles at the tots' wise insight that "if something is not interactive, with mouse or gestures, it is broken" before concluding with some techno-schmaltz about how "the internet is not about computers or devices; it is something mythic, something much larger; it is about humanity."

Remember, you and I came to the iPad era grounded in at least a couple of decades of interaction with our physical environments. What happens to the human mind when, during the most crucial period in its cognitive and motor development, it encounters technologies like the iPad? We have no idea. I hate to pee in the virtual punchbowl, but it seems wise to at least consider the possibilities now. iPad-type devices are still only used by a relatively tiny number of people. If introducing children to iPads at an early age can harm their development, that's a lesson we'd hate to learn after the devices have become as ubiquitous as TV.

Maybe I'm being paranoid here, or underestimating kids' ability to learn distinctions between virtual and physical worlds. I'm no kind of expert on any of these subjects. But I can't help but feel a twinge of unease at the anecdotes that transport Kelly into such ecstasies of virtual optimism. What about you? Do, or will, your kids have iPads in their cribs? Or would you rather they learned how to work with the real world first before they toddle into the virtual one?

Photo by Flickr user oxtopus. Used under a Creative Commons License.

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Tuesday, October 26

This Costume Is Rated PG For Giving Your Kids Nightmares

by Jason Toon

My daughters just watched The Wizard of Oz for the first time, whereupon my 2-year-old issued a Halloween edict: nobody in the family is allowed to dress up as a witch or a flying monkey. My only question was, how come I'd never thought of dressing as a flying monkey?

That idea might just be awesome enough to get me to wear a costume for Halloween again. I bet I could do it better than that guy. But I guess I'll have to wait another year or two in the interest of my child's sanity.

Have you ever worn a costume that freaked your kids out? (And no, grossing out your grown-up kids by dressing as a Sexy Dental Hygienist or something doesn't count.)

Photo: Flying monkey Kurt by Flickr user hans.gerwitz, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Friday, January 29

The Kid's Got The Brain, The Grown-Up's Got The Pencil

by Jason Toon

If you've got your kids' artwork on your fridge, you know that what makes it so endearing is the conceptual whimsy of the young mind behind it. But what happens when those visions are executed by a grown-up with polished artistic skills? The work on these three sites answers that question: sometimes hilarious, sometimes disturbing, always compelling.

Axe Cop reports a big spike in traffic with its latest episode, and it's easy to see why: it's the freshest take on the superhero mythos this side of Grant Morrison. Drawn by Eisner-nominated comics artist Ethan Nicolle and plotted by his 5-year-old brother Malachai, Axe Cop really soars with its supporting cast of superfolk, including the Evil Flying Book, the fart-propelled Baby Man, and my favorite, Avocado Soldier, a walking avocado with sunglasses and a magical unicorn horn. I know what I'm going as next Halloween.

Tiny Art Director has been at it for a couple of years now, with artist Bill Zeman drawing his toddler daughter's ideas, then submitting them to her rigorous critique. The following assignment - "an octopus" - was rejected on the grounds that "I don't like the scary green fish because he's bad." But she did make a generous offer to polish it up: "I want to help you. I want to erase him."

The Monster Engine, unlike the other two, starts not just with a child's idea but with a child's drawing. Painter Dave Devries has done loads of work for Marvel Comics and Universal Studios, so he knows his way around mighty men and monsters. His technique of tracing and fleshing out kids' drawings combines childlike compositions and concepts with lifelike detail. You gotta hand it to Dave and Chelsea: that is, indeed, one big mouth.

I'm resisting the urge to scan and post some of my kids' more fanciful artistic flights here, but you shouldn't. Feel free to show us the unique vision your child brings to his or her artistic pursuits. Whatever its other charms, it's almost guaranteed to be something I've never seen before.

(Thanks to joshmonkey for the links!)

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Thursday, November 19

PediSedate: Video Games Are The Opiate Of The Masses' Children

by Jason Toon

It's easy to see PediSedate as a disturbing symbol of everything wrong with our culture today blah blah blah. The idea does sound like something out of Aldous Huxley by way of Attack of the Show: a headset that delivers sedatives to kids while said kids are engaged in playing hand-held video games. And the device itself looks a little unsettling. But as a parent who has seen how freaked out my daughter got when she had to be sedated for oral surgery, I think it's actually a great idea. One thing, though: their marketing material only talks about how it's compatible with the Game Boy. The manufacturers should name-drop the Nintendo DS if they really want to reach the kids of today. Or at least the kids in my house.

What's your impression of PediSedate: sign of the digital apocalypse or innovative way to make medical procedures a little easier on kids? And do you wish they came in adult sizes?

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Friday, September 25

Little Horrors on the Prairie

by Jason Toon

When we started reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House books to our five-year-old daughter, I thought I knew what to expect. Homespun anecdotes of pioneer life? Sure, she can handle that. As a kid who always dismissed the TV show and related phenomenon as girls' stuff, I was looking forward to gentle, sun-dappled bedtime reading.

And there's a lot of that in the books. There are also wolf attacks, Indian massacres, Biblically-proportioned insect infestations, floods, fires, detailed descriptions of butchering animals, and of course big sister Mary's famous blindness. These books are much more intense than I thought they'd be - and, not coincidentally, much better, too. This is no idealized Holly Hobbie picture of country living. Laura Ingalls Wilder is hardcore, man.

Which is great, but a lot for a kindergartener to handle. When we're reading, we gloss right past the harshest parts - the chapter about chopping up a hog called for a lot of improvised editing from the readers (me and my wife). The intense stuff that's integral to the story, like Mary going blind, we try to explain so our little girl doesn't worry too much about suddenly losing her sight. "This happened a long time ago when they didn't have the doctors and medicines we do now" - that kind of thing.

Obviously, the closer these realities are to your everyday life, the less shocking it is to see them in kids' literature. Even in the 1930s and 1940s, when Laura Ingalls Wilder was writing about an already long-gone way of life, American children were still much more familiar with hardship and death than most are today. The classic fairy tales of Europe contain a lot of gory and disturbing stuff - but for kids growing up amidst plagues and poverty and pogroms, they were light entertainment.

It takes some effort to preserve the essence of classics like Little House without giving your kid nightmares, but I think it's worth it. I certainly wouldn't want to deny my kids the joys of Bugs Bunny just because he does some things that kids shouldn't imitate, or because some of the WWII cartoons were racist (we don't watch those specific ones). Are there any classics you loved as a kid that require some careful editing and explanation when you share them with your kids?

Photo: Trail House by Flickr user bwhistler, used under a Creative Commons License.

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Friday, September 18

Macho, Macho Dad: Do You Wanna Be A Macho Dad?

by Jason Toon

So, I tried to make this point humorously in the writeup for today's Jam Packed Diaper Backpack, but I think it bears thinking about in a little more detail. Before feminism (and the need for two paychecks for most families to stay afloat), not a whole lot was expected of men in the parenting department. To vastly oversimplify, Mom handled meals and clothes and diapers and homework and most of the discipline; Dad brought home the paycheck, threw the ball around, and dropped the hammer on particularly egregious misbehavior ("wait 'til your father gets home"). Childcare was woman's work. And nobody expected to sell diaper bags to men.

Now that Dads are supposed to at least try to shoulder half of the parenting load, we'll see more products like the Jam Packed Diaper Backpack. It's rugged enough to take camping. It's almost military in its profusion of pockets and straps and panels. And while it comes in pink, it also comes in hunter's orange and Henry Ford black. It's clearly aimed at people who are more interested in efficiency and durability than in cuteness.

Of course, those people could just as easily be women. Maybe it's the product of the general trend in consumer marketing to present every product as a marvel of structural engineering. It's certainly not the first product to fetishize its rather mundane materials (polyester) with impressive-sounding acronymic names (600D / PU ripstop). Maybe it's actually an acknowledgement that mothers, too, expect to be more active and rugged these days.

But I can't help feeling like at least some of the Jam Packed Diaper Backpack's appeal lies in making parenting seem a little less feminine and a lot more virile. You could say the same about those Jeep strollers (we have the side-by-side double-stroller ourselves). Have you seen any other examples of this sort of thing, or am I totally missing the point?

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Monday, September 14

Play-Doh Behaving Badly

by Jason Toon

Watch any kids' TV show and you'll see commercial after commercial marketing directly to the kids. Advertisers have long known that the best way to get you to buy something for your kid is to enlist said kid as their agent on the inside. So I thought this Play-Doh ad campaign from Singapore (as seen at Ugly Doggy) was an interesting and hilarious reversal.


Ostensibly, it takes the old-fashioned approach of convincing us parents that Play-Doh is a mild-mannered toy that you can trust to babysit your precious little ones. But the way it does that isn't old-fashioned at all. It uses humor and danger to exploit my generation's overriding consumer impulse: the need to feel cool. Also, consider how much more acceptable it is today for adults to buy, collect, even play with toys. You don't see anybody's desk decorated with action figures on Mad Men. So while the dark humor appeals to your more mature (or at least adolescent) side, the colorful pleasure of these meticulous miniatures make you want to grab a handful of Play-Doh and start molding, like a kid. As somebody who almost always hates ads, I'll admit that campaigns like this are why I say "almost". Click "read more" to see the whole line.

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Friday, August 28

A Mind Is A Great Thing To Play With

by Jason Toon

Now that all of our friends are tired of hearing us talk about our kids, we’re taking our parenting thoughts to the Kids.Woot blog. Sometimes it’ll be me, sometimes it’ll be another Woot staffer with offspring, and sometimes we might even rope in a guest or two.

As I’ve hinted at in some of the Kids.Woot copy I’ve written, I’m of two minds on the concept of educational toys. On the one hand, sure, who’s against education? The children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way. Science/exploration devices like today’s Discovery Megaview Indoor/Outdoor Digital Microscope merge the halves of that dual mission into a whole that usually seems fun for kids inclined that way. LeapFrog stuff is generally impressive, too (and I thought that before we sold any of it). But you can’t just graft an educational mission onto a dull game or toy and expect kids to enjoy it. And if they aren’t enjoying it, they probably aren’t learning much, either...

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