Personal tools


Technology for the Very Young: Lapware, Smart Toys and Beyond

Technology and the Very Young: Lapware, Smart Toys, and Beyond

May 1, 2002


Leah S. Roderman

Mills College Interdisciplinary Computer Science graduate student


Ellen Spertus, Mills College


Computers are changing the landscape of early childhood development. Software products designed to be used with infants as young as six months are being marketed as educational tools. Plush toys with embedded microprocessors offer increased interactivity and responsiveness to children’s play. Technology education begins in the home, but there are few formal recommendations about what is appropriate for children’s needs and abilities. Examining the social, developmental, and commercial aspects of young children’s computer use will assist us with teaching children to explore new technology in a thoughtful way.

Technology and the Very Young: Lapware, Smart Toys, and Beyond

As technology becomes more pervasive in our lives, we are presented with the challenge of teaching children about computers. Home computer use has skyrocketed over the last ten years: over half of American households have one or more computers, and nearly two-thirds of all children 3 to 17 live in a household with a computer. As with television and other media, parents are faced with the task of making decisions about appropriate use. While there is ample opportunity for parents to introduce their children to computers at a very young age, we should first examine whether there is any developmental or educational value in doing so.

Products categorized as ‘lapware’ are designed to introduce infants and toddlers as young as six months to the desktop PC interface and peripherals under the supervision of an adult. Manufacturers encourage parents to familiarize their children with the PC, claiming that starting children on computers early on will give an advantage in school and the workplace in later years. Concerns about different aspects of infants’ computer use include the potential for de-emphasized social interactions, reliance on machine intelligence, and loss of natural creativity. Parents and caregivers are expressing interest in lapware: between January and October of 2000, almost $1 million was spent on software for babies, and over $10 million for software for toddlers.

Desktop software introduces computers in a more recognizable form than toys with embedded microprocessors. So-called ‘smart toys’ have an increasingly sophisticated range of functions and are designed to provide more interactive features to children than objects traditionally associated with childhood play. There is no longer a clear distinction between software and toys, with some products being described more as technological tools for children than as toys. Smart toys make the creative world of children manipulable, providing opportunities to influence children’s quality of play in ways we do not fully understand.

No studies are currently available on computer use for children under three, though the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) initiated a call for research to be concluded in 2002. There is a range of opinions on the age at which children should start using computers and what activities are appropriate for age groups. We now have a substantial population of infants and toddlers who use lapware regularly; these children and others will also be playing with smart toys if they are not doing so already. Long-term effects of new media will surface over time as our youngest generation grows up, but we can consider how computers will change the landscape of early childhood by exploring childhood development and media use.

An infant's brain grows to 90 percent of its total adult capacity during the first three years of life and has twice the number of cellular connections as an adult's. These connections constitute the "wiring" that determine intellectual, social and emotional development over an individual's lifetime. Developmental activities that strengthen children's long-term functioning include linguistics (speaking, listening, storytelling), motor skills (physical placement and perception), and the forging of bonds with other humans (parents and caregivers). Young children appear to show positive biases towards learning certain types of information, and even infants as young as 2—4 months have useful knowledge about the physical world.

Because infants cannot directly express what they are learning and how, habituation is an important behavior used to measure visual learning and memory. When stimulus is presented repeatedly over an extended amount of time, infants spend less time looking at it, indicating they are familiar with the phenomenon. This process of taking in and storing information about the stimulus suggests that infants are encoding its properties and retaining them in memory during the period of habituation. Research indicates infants store and access information about solid objects more easily than images and that understanding of three-dimensional forms develops earlier since real objects convey more information than flat representations.

Jean Piaget characterized play as a kind of work that requires gathering information about and experimenting with the qualities of objects. As children learn how to manipulate objects in their environment, they develop motor skills, hand-eye coordination and understanding of causality. The value in any toy lies in the extent to which it stimulates this kind of creative interaction and skill development, and household items may provide as many hours of pleasure as expensive brand name toys. Educational toys can inspire children to engage in diverse activities, facilitating imaginative play and behavioral experimentation.

Lapware is intended to introduce children to the keyboard, mouse, and monitor, and through play demonstrate cause and effect relationships. While some products offer simple games, many are ‘baby bangers’ that allow children to hit the keyboard at random, causing the computer to change monitor image or emit sound. Most lapware products allow parents to customize the experience by adding media and to set other constraints, such as which peripheral is used and how long the program should run. Examples of lapware are JumpStart Baby, Reader Rabbit Playtime for Baby & Toddler and babyWOW!.

Parents receive strong messages about the benefits of early reading from public health agencies, family, and childcare professionals, which may help to explain why lapware has been integrated so quickly into the American home. Parents may also consider computer use more like time spent reading a book, and less like time spent in front of the television. Since there has been no large-scale research on media availability and use for children under three years of age, there is no conclusive recommendation for parents. The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) issued a statement in 1998 recommending that children under two not watch television, which it later clarified to include computers. Some child development experts go so far as to say that most normally developing young children under seven are better off without computers. By the age of four, however, many children are already adept at using various forms of technology, and can dial the telephone, turn on the stereo, guide computerized toys, and play video games.

It has been speculated that children's minds may be adversely affected by nonlinguistic and visually distracting television, causing orientation towards fast-paced visuals instead of verbal input. Similar concerns have been raised about newer media such as software programs, which may also confuse the type of information being delivered by blurring the boundary between media and reality. Enhanced imagery disrupts imaginative play and de-emphasizes human interactions that contribute to social learning. Children are drawn to sophisticated interfaces, becoming fascinated with the technology, but not motivated to learn about the subjects being communicated. Fixation to the media may tempt parents to allow prolonged periods of computer use, decreasing the amount of time children spend interacting with adults. Studies of the potential for computer-related injuries in children report that most schools allow children to use computers in ways that risk strain to their bodies, which in turn raises questions about physical configurations of home PCs.

Despite these issues, the lapware market is thriving. Parents are encouraged to introduce young children to computers by lapware manufacturers, who see themselves as providing a simple interface that enables parents to share time at the home PC with their children. As a distributor explains, it is natural for children to be drawn to objects that engage adults: "When parents are working on the computer, it's the child's natural reaction to climb aboard and push a button and see what happens." The National Education Association has stressed that computer literacy is as much a basic skill as reading, writing and arithmetic, and bringing schools up to speed is a priority. Parents who want their children to enter school prepared for curriculum challenges may be easily influenced by manufacturers’ claims that using lapware will offer a technological and educational advantage.

Smart toys are designed to exhibit behavior in response to children's input, and raise questions about the impact of technology on early cognitive development. Toys now commonly include microprocessors programmed to accept input such as movement, touch, or sound through electronic sensors, as well as transmitted signals received from other devices. Toys with microprocessors and behavioral characteristics are usually animistic, furry or robotic, and are marketed as dolls, pets, companions or autonomous toys. Science fiction has anticipated smart toys for some time: Brian Aldiss' Supertoys Last All Summer Long (recently produced for the big screen as AI) features an intelligent Teddy programmed to respond comfortingly to the needs of a child. Some examples of toys that are fast approaching Aldiss’ Teddy are Furby (Tiger Electronics), ActiMates Barney (Microsoft), Real Baby (iRobot), and AIBO (Sony).

Toys are best understood as cultural artifacts that introduce children to the values of their culture, and allow children to explore possibilities and boundaries in a creative yet safe environment. Over the last 30 years, toys have become objects that have less to do with perpetuating cultural roles such as gender and occupation, and more like props in a play world such as commercial entertainment that is unconnected to reality. At the 1999 Computer-Human Interaction conference, a panel of computer scientists convened to discuss the ethics of interactive plush toys such as ActiMates Barney. The potential for commercial abuse was of major concern: Although Barney currently responds only to the "Barney and Friends" PBS program, compatible software, and video tapes, the technology could be leveraged for plush toys to respond to advertisements. Also at issue was the Barney's rote responses to young owners, which could be considered disingenuous since the doll has no real emotional attachment to anyone.

Young children often have relationships with their machines and experience confusion when categorizing computers as alive or not alive. Children are especially likely to perceive animate qualities in toys that have living counterparts, such as teddy bears, dolls and figures. Smart toys are increasingly socially interactive, which increases the likelihood that children will form stronger attachments with them than with traditional toys such as a teddy bear. The standard physical evaluations of animism once utilized by children have been changing in response to new devices; increasingly the emotion and psychology of objects are examined. Today’s children are ushering in a new world order that accommodates the sentience of machines such as computers and intelligent toys. They are negotiating territory that many adults have yet to explore: the blurring of boundaries between the living and the mechanical.

LEGO Mindstorms, prototyped in the MIT Media Lab by Seymour Papert and his students, offers a nonanimistic implementation of microprocessors in toys. Papert’s simple computer language for children (LOGO ) was extended to be used with programmable bricks and LEGO blocks, allowing children to program their own toys. Papert proposed that these tools effectively made children epistemologists, since by iterating through the process of learning how to learn, they acquired specialized knowledge about problem solving. Current projects at MIT include Digital Manipulatives, which introduce ‘systems concepts such as feedback and emergence that are difficult to demonstrate with traditional toys. In contrast to toys that simply respond to children, these devices offer a higher level of interactivity that children can control and expand.

Object intelligence is rapidly becoming a standard feature of our environment, and toys offer the opportunity to teach children about the emerging technology that will be so pervasive in their lives. High-tech companies are interested in smart toys because of the speed of the toy market, which will drive home networking technology faster than anything else. The turnover rate of toys is significantly higher than that of household appliances: a new refrigerator may enter the house every 20 years while toys are purchased every holiday season, making them the fastest moving and fastest evolving vehicles for new technology. Not only may people become dependent on animated objects in place of their own creative potential, but the nature of such toys in turn drives the need for constant upgrades. It is noteworthy that smart toys are marketed heavily as companions to children and the elderly, two groups whose quality of life is greatly enhanced by meaningful ‘human’ time . The potential for objects that redefine aliveness to replace interactions with other people suggests that we are experiencing a shift in our perception of individual needs and responsibilities.

Parents feel pressure to get their children on the computer as early as possible: from peers, manufacturers, educators, and their own desires to provide valuable experiences that will have long term benefits. There appears to be a perception that the value of becoming familiar with the computer interface at an early age is similar to the benefits of learning how to read when very young: only a survey of parents using lapware will confirm this. The findings of the American Association of School Administrators that parents ranked computer literacy above social, relational and emotional skills indicate parents place so much value on children's proficiency with computers that they risk minimizing the importance of other kinds of educational experiences.

While there do not seem to be indications of any great harm resulting from infants and toddlers spending time in front of the computer, it's also unclear that there is any substantial benefit. Given the studies of infant habituation on two- and three-dimensional objects, it may be that children using lapware are gathering and storing more information about the computer and its peripherals than ideas conveyed through the software. If infants have to spend more time getting less information from two-dimensional objects, what can we conclude about their use of computers at such a young age? Applying the theories of infant habituation, we can infer that infants see the computer as an object with properties and meaning, and the images are merely characteristics. How then do we know whether infants using lapware understand the causal relationship of images on the screen?

If, as Ray Kurzweil proposes in his Age of Spiritual Machines, we are rapidly approaching an evolutionary shift that will transform us from biological creatures to mechanical ones, our children may become these new people. In order to maintain control over and awareness of the changes in humans that result from technological innovations, we have to consciously think about what we learn, and that includes teaching our children to do the same. Learning how to use tools is one important step, understanding the processes of learning leads to using many different kinds of tools across multiple disciplines. Do products like lapware and smart toys actually provide a useful foundation from which to build towards understanding our new selves? We should also ask whether parents participate willingly in technological advances into home and family, given that manufacturers may be market- rather than education-driven. Computers are not inherently educational devices, therefore we must use them intelligently and deliberately if they are going to contribute to the education of children.

Archived CPSR Information
Created before October 2004

Sign up for CPSR announcements emails


International Chapters -

> Canada
> Japan
> Peru
> Spain

USA Chapters -

> Chicago, IL
> Pittsburgh, PA
> San Francisco Bay Area
> Seattle, WA
Why did you join CPSR?

I like the health insurance opportunity.