Digital Rattles? iParenting with the iPhone

Parents look to iPhone apps to educate and entertain their kids.

June 18, 2009, 10:21 AM

June 18, 2009— -- When a terrible rash hospitalized Leticia Barr's 3-year-old son in December, one of the few things that cheered him up was playing with his mom's iPhone.

Flipping through pictures and watching YouTube videos helped pass the time during what was an uncomfortable and scary time for her toddler, the Washington, D.C., mother of two said.

"You're looking not just at an expensive thing for mom and dad but something for kids," said Barr, who runs the blog

Waiting in lines at the doctor's office and elsewhere, she said, is far easier now that she has downloaded a few applications for her son and daughter, 5.

But despite the availability of applications for kids, "I think that this is something that is really wide open, especially with Apple's iPhone coming down in price," she said.

With a new $99 iPhone and the latest iPhone 3GS coming out Friday, industry watchers believe, as developers of child-appropriate apps hope, that more parents will use the iPhone as a learning and entertainment tool.

Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies Inc., a Silicon Valley analyst, said that the lower priced iPhone could open it up to parents who might see it as more than a personal smartphone.

"More users [might] be willing to try out the iPhone because of its vast capabilities," he said. "Oh, and by the way, I can also let the kids play games on it and use it for educational things. It becomes more of a multi-purpose family device."

Rick Toone, creator of MobiStories, said he and his partners launched their first virtual kid's book for the iPhone in May, and have already had 10,000 downloads. With each new Apple announcement, Toone said, he has observed a spike in interest. With the cheaper iPhone, and a new one on the way, he's hoping for even more growth.

"I think digital has become a much bigger thing," he said, especially with the growing interest in the Kindle, Amazon's digital reading tablet that lets users wirelessly download books. "Our take is that it's a file. It's however you want to consumer it, wherever you are. ... We're just trying to do the same thing with children's books."

Moms See Practical Use for the iPhone

Toone's books -- nine, so far -- are for 2- to 8-year-olds. And although 2 might sound young, he said he has seen them "mesmerized for 15 minutes," devouring two or three books in one sitting.

Apple, which counts about 50,000 applications in its popular app store, doesn't have a specific category for children. But Heather Leister, a Boise, Idaho, mother who started her blog earlier this year, estimates that there are at least a couple hundred applications for Apple's iPhone that are intended for kids.

Leister started the blog in January, when she realized how much her three young kids enjoyed playing with iPhone apps and how so few parents were reviewing them.

"I'm definitely noticing that they're cluing in to that the iPhone is not just for the adults, not just for the tech people," she said of iPhone application developers. "Moms are seeing a practical use for it as well."

And, often, she said, it's the parents who develop the applications themselves.

Erich Bratton, a father from Buffalo Grove, Ill., said he created TowerSmash in October for his two young kids and their cousins.

He noticed that other apps for the iPhone that claimed to be kid-friendly were still too frustrating for his 4- and 6-year-old.

"So I decided to build a simulation of a favorite kid toy -- wooden blocks," he said. "You stack them and knock them down, and that's it. ... Grownups who look at it sometimes don't get it because it's so simple, but that's why the kids love it."

Christopher Taylor, a Minn.-based father of two, also created his own application when he realized how much his iPhone fascinated his 2-year-old daughter (and her younger brother). "I could diffuse a tantrum by handing them the phone," he said.

But because he worried that excessive screen time at such a young age might turn his kids into "vidiots," he thought he'd use the opportunity to educate them while entertaining them.

So, in March, the interactive planner for a global marketing company teamed up with friend Victor Johnson, who also happened to be a father, and taught himself how to code.

Parents Learn With Their Kids

"It's actually fairly challenging," Taylor said. "I did spend a few months banging my head against the wall."

But the payoff came when he took the prototype and put it in his daughter's hands. Because his daughter was just learning her letters and numbers, the game is focused on those skills as well as music and shapes.

"It's just amazing to watch your child learn," he said. "Watching your child learn is one of the most rewarding experiences."

And he sent ABC 123 Blocks, the new iPhone app, off to Apple for approval last week. Although it's not available in the apps store, he and Johnson hope it will be approved soon.

As their kids learn and grow out of the apps they build from them, Taylor said he hopes their apps will increase in sophistication, too.

"We're learning while our kids are learning," he said, adding, "I would love it somewhere down the line if I could code with my daughter."

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