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’Lapware’ introduces babies to computers

By Julie Moran Alterio

(Original publication: August 28, 2006)

I have a houseload of colorful plastic toys, stuffed animals and peekaboo storybooks – but there’s one toy my daughter is absolutely convinced is the most fun: my PC. Why else would I spend hours every day playing with it?

Since I’m not ready to banish my baby from my lap, I needed a way to share my PC without letting her busy fingers delete or rename my files. That’s why I discovered baby software.

Nicknamed “lapware” because the parent holds the child while he or she plays, baby software lets the tiniest tots whack away at the keyboard without destroying any data.

Tim Leverett, creator of Giggles Computer Funtime For Baby, which is designed for children ages 6 months to 2 years old, said the software rewards babies for doing what comes naturally by responding with a variety of sounds and dancing shapes whenever they touch the keys.

“It teaches them cause and effect. It’s one of that things that’s important for babies to learn, and they do learn it with this software,” he said.

And unlike software for preschoolers that aims to teach reading or other complex skills, Giggles is meant to be simple fun.

“It makes them laugh and have fun. You don’t have to be learning a foreign language every minute of the day at 6 months old,” Leverett said.

Lapware isn’t a substitute for play between parent and child. “It’s not intended to be a babysitter, like a video. We discourage that and encourage the opposite,” he said.

Leverett said he decided not to include a voiceover to announce the shapes and colors on the screen, although it would have been easy to do. “We want the parent to say the shape and name the color. We want it to be an interactive activity.”

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under age 2 avoid TV and computer screens, the goal can be be unrealistic in practice, said New Jersey educational psychologist Warren Buckleitner, editor of the Children’s Technology Review and adviser to Yonkers-based Consumer Union’s Consumer WebWatch project.

“We have TVs, DVD, telephones, cell phones and PCs. They fill the lives both of us and our children. They are part of the ecology of growing up,” he said.

Even so, Buckleitner said he tends to be leery of technology for babies and toddlers because too often the child is a passive observer of the action.

When he first saw Giggles at a toy fair in New York this spring, he feared it would fall into the same trap.

“I fully expected not to like it, but by the time I was done, I liked it. It passed the test of letting the child control a lot of things,” he said. “Giggles is a good thing to start with. It’s guilt-free technology.”

The software is well tuned to the capabilities of the very young, he said.

“The thing about babies and toddlers is that developmentally they are at a very sensory-motor period, so they learn the best by touching, mouthing and banging,” Buckleitner said.

Buckleitner also likes that Leverett doesn’t promise Giggles will turn your baby into a genius.

“Mozart or Einstein doesn’t appear on the packaging. They are doing ethical marketing,” he said.

It’s not until age 2 and a half or so that children begin to benefit from educational software that attempts to teach a skill, Buckleitner said.

Anne Reeks, a contributing editor for Parenting magazine who writes about children’s technology issues, is not a fan of lapware for children under 2.

“I thought the images, spinning shapes and so on in Giggles were charming, but I did not like the press-any-key randomness. In my opinion, it makes no sense to convey the notion, even to a baby, that that’s the way things work with a computer – an expensive machine that is a tool, not a toy," she said.

“On the other hand,” she said. “I love the concept of lapware when it means introducing young children (who are 2 to 3) to computers and software while in mom’s lap.”

The vast majority of software is designed for older toddlers and preschoolers.

The Children’s Technology Review database has more than 7,000 reviews, but Buckleitner said that since 1995, he’s found just 137 products marketed to babies. Giggles, released in November 2005, is one of the newest.

The first in the Giggles series is “Shapes.” Leverett, who started a company called Leveractive to market Giggles, plans to release nine more titles, with “Farm Animal Friends” due out Sept. 1.

Leverett, who lives in a Rochester suburb, got the idea for Giggles when his 4-year-old son T.J. was 10 months old and eager to take a turn on the computer.

He tapped his background in interactive media to write the software. “It had to lock out the computer completely and allow them to hit any key at all. That’s actually more difficult than it sounds because that includes the escape key and the Windows key,” he said.

Giggles, which is available for Windows and the Mac, has won four toy industry awards, including an Editor’s Choice nod from Buckleitner’s Children’s Technology Review.

Leverett said Leveractive has sold about 10,000 copies of Giggles so far through Amazon.com, the Apple Store, Best Buy and educational Web sites.

One of the longest-selling titles in the category of lapware is “JumpStart Baby,” released in 1999, which features colorful animation and lessons in cause and effect.

“We see this as conversational play between mom, dad and the baby,” said Leslie House, senior vice president of the development group at Knowledge Adventure, maker of the JumpStart series.

Unlike other JumpStart titles for older kids, the baby software has very simple graphics and music without much orchestration. “It provides stimulus in a babylike way. It’s not fast,” she said. “When you hit the keyboard, you see something fairly direct and broad.”

It also has modest goals for learning. “We don’t believe that at 1 year old, you are going to be preparing a child for the SAT,” she said.

In addition to commercial products, parents can also find baby shareware and freeware to download from the Web.

AlphaBaby, a free download for the Mac, was created by Boston area software engineer Laura Dickey, who worked at Hewlett-Packard until she became a full-time mom when her son was born 6 years ago.

Like Giggles and JumpStart Baby, AlphaBaby takes over the computer screen and responds to baby’s taps on the keys with sounds and colorful shapes and numbers.

“It’s designed for infants to have a safe, fun and interactive experience with their computer,” Dickey said.

Macworld magazine gave the software four out of five mice in a review. More than 8,300 people have downloaded AlphaBaby from the VersionTracker Web site alone, Dickey said.

Over the years, she has added features in response to letters from parents, including tools to change the look and sound of the program.

The software is integrated with iPhoto, so it’s easy to choose family photos to pop up when baby hits the keys. Parents can also record sounds that can correspond with particular pictures. Dickey’s son – the “beta tester” for the software – likes trucks, so she found clip art of truck pictures for her own computer.

“It’s easy to customize so parents can show photos and make it a personal experience,” she said.

From my daughter’s perspective, the best feature all the baby software shares is how easy it makes it for mom to put aside work for a moment and hoist her into my lap for a go at the keyboard.

And, for me, I’m glad I don’t have to worry about any of my files being renamed xxlkdjfklajd890-ou24[78.

Reach Julie Moran Alterio at jalterio@lohud.com

Copyright 2006 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper serving Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties in New York. Use of this site signifies your agreement to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, updated June 7, 2005.

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