The Kid-Friendly Tablet — LeapFrog’s LeapPad

Reading Time: 19 minutes

One of those futuristic devices that I so wish existed today is A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — if you’re not familiar with it, go grab a copy of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, one of my favorites of his stories, and start reading. Although it’s mainly used as a plot device, the primer really stole the show for me as I pondered what it would take to create something like it in the real world.

The primer responds to its user’s needs — when the book falls into the hands of young Nell, an uneducated girl from the the slums, the book’s programming immediately begins to assess the girl’s intelligence and understanding of the world by asking questions, telling simple fairy tales, and frequently taking tangents in mid-discussion. During a tale, for example, if the book speaks aloud The dragon attacked the caravan with its fiery breath, Nell would likely ask What’s a caravan? The primer would immediately open up a new discussion, often with a video or picture, that would talk about the word caravan, its definition, often its derivation, and maybe offer up some synonyms or alternatives. Would you like to see a real caravan in action? the book would ask, and then proceed if Nell responded in the affirmative. The book would end up teaching math, science, languages, and much more… all by taking the lead from Nell and directing the learning based on the young girl’s interests and where her education was lacking. Much like the Internet uses hyperlinks to detour us during our browsing, the primer provides Nell, over many years, with a substantial education.

In addition to Nell’s experience with the primer, there are multiple back stories, including how the primer obtains voices from online actors hired on-demand to flesh out the stories and give Nell a mixture of real-time discussions that the primer can’t always provide.

The primer is, again, nothing but a plot device. But can you imagine how a device like that might change the educational landscape? Many schools are allowing students to work at their own pace, to discover things on their own at a speed that works for them. And the Internet, of course, is nothing but a seemingly infinite source of information (and much of it dangerous to young minds). Our mobile phones allow kids to play games and watch videos — and we, as parents, are both amazed and shocked at how easily they take to new technology and how focused they can get with it.

When the iPad first made its appearance in my home, it didn’t take more than a few days before my (then) 3 year old son, Decker, started grabbing it from me and swiping his finger to watch the apps move left or right. He figured out instantly that touching an app would open it… and he had no worries about touching every button that appeared. I’ve watched this curiosity serve Decker well as he’s discovered Easter Eggs in many of the games we play together (like many of the unseen Golden Eggs in Angry Birds). A recent app he’s been playing called Hickory Dickory Dock continues to provide entertainment as he uncovers new secrets — one of the mini-games requires you to add a series of weights to a scale to lift a glass jar off of a piece of cheese… when you do so, the mouse comes out to eat the cheese. Nice. But Decker yelled out to me the other day to come take a look — he’d figured out that removing the weights while the mouse ate the cheese would cause a funny animation of the mouse getting caught in the jar, like a mime stuck behind invisible walls. I’m not sure if I would ever have continued with the app to uncover that little bit of humor, but Decker found it quite easily. And it’s not just the game apps! He learned his lowercase alphabet and their sounds in less than a week with one $0.99 app — I was blown away. He likes to watch educational videos on the iPad and will watch some of them (such as the counting videos) over and over until he understands the concepts. It’s like a pseudo-primer without the guiding hand of the artificial intelligence — Decker must choose what he wants to learn and there’s really no jumping away from (or out of) an app and then coming back to pick up where he left off. For now, the iPad is about the closest thing I can imagine to the fictional primer.

But the iPad has some definite problems (at least for me) when it comes to my child. First, I do like to use my own iPad, so sharing has become real issue at times. Playing it too much has also been an issue that has forced me to limit his time with the tablet quite a bit. And let’s not forget that this is a $600+ device that’s not going to survive the type of drop my 4 year old tends to frequent on cups, books, toys, and food.

Lately there’s also been a frustration issue with Decker as he’s hitting the wall when it comes to the advanced rules and strategies of some of the games that grab his attention. He’s smacked the screen in anger because of a too-tough level on Angry Birds or similar games. He understands the game mechanics, but he doesn’t have the problem-solving skills required.

My iPad doesn’t tell him when the battery is getting low (I’ve tried to explain the battery icon) so he gets upset when I forget to charge it and it stops working. (He’s gotten better – he knows to see if the battery number is less than 15 and to bring the tablet to me when it hits 10.)

For many apps, he’s not got the coordination to tap the smaller buttons. I don’t have a stylus for my iPad, so he’s limited to using his fingers, causing him distress at times when he wants to color something but keeps drifting outside the lines or can’t quite get the color inside a smaller border.

All of these issues will be resolved with age, but I can see the stress the iPad places on him at times when his desire to do something isn’t matched by his logic, his coordination, or his patience. I’ve been limiting him more and more on the iPad, but a few weeks back I heard that LeapFrog was going to be offering up their version of a tablet called the LeapPad. I wondered how Decker might react to something that was geared more to his age and, more importantly, how he would respond to something quite different in size, shape, and appearance to the iPad. LeapFrog graciously offered Decker the chance to take the LeapPad for a spin, and what I’m going to do here is simply give you some basics about the device and then tell you about Decker’s experiences that I’ve observed. Let’s start with the device itself.

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