The Great Screen-Time Tug-of-War

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympi...

Tug of war contested at the 1904 Summer Olympics. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The screentime tug-of-war is, I’m sure, a very very common sport in households today. Technology offers us ever more brilliant and enthralling ways to entertain and educate ourselves, and the desire for knowledge is a good thing, right? And yet, and yet, many parents harbour great anxiety about the slippery slope of screen time.*

Steve Almond has written a great piece on this for the New York Times: My Kids Are Obsessed With Technology, And It’s All My Fault. More


Real Books Printed on Paper Still Hold a Place in the Nursery

Well this is encouraging. I’ve jumped into the virtual world of gadgets for an awful lot of things, but I still can’t let go of real books, especially not for reading with kids. And now there’s a study that finds a whole lot of other parents feel the same way I do.

(I particularly like the Dad who says he reads paper books so his kids will know that he’s reading and not just updating his facebook!)


A real big colourful picture book still delivers a bigger sensory punch than the same thing on a screen. Imagine a very young toddler gazing at the pictures, flipping pages, holding the book and turning it all around to admire it, even gnawing a little on the corner… All good exploratory fun and vital in forming a concept in their minds of what a book is.

At that age all those lovely board books are actually toys, sensory toys! Especially pop-up books. A screen can’t deliver that kind of excitement!

Not to mention the thrill of walking into a library, with shelves and shelves and shelves of books. Even the tiny library my home town had simply filled me with awe at the vastness of its reserves. I don’t think scrolling through an ebook catalogue will ever give you that feeling.

It’s just nice to go out in the world and encounter books there.

Top App Pick: DIY for Infectious Creativity

Mind-numbing time-waster games may seem to rule the world of apps, but we’ve been discovering other more productive things to do with our beloved devices…


DIY : Build. Make. Hack. Grow.

Number one with a bullet! We just love DIY. It’s an app but you don’t have to have an iPhone or iPad because they also have a fully functional website as well. Your child registers and fulfills projects (uploading photos of their work) to earn virtual skills badges. You can also watch tutorial videos, or just browse and look at other kids’ projects. Privacy is protected, kids are not supposed to use their real names or upload photos of themselves – they can pick their own animal avatar for their account (see below). As a parent, you register as well, so every time they upload you get a notification via email.


The Skill Badges are varied and intriguing. Animator, Astronomer, Baker, Beekeeper, Bike Mechanic, Biologist are just the first few on the lengthy list. The projects under each topic are well thought out – there are things that kids as young as 5 or 6 can do, but also more complex ones that should challenge teenagers.


DIY is entirely free*, and is mediated by some really great people. They post videos of their work too, the animation and special effects ones I’ve watched are amazing. They also leave encouraging comments from time to time on the kids’ projects, which was really exciting for my daughter.

(Another aspect I really liked was that the kids comment on each other’s work, and their comments are always complimentary and sweet. I don’t know whether the comments are heavily moderated or kids are just much nicer than grownups, but it’s a nice change from the awful trolling that so-called adults engage in.)

“Social networks today are about what you like, not what you do,” said Isaiah Saxon, a DIY founder and its Chief Creative Officer. “We want to create an experience for children that’s about what you make, and in turn makes these skills heroic.” (from New York Times article by Nick Bilton)

And just when I thought I couldn’t love them any more, they post a new project on how to build a Solar Theremin! These people are way too cool.

There’s something to interest everyone at DIY. My daughter’s been coming back to it again and again over the last three months: from snow forts to sewing to stop-motion animation to making stew. DIY has become my #1 suggestion for what to do on rainy days – I can’t recommend it highly enough!

* DIY is currently free, but in the New York Times interview the founders say they might start charging a small fee to join in the future

Oh Those Devices! Gentle Play Apps for the Very Young

I’m betting an awful lot of kids out there received some fancy gadget or another under the Christmas tree. If you’re looking for suggestions about what apps to put on them, Commonsense Media has posted this helpful list of educational apps, listed by device (iPad, iPhone, Android Tablet, Android Phone, Kindle Fire) and then by age.

In our house we’re marking our first anniversary of iPhone / iPad fun. We’ve done a few of the blockbuster competitive games – the ones that focus on working ever upward in difficulty, unlocking new levels, earning points or virtual cash, and always trying for a new high score – but I’ve never been too keen on games that are designed to get you addictively playing them for hours on end. I love the more calming apps, ones that don’t score, don’t have a timer clicking down, and don’t whip kids into a frenzy at bedtime. (or ever)

My favourite discoveries of the past year have been the non-competitive, more creative apps. Here are a few of the ones we have enjoyed… (iPhone/iPad apps)

Toca Hair Salon (Toca Boca)

Toca Hair Salon

Mick (Toca Tailor Fairy Tales)

Toca Tailor Fairy Tales

TOCA BOCA games!

There are lots of them, and they are all way cool. The design is unusual, the characters are funny and appealing, the activities are creative, gentle and non-competitive. (What a nice break from the majority of game apps!)

Some Toca Boca apps, like House, Store, and Tea Party, are designed for preschoolers, with age appropriate activities – simply moving items back and forth to accomplish simple tasks. I particularly like the House one, because it’s all about housecleaning!

Kitchen (Toca House by Toca Boca)

Toca House

Toca Robot Lab (Toca Boca)

Toca Robot Lab

The Hair Salon, Tailor, Robot Lab, and others are aimed at slightly older kids, maybe 5 – 8 year olds, but they are quirky enough to appeal to even older kids and simple enough to entrance the preschoolers as well. These are All-Ages Apps!

In our house Toca Hair Salon has been a particularly enduring favourite with my six-year-old, especially now since they’ve put out a new edition (Hair Salon 2). And I am particularly thankful to this app for diverting her from those dreadful beauty salon apps in which you put makeup on glassy-eyed, Barbie-like supermodels. Oorg.

Toca Tailor also deserves a special mention because it includes the intoxicating possibilities of taking a photograph of a fabric, texture, background, or person, and using it to create your clothing designs. (My daughter became entranced with taking a photo of the girl wearing a photo of herself wearing a photo of herself wearing a… )

(Check out Toca games here.)

My Playhome

My Playhome

This one is not a Toca game, but also great for preschoolers: My PlayHome – A simple playhouse where you move family members and objects around a house. Simple but compelling, and again, a gentle, stress-free app.

Future posts to come: art apps, music apps, math apps, science apps… I don’t presume to review every app out there, but whenever we come across a great one, I will certainly let you know!

Related RKOB Posts

The Land of Apps

More on Gadgetry

Websites and Apps for Kids – Recommendations

Websites and Apps for Kids – Recommendations

Here’s a grab bag of recommended sites for the technologically inclined parent and child.

ALA Recommendations

Some really interesting sites here on the American Library Association recommended websites for kids.

Commonsense Media

The Commonsense Media site covers a lot of ground, but I’ve just been checking out (and appreciating) its great listing of apps, complete with reviews, that is searchable by genre, age level, etc. Get the low-down on some of those ultra-popular games and find out if they are really age appropriate for your child…

Khan Academy

Math Topics, Grade 1 to Adult – Here’s one that a friend recommended for math practice, with topics well organized, and linked so you can do them in a logical order.  From the main page, click on Practice and you will see this chart of topics.  (Site also has videos on many topics for adults as well. As the website says, its goal is to provide a “A free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”)

Poisson Rouge

Preschool and up, all topics –  I’ve never plugged this website on this blog (that I can remember), but it’s been my favourite of the many we’ve checked out since my daughter first went online. Poisson Rouge is a non-profit educational site that is beautifully intuitive to navigate, has alphabets and vocabulary in several languages, as well as all kinds of learning games and entertaining animations and puzzles. I always loved it because she didn’t have to know how to read to explore it, and there are tons of surprises and oddities woven into the site. The games are lovely and stress-free (no points to earn, no high scores, no obsessive replaying). PLUS the art, music, and sound effects are beautiful and well-done. There’s something interesting here for any age of child. Some website games really wind kids up – I find this site to be more hypnotically transfixing…

Peep and the Big Wide World

Preschool Science and Math – If you’ve seen this PBS show you’ll know it covers basic science topics for the very young and inquisitive. The site has very simple games and is quite entertaining.

More on Gadgetry…

Further to my last post about the iPhone, here’s an interesting article from Commonsense Media: “My Kids’ First iPad”. It’s written from the point of view of parents who are “early adopters” of media, and you can follow links to lots of app recommendations, etc.

I do see one good comment below the article though, about the speed with which content is presented, which concerns me as well. The commenter advises computers be used alongside traditional reading material, which encourages kids to slow down and develop longer attention spans.

In general, is a great resource for all tech subjects in relation to raising kids – if you have teenagers for example, and are concerned about social media and privacy, or cyberbullying, or appropriate content controls, they are always posting advice and information on those topics.

Farewell Britannica – End of Empire

In an inevitable yet still somewhat shocking move, Encyclopedia Britannica has announced that they will no longer be issuing their encyclopedia in book form.

I don’t have any fond memories of leafing through the actual Britannica as a child – our shelves were inhabited by the more prosaic World Book Encyclopedia…


The Land of Apps

It is with no small sense of shame that I bring up the newest Amazement in our home: the iPhone. Shame because even as I try desperately to limit our ‘screen time’, both my daughter and I are drawn to the iPhone like moths to a flame. And shame because I do not want to turn this blog into some kind of plug for Apple products.

I am NOT telling you to buy one of these!

However… I know there are a lot of people out there getting these thingy-gadgets and I found this useful: a list of highly rated and mostly educational apps for little ones, c/o Savvy Mom.

As long as I set time limits (for both of us!), I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little fun time on the computer/tablet/phone. And I can see how a smart phone could really save the day in the case of delayed flights, long car rides, or endless waiting room waits.

If you’d rather not open the Pandora’s Box that is the App Store, remember that even the free basics you get with the phone can be highly entertaining for preschoolers. The Calculator is fun for kids intrigued and awed by numbers, and the Compass is perfect for treasure hunts! The Camera and Voice Memos are good for hours of giddy enjoyment! The Clock has a stopwatch feature, and Weather allows you to look up conditions anywhere in the world!

I can see the exclamation points sneaking in so it’s time to stop. Don’t worry, this blog is not about to turn into a tech geek blog – there are many, many, many others more knowledgeable than I about these matters, but I will pass along any useful lists or tips I come across.

All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.