Where Apps Become Child’s Play
By NICOLE LaPORTE
AN iPad case that doubles as a teething toy? Yes, such a product exists. It’s known as the Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Apptivity Case (also available for iPods and iPhones) and it sells for $35.
It’s well known that children are quick to learn new technology. But 6-month-olds? How did the idea arise for a toy that allows its user to gnaw on its brightly colored handles and drool on its protective screen, while also manipulating apps for counting and singing?
At Fisher-Price, such products result from a process known as spelunking, which in its literal sense means to explore caves. But in the realm of toy making, it refers to the simple act of watching children play.
A similar process is alive and well at other companies, like LeapFrog, maker of the LeapPad, a touchscreen tablet for children as young as 3; and at Hasbro and Crayola, which have partnered with digital media companies to create apps for very young children.
At Fisher-Price, “we bring babies in with their moms and watch them at play with different types of apps, different types of products,” said Deborah Weber, senior manager of infant research. Her job, she said, is to “understand the ages and stages of babies — what they can and can’t do, what their interests are, and the growing needs of families today.”
Spelunking has been around since the Fisher-Price PlayLab was formed in 1961, the same year that bricks made by a Danish company called Lego made their American debut. In its earlier days, the lab was filled with toys like a googly-eyed rotary phone known as the Chatter Phone, and the Corn Popper, a kind of mini-lottery machine on wheels.
Today, the lab, located at the Fisher-Price headquarters in East Aurora, N.Y., looks more like an Apple store. But instead of adults and teenagers, there are infants staring into computer screens, and parents and toddlers are passing iPads back and forth.
The setting is similar at LeapFrog’s Kid Lab in Emeryville, Calif., where digital devices and apps are tested by children who both have and haven’t had regular exposure to computers.
“Two years ago, it was harder to find kids who had used an iPhone or an iPad at home,” said Alissa McLean, a senior researcher in LeapFrog’s user experience group, which examines how children interact with online content and computers. “Now it’s not hard at all.”
“We used to talk about kids being the first generation of digital natives,” said Jason Root, chief content officer at the Ruckus Media Group, which has partnered with companies like Hasbro to create storybook apps. “Now we have a generation of newborns who are going to be weaned on touch devices.”
At Fisher-Price, Ms. Weber said, “We see 6-month-olds batting at the screen, 9-month-olds swiping, and 12-month-olds pointing out objects to see.” Observations like these are passed along to toy producers and industrial designers, resulting in products like the iPad case and the Laugh & Learn Apptivity Monkey, which comes out in August.
The Apptivity Monkey would pass for just another stuffed animal if it didn’t have a thick, plastic iPhone case attached to its belly; the front of the case is made of see-through plastic. An iPhone can be placed inside, and a child can play apps on it, either by pressing on the iPhone directly or on the monkey’s paws, which interact with an array of alphabet and singing apps.
The monkey is big enough and soft enough so that the iPhone can sustain even major tumbles, Fisher-Price asserts. But the iPhone is not included. So doesn’t that make for a pretty expensive toy?
Maybe not. When Kathleen Kremer, another spelunker who is the company’s senior manager of user experience, was observing how preschool-aged children played with their parents’ iPhones and iPods, she stumbled on the “pass-back factor.”
“People are now on their second-generation iPad or second iPhone, so what they typically do with the old one is give it to their child, so the kids actually have ownership of these devices,” she said. She has also studied diaries and scrapbooks that parents were asked to keep, documenting their children’s behavior.
Because of the pass-back factor, the new Kid Tough Apptivity Case — similar to the Laugh & Learn product, but designed for older children — is made to fit all generations of the gadgets, Ms. Kremer said.
Innovations like this are fueling the digital toy trend, according to Lisa Harnisch, senior vice president and general merchandising manager at Toys “R” Us. Last year, she said, the trend in children’s apps and app-related products “really started to heighten and explode.” Indeed, in the last year, there have been nearly three million downloads of Fisher-Price’s Laugh & Learn apps. By year-end, LeapFrog expects to have 325 apps at its online App Center, double the number at the end of 2011.
Not everyone sees this as a justification to ply infants with computers. “Infants learn best from real people and playing with real toys,” said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Tex., and the author of “Baby 411.” “They learn how to communicate, how to engage with others and how to problem-solve using their five senses. While technology can offer a virtual way to learn some of these skills, they will never replace the value of interacting with humans or being able to manipulate and play with toys in one’s hands.”
In any case, it might be too late to stop an 18-month-old from discovering the joys of Netflix — selecting a movie or TV show to watch, or rewinding and replaying a favorite scene — something that Ms. Kremer has come across in her field research.
“It was pretty remarkable that she could master all those different steps,” she said of the tech-savvy toddler. “The motivation was there.”