My toddler recently passed the official age when it’s okay to start screen time, and his interest in our phones and computers has suddenly skyrocketed.
But I’ve realized that even though we’ve passed this milestone, I’m not just going to plop him in front of a screen, an app, or a tech toy without understanding how he will interact with it. So what do I do? How do I actually introduce him to technology in a thoughtful way at this moment — and future ones?
Parents strive to treat their families to amazing experiences. Catapult, in partnership with Intel, is the field guide for the modern mom, offering tech-based at-home activities that will build lasting memories.
I asked my sister-in-law Molly Vozick-Levinson, the director of New York City’s Children’s Learning Center, how parents can tell what technology is age-appropriate, and she had this advice: “Look at your child’s interaction with the technology, and let her interest and engagement be the guide.”
Essentially, our kids tend to show us what they’re ready to learn by lunging after it, obsessing over it, or asking us about it. That doesn’t mean we ought to hand them the phone or computer. Instead, Vozick-Levinson encourages parents to use a child’s eagerness to build their skills. For instance, our child is really into the ABC song right now, so we let him watch one video on YouTube: A simple cartoon introducing the letters.
In sum, it’s our job as parents to find the tech that complements our children’s organic interests. Fortunately, there is so much amazing technology out there for every age. And there are also ways to reconfigure the tech that’s already part of our lives to make it friendly and useful for our children and families.
Babies are naturally curious. They crawl around and get their hands and mouths on everything. So the best option for babies is basic: technology that lets them touch stuff and see what happens next.
An activity table (we have one from Leapfrog that my former boss passed down), or miniature activity board with piano keys, switches, levers, and lots of buttons is a great option. There are also baby walkers that have similar touchable and manipulable gadgets attached to them. Not only do tots get the tactile experience — and the chance to link cause with effect — the larger version of these toys often encourages them to pull up and stand up or walk with support.
Here’s where it gets interesting. Toddlers, those little mimics, get totally fascinated by our stuff and being just like Mom and Dad. Since our most valued items are almost always our smartphones, laptops, and our TVs, this means we have to contend with how to deal with little people who want to use our big toys and tools.
Parents can encourage this mimicry by buying toddlers imitations of our gadgets, like early learning computers, phones, and remotes that offer educational value. There are many options for these kinds of toys from ranging from the simplest to a little more high-tech.
Another option might be to give kids a limited access to videos, playlists, and typing for appropriate activities. ”If your two-year-old is fascinated by birds, watching a livestream of an eagle’s nest or videos of owlets hatching might be a transformative experience,” explains Vozick-Levinson. “A four-year-old interested in feelings might relish listening to a playlist of songs with different moods and dancing to the way the music makes him feel. A one-year-old building a sense of object permanence might feel enlivened by FaceTiming a beloved dog who lives continents away. “
You can also present your child with your repurposed tech. For example, try a remote that doesn’t work. They may not know that the remote connects to the TV yet but they are drawn to buttons and lights like moths to a flame. I recently gave my toddler an old keyboard that had just run out of battery and simply let him bang away on it. He loved pressing the buttons but also kept just holding the whole up and joyfully shouting “RECTANGLE” —so there was learning happening on all levels.
Pretty soon, your kids are going to start demanding bigger and more complicated technology, so you want to make sure the tech really challenges them.
“There are a number of toys that encourage interest and learning about STEM activities and take the form of programmable toys,”says Scott Steinberg, author of Raising High Tech Kids: The Ultimate Web and Online Safety Guide. “There even things like robotic pets, where you can code in and control their behavior.”
Robotic pets! One example in this category is this set that allows you to build your own Robot Bunny. Or, for slightly younger kids, try the Code-A-Pillar from Fisher Price. Logic games are amazing for kids this age too, like this packaged activity set that helps the three little piggies build their world.
As kids get a little older they learn to explore the world on their own, requesting a tiny bit more independence, but you know, not too much. This is the perfect age to start introducing more complicated projects, like LEGO robotic kits, or creating their own music on the family laptop.
Basic Virtual-Reality kits, like the inexpensive Google Cardboard or this one for kids from View-Master, will introduce your kids to the cheap but mind-expanding thrills of VR. A tiny robot that you can manipulate across a landscape will provide hours of entertainment. And if your kid wants to be a rock star this selfie stick with a built-in microphone can enable their music video creations.
Elementary-school is also a perfect time to use technology to learn more about the world around them, through tools like a high-powered microscopes that connect to the computer. Or they can engage in their own creative projects, like composing and recording their own music, building a robot, or creating projects with a 3D printer.
At this point, your kid either has access to your phone or their own. So you’re looking for great apps to keep the phone from being a zombie box. There are lots of websites and guides to help you figure out which apps are approved by parents like you.
Even though your kids are big now, you still want to follow their lead and use technology to encourage their natural curiosity. Does your kid wonder at the universe? Try Starwalk, the app that guides them through the galaxy. Are they obsessed with mastering random trivia and how-tos? Instructables has an app. Eager to code? Games like Hakitzu Elite, gamestar mechanic let kids actually code, build and fix things on their tablet. Concerned about current events? Finding Home connects them to refugees’ stories.
If you’re looking for tools and toys for the older set, it’s important to remember that teens want what you want: fitness monitors, great headphones, cool accessories. What they will do with these high-tech items might surprise you, too.
Sarah Seltzer is a writer and editor in NYC.
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