Here is a common scene in my house...  A 2-year old politely asks to borrow an iPhone.  An adult obliges.  The 2-year old proceeds to open his favorite application and expertly work through a series of puzzles to the amazement of all present.  He eventually tires and gives the phone back. 

Yeah right! - you say.

OK, alright I admit it.  Its not quite that... bucolic.  I have... misrepresented (a little) and here is the list of my... fibs.

  1. The 2-year old doesn't actually ask for the phone... he points to the thing (or to the pocket where he suspects me of hiding it) and inquires choo?  (explanation: the phone has several train-related game-apps for reasons which should be apparent to anyone with a toddler and an iPhone) 
  2. He can be polite, or not.  The tone and attitude of his approach range from timid suggesting to strident demanding, depending on the current balance of whatever mysterious variables act upon the mood of a 2-year old.
  3. For various reasons, the adult often does not oblige.  Altercation ensues.  Bucolic be damned.
  4. The 2-year old hasn't quite mastered the part where he navigates to his favorite application on his own... so getting there usually involves the deletion of several other apps the adult has recently purchased and not yet backed up to his (or her) computer.
  5. The 2-year old never actually tires of the phone.  Ever.  On occasion he does get frustrated with it, which results in his throwing the phone... usually at the head of a passing dog.
  • Note, the bit about a toddler expertly working a series of puzzles to the amazement of all present is precisely true.
I know, good parents reading are in full cringe.  Or not reading any longer.  I kind of get it.  Really, a part of me cringes too. 

What am I doing?  How do I justify this?  I'm not even one of those gamer dads.  I run.  I hike.  I get dirty.  I play with dogs.

But here is the thing.  Even my wife - who categorically holds that "this is bad" every time she sees the baby with the phone - finds herself aglow with (reluctant) pride whenever - on close inspection - she beholds the speed and dexterity with which our kid solves relatively complicated puzzles in the little touch screen.

I mean... a touch screen ferchrissake!  Here is a concept that was barely imaginable to me when I was 20... and for my son (who is not quite 2) it is not a concept at all.  Just another fact of life... like cheerios in the morning... like dogs in the morning eating the cheerios he flings off his table.  It amazes me.

OK now, as promised, here my reviews of the two best toddler apps I've found.  Why just two?  Because nothing else comes even close (I've looked... if you know some contenders, lets hear it).  I will not add any crap to my list for the sake of making it longer.

#1 App for toddlers.  My son's favorite iPhone app game is "Tozzle" (for Toddler Puzzle, I presume).  There is a free version with two puzzles - good enough to give you the gist of it.  When you are ready, the full app is $1.99 and it has some 30 different puzzles of varying difficulty (all - eventually - within the capabilities of a 2-year old). 

What it is... each puzzle is an enhanced version of the basic kid-puzzle consisting of a scene with cutout shapes (which are the pieces the player must fit).  But each puzzle is also a good deal more.

When the game opens, it offers a menu of scenes or puzzles.  The fun starts here for my son who likes to thumb through the offerings until he finds the "perfect" puzzle to tackle.  Like I said, the difficulty (and even the general "point" of the puzzle varies).

Take one of the simpler puzzles: The alphabet.  A succession of pieces (in this case letters) appears in the top right corner.  The player must drag each to the correct silhouette.  When the the piece is misplaced, a silly "boing!" sound results, and the thing bounces back to the corner.  When the player gets it right, the piece falls into place with a reassuring sound, a friendly voice names the letter (in one of 4 selectable languages) and what sounds like an audience of fellow toddlers offers a brief but enthusiastic cheer.  When the player gets all the pieces in place, a larger celebration ensues.  Which is evidently very encouraging to my son who often bursts into a little jig of his own creation.

Take a more complex puzzle:  A silly Easter-egg factory.  Piece by piece (conveyor belts, painting machines, an egg laying chicken, a delivery bunny, etc...) the thing is assembled.  The puzzle grows "depth" as new slots appear for pieces that occupy "nearer" layers, over "further" layers that have already been completed.  Does that make sense?

In addition to the cheerful celebration at the end, what you also have in this case is a fully operational Easter-egg factory.  Tap the chicken and it lays an egg.  Then conveyor belts take it from one assembly stage to the next... you get the idea. 

Basically your kid is not just building a puzzle.  He is assembling a machine.  Your toddler!  The last puzzle is really my favorite.  I'll let you (or your toddler) figure it out.  I'll just say... the thing actually works!

#2 App for toddlers.  My (and my son's) second favorite iPhone game is an Interactive Book based on the Little Critter character from Mercer Meyer, entitled "Just me and My Dad"  The title, of course is a winner.  You can get page-1 for free and the full App for $3.99.

I know... pricey, for what on the surface it's just another illustrated e-book... Words appear over a static scene, the main character (who is also narrator) reads along as words are highlighted, a scene unfolds with some animation... when that scene ends, you tap the corner of the page and the next scene follows.

But don't flip the page yet.  Because here is where the fun starts.

The cool thing is that each scene is absolutely jam-packed with hidden Easter-egg type surprises - revealed when you tap on different objects.  Tap a tree in the distance and a monster appears (along with spooky soundtrack... reminiscent of the early Lost - was it Season One?).  Tap nearer tree and a lion emerges from behind it, roars, declares "hakuna matata" and then jumps back out of sight.  Tap a puddle and a periscope emerges (along with sounds of sonar).  Tap a bird and it dive-bombs the dad pooping on his hat. Tap the sky and lightning-strike starts a forest fire (don't worry, it gets put out).  Most of the mini-scenes are amusing.  Many are hilariously weird. 

Cumulatively, my son and I have spent probably a couple of hours on the first few pages.  We have not finished the story yet because we always get so engrossed in finding hidden things that we get burnt out before we make any real progress through the book.  But it is nevertheless always fun to return to it.

And that is that for my reviews.

So, back to the deeper thoughts...  What about letting your toddler play with your iPhone?  That can't be right, can it?  I'm thinking I'll get back to that topic.  I've written enough for now on this post.

But for the moment my short answer is that it is not wrong... but it certainly is dangerous.  It is dangerous because it is so effectively entertaining.  And it is so effectively entertaining because it gives the toddler mind exactly what it craves... fun, colorful problems to solve, a place where he may develop his itching dexterity and indulge his burgeoning curiosity without being constantly told to "be careful."  And encouragement at each step!  Sure it is dangerous... for parents.

It is too tempting to hand the thing to your kid and let it take over for a while.  And maybe next time, for a while longer.  Until...

7/3/2011 11:31:02

Hey Jorge, you brought back memories with the "Just me and my dad" app. We had that and others like Freddy Fish, which of course back in the 90's were installed in a Windows 95 pc.

Now both my son and daughter are teens and capable of using technologies that you and I, like you mentioned didn't think of when were were younger. I think that is awesome!!

I've also seen some family and friends that rely heavily on ipods, etc, which I've compared to electronic caretakers, personally I don't agree with that.

I am all for using and learning from new technologies and gadgets each day, but limits should be set early on.

7/3/2011 13:44:35

Afraid to give my almost 2 yo my Iphone ??? Yep! But for a different reason... Iphones DON'T float.. 1 in the toilet , 1 in the bathtub and 1 somewhere in the depths of canecreek lake.. Now on # 4 Ugh!! what an expensive form of entertainment.. But maybe.. Just mayb .. if i had those 2 apps he would learn to make the phone his friend! And not grab it and run for the nearest source of water..


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