Tablets for kids

22 Feb 2013

Would you trust your three-year-old with an iPad? We explore the boom in toddler tech

Young children have always possessed a magnet-like attraction to technology. In days of old, the challenge was to protect a desktop PC from tiny, curious fingers; today, surprisingly powerful devices are targeted directly at them.

From tablets in the finest Hello Kitty designs, to dedicated apps for "grown-up devices", it seems that, far from keeping infants and computing apart, there’s a growing drive to bring them together.
But isn’t this fraught with danger? Is it wise to give a curious three-year-old access to something as advanced as an iPad with a few suitable downloads on it?

There’s an argument, certainly, that it’s asking for trouble. Many parents balk at the idea of letting a toddler near the TV remote (and those of a certain vintage will happily recall fishing everything but a video tape out of the VHS player), so placing an expensive slab of technology in their mucky hands comes with inherent concerns.

Yet there are also strong, tangible educational benefits to the emergence of toddler-focused technology. After all, isn’t it better to put a child in front of something that they can interact with, as opposed to another re-run of the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse? Small steps
Technology for toddlers isn’t a new concept. LeapFrog, for instance, earned its strong market position off the back of the LeapPad line of learning products – the first of these was introduced in 1999, and helped to usher in a generation of child-friendly educational computing devices. Arguably, the origins lie even further back, in products such as Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell range, which originated in 1978.

In 2013, though, the problem is that the technology is inherently more powerful. So, on top of the usual debate over how much time and access a toddler should have to screen-based devices, there’s now also the very real possibility of them doing notable damage, at both a software (erasing files and changing settings) and hardware (lobbing a tablet down the stairs) level.

Children's apps

That hasn’t deterred software developers, who have been keen to tempt parents with apps on both the Google Play store and Apple App Store. Both attract a combination of major publishers and smaller, independent developers, and both boast an extraordinary wealth of material, across a wide range of subjects and age groups. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the home educational software market has never been so vibrant.

For parents used to trawling shops for appropriate learning aids for their youngsters, there are tangible upsides. It’s possible to buy niche, affordable tools to help even the very young with their development, and unlike even a decade ago, it’s low risk. A £1.49 app is far more attractive than a £20 add-on cartridge that’s likely to stop working after a period of hard labour (or worse, be ignored altogether).

There are downsides too. On the LeapPad of 1999, a user couldn’t alter crucial system defaults, nor could they find themselves online. Even the crudest of today’s toddler-targeting tablets tend to allow both, with a device such as the Arnova ChildPad leaving youngsters one tap away from the perils of Google.

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