Don’t get me wrong - I understand completely why so many people are hooked on iPad-As-Talented-Babysitter. I sympathize absolutely and wholeheartedly with the desire for a quick and easy fix when you’re struggling to entertain your kids, and I don’t deny that iPad certainly does deliver.
This doesn’t mean I agree that giving iPads to small children is a good idea. Not only do I disagree, but in the privacy of my own mind I disagree with a passion that surprises me. Here’s why:
- It’s not a Magna Doodle. It’s a several-hundred-euro piece of high-tech machinery. It’s a bit much to rely on a 2 year old to be consistently “gentle” and “careful”. I would prefer not to see several hundred euros hurled at the floor or drowned in the toilet.
- iPad may be more interactive than a DVD, but it’s still “screen time”, and very attractive screen time at that. How easy is it, really, to restrict a child’s use of this fascinating toy to isolated 10- or 20-minute periods? How quickly does that screen time stretch into an hour or more? Many of us (myself included) often turn a deaf ear to experts' warnings about screen time. It seems like such a lot of work - too much work - to keep children occupied without DVDs or iPads. But I've realised over time that, ironically, those wonderful pockets of silence tend to come at a surprisingly high price. Periods of DVD-watching seem to make my children tired, irritable and difficult. The same amount of time spent on craft, puzzles, book-reading, or drawing seems to make them happy and energized. I know which result I prefer.
- iPad is easy for small children to use, and that worries me. The whole idea of things like crayons, puzzles, Duplo, etc., is that they seem simple, but are in fact highly challenging to small children. Trying and trying and finally managing to draw a circle, stick together two legos, or similar, children feel immensely satisfied, not to mention builds their dexterity and intelligence at a rate of knots.
- Small children need and want other human beings (preferably parents) to play with them, or at least to be a nearby, comforting presence who is ready to engage as needed. iPad doesn’t give them this.
I know that many (or most) mums are exhausted, strung out, and operating way beyond the limits of their own resources, and I don’t want to take away their coping mechanisms. At the same time, I know that deep down it’s not just me who senses, uneasily and perhaps without knowing exactly why, that iPads are not the right answer to our stressed-parent dreams.
“All right, Smug Annoying Parent”, I can hear you thinking. “What’s your answer, then? What do I do with my toddler or preschooler when I’m waiting in a 30-minute queue at the post office or at a doctor’s office? Or when we’re eating lunch at a restaurant and I’d like to enjoy even a few minutes’ quiet conversation with my adult friends? Or when we are at Older Sibling’s gym/ballet/music lesson and I have to keep Younger Sibling quiet and entertained in a restricted space?”
I am ready to put my money where my mouth is on this one. Here are a few ideas (personally tried and tested on my own children):
Low-tech, highly portable ways to keep your 2- or 3- year old quietly and happily amused in a small space:
- Plain white paper and crayons
- A 20-piece jigsaw puzzle (kept in a ziplock bag)
- One or more mandarins (make the child peel them by him or herself!)
- A pack of raisins
- A sheet of cheap stickers and paper to stick them onto
- A padlock and keys (try a few different-sized padlocks for added challenge)
- 10 Duplo lego squares and a few lego men/animals
- Maisy Mouse or other compact & light paperback picture books (I like to entertain myself by reading Maisy to my kids in a shockingly terrible imitation of Neil Morrissey)
- A pack of cards (preferably kids’ “memory” or “match” cards) for playing snap or the memory game
- One of those laminated cards with sticky plastic pictures that can be repeatedly stuck on and re-used (airlines often give them out)
- Shoelace-sewing cards, if your child can manage these
- Finger puppets
- I am sure you have lots of other ideas – please share them in the comments section!
I have a small bag pre-packed with several of these items. I’ve found that, on a good day, the first three alone can be enough to last the entire hour of Big Sister’s kung fu class. Obviously, some of these require more adult assistance than others, at least initially, but it’s worth putting in that upfront effort, since often once small children get the hang of something they will happily and proudly and do the same thing all by themselves, over and over again (e.g. my almost-3 year old, having mastered a particular jigsaw puzzle, will usually pull it apart again and re-do it, quietly and with great satisfaction, even 4 or 5 times in a row!)
We CAN keep our children happy and occupied, AND do it without going crazy, AND without relying on iPad. Steve Jobs was a genius and a visionary, but I respectfully decline his help in looking after my children.