How the IPad Became Child's Play -- and Learning Tool

Young Kids' Almost Innate Ability to Use Device May Reshape Way We Use Media

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NEW YORK ( -- Anyone who has watched a child pick up an iPad has seen something amazing and maybe a little eerie. Kids too young to use a computer or TV remote or even read are using the device innately, chubby hands flying over the screen, leaving smudges as they go. And in the process, they may just be reshaping media.

THE 'I' GENERATION: It took our 3-year-old experimenter, Everett, only a few minutes to figure out the swiping motion to move from page to page on the iPad, and before long he was launching apps and backing out of them when he got tired of them.
THE 'I' GENERATION: It took our 3-year-old experimenter, Everett, only a few minutes to figure out the swiping motion to move from page to page on the iPad, and before long he was launching apps and backing out of them when he got tired of them.
The "toddler using iPad" oeuvre is a popular one on YouTube. Many of these kids are accustomed to touch screens since their parents have been using iPhones and iPads as child-entertainment devices for a few years now, but even kids who have never laid hands on an i-anything can pick it up, as a 3-year-old named Everett did when Ad Age handed him one last week. And like most adults, he didn't want to give it back.

With video-on-demand and DVRs in close to 50% of American homes, not to mention broadband-connected computers, children under 10 are truly baffled by media they don't control. While they're used to hitting "play" when they want to watch something, the iPad takes interactivity with media to a different plane.

"The ramifications for programming and advertising are far more significant than anyone inside the current ecosystem is prepared or equipped to address," wrote Outrigger Media chief Mike Henry in a post after watching his son Carson, 18 months, master the iPad and then try to touch a standard computer screen.

No formal research
There's no formal research yet on kids' interaction with the iPad or other tablets. PBS recently sent 90 preschoolers ages 3 to 7 home with iPod Touches and found that from using vocabulary app Martha Speaks Dog Party, kids' vocabulary increased up to 31%. While kids took to it quickly, the size of the iTouch screen was frustrating to some because it required a lot of coordination and two small thumbs triggered the zoom function. When given an iPad, kids carried it around less and were able to complete tasks such as tracing letters without the fine motor control required by the smaller device.

"It really feels like a machine that is responding to their needs as opposed to something they have to work through," said Ben Grimley, senior director-online ventures at PBS. "A whole generation will grow up expecting that experience." Research conducted recently by the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania showed that kids don't discern between screens.

Indeed, after using the iPad, a PBS board member observed a kid trying to pause a show by touching the bottom of the screen, as they would on an iPad.

While Apple has sold 2 million iPads in 60 days, kid use of the device is a tiny niche phenomenon. The ranks of children's apps created natively for the iPad, and not just converted from iPhone apps, are still thin, though the iBook store is quickly filling up with titles. The iPhone and iTouch are firmly established as gaming devices-slash-child pacifiers; 82% of the top paid apps are gaming apps, compared to 36% for the iPad, according to a recent count by Dan Frommer at Business Insider. But it's still early; $500 is a stiff price point for a children's plaything, but it's in the same league as the $200 portable DVD player, what many parents consider standard equipment for child rearing.

It took Everett a few minutes to notice the button on the bottom of the iPad, and then a few more to figure out the swiping motion to move from page to page, but before long he was launching apps and backing out of them when he got bored. The one he went to first, and that held his attention longest, was Disney's "Toy Story" app, an interactive storybook. Keep in mind Everett can't actually read, but he recognized the graphics and logo. The highlighted words and moving pictures delighted him. He wanted more.

Open opportunity
Indeed, the iPad offers the potential for franchise-extension for companies like Disney to a demo they've long been able to reach, but are now able to actually interact with. "The open opportunity is the preschool segment," said Albert Cheng, exec VP-digital at ABC Television Group, who created the acclaimed ABC app for the iPad. Until now, he said, Disney was limited in that it could create media for toddlers, but couldn't actually interact with them.

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"We have always been at arms' length with the mouse or remote control or device that is used to control consumption. Now you just use your finger," he said. Like with most new categories of devices, it takes time to understand how they'll be used. The developers that made the first iPad apps viewed their creations on emulators, a vastly different experience than seeing and interacting with the app on the device itself.

Unsurprisingly, children's publishers are rushing to create iPad-worthy apps and e-book editions. "We are seeing a lot of interest from publishers," said Sheryar Khan, CEO of developer Ubermind. "It's all about taking physical books that are out there today and digitizing them. "

Mr. Khan's thinking is informed by his own at-home experience with the iPad, including what his 2-year-old did when he got his hands on it. "I just handed it to him and he immediately knew how to swipe page to page. He has his favorite apps, he knows where they are and how to use them. I haven't trained him," he said.

Among the devices that the iPad could replace is, of course, the TV itself, which would be as disastrous for the economic model of cable TV as streaming shows on the web. Consumers may be willing to pay once, but are unlikely to pay monthly for many networks now bundled into their cable subscription.

Another hurdle is that installed base of iPads remains small, so expect a lot more souped-up iPhone and iTouch apps for kids than native apps that take advantage of the iPad's size. So far, Nickelodeon has made one iPad app, a "Dora the Explorer" coloring book. The next will be a "SpongeBob" game where kids can design their own levels.

"Our pipeline will have a lot of iPad-specific apps that take advantage of its size," said Steve Youngwood, exec VP-digital, Nickelodeon Kids & Family. "I also see in my own house my son is as happy watching video on this device as he is on TV."

The iPad apps changing kids media

WHO MAKES IT: Opal Ltd. for musician Brian Eno, software designer Peter Chivers
COST: $3.99
WHAT IT DOES: An iPad version of the acclaimed iPhone/iTouch app. Make music with ambient colorful bubbles.

WHO MAKES IT: Nickelodeon
COST: $4.99
WHAT IT DOES: Take an adventure with Dora, coloring in the scenes as you go.

COST: $2.99
WHAT IT DOES: Drag shapes to the palette or choose a brush and start doodling.

COST: $2.99
WHAT IT DOES: Learn to read and write with PBS characters Alpha Pig, Princess Presto, Wonder Red and Super Why.

WHO MAKES IT: Disney Digital Books
COST: Free. "Toy Story 2" costs $8.99
WHAT IT DOES: The 'Toy Story' adventure as a graphical read-along.

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