Thursday, December 8, 2011


Lately, some of my Mum friends have tried to sell me on the merits of iPad - not for myself, but as a toy for my 2 year old. The perfect, portable, kid-friendly, multi-dimensional entertainment system, that keeps toddlers quiet at the supermarket, at restaurants, while waiting in line, when Mum is busy with a sibling, or when Mum is exhausted and all out of patience and just does not have it in her to engage, patiently and smilingly, for one more second.

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.


  1. oh dear! I am guilty! Well we don't have an iPad, but I download educational games for my kids to play on my iphone.... I guess I got bored of the toy cars in the handbag....and my kids got sick of sultanas...

    However, I do think your suggestions are interesting (particularly the padlock with keys)and will try them out over the school holidays and see if I can come up with other suggestions :)

    ps. the only way I have succeeded so far in restricting time is "It's Angus's time now Hamish, you go and play on the computer"....

    ps. I think I am a bit lenient as I remember never being allowed to have an Atari or those handheld donkey kong games that all the other kids had in primary school......

    back to the drawing board?

  2. Maybe I am being narrow-minded and overly anxious about the whole iChild phenomenon, but actually I have discovered over time that children seem happier and more fulfilled with more "basic" activities than with technology-heavy ones. I won't pretend that I never turn on the tv or let my kids watch things on YouTube! However, what I've noticed is that my kids are often cranky (or at least a bit whiney) after watching even a short DVD, but if Little Sister (almost 3 years old) spends the same amount of time doing jigsaw puzzles or threading beads she seems happy and energized afterwards. Big Sister (aged 6) has even started choosing other activities (craft, writing in her "diary", etc.) in preference to designated DVD time. Over time, I have come to realize that although at first it feels like a lot of work - too much work - to keep children occupied without much screen time, it gets easier and easier, and children actually like it better that way.

    Good luck facing the school holidays! I really do think we all could consider going "back to the drawing board" - quite literally! - not to mention back to the crayons, the legos, and the toy cars!

    PS: To be honest, the main reason I don't own an iPhone or an iPad is because I don't trust MYSELF to restrict my own use, and not allow myself to email or tweet or Facebook all day long! I think we all find technology a little bit too irresistible, which is why I'm choosing to draw a few lines in the sand...

  3. I couldn't agree with you more. We too have found that watching TV makes our children whiney/argumentative afterwards, and that other activities are a lot more energising. I am not saying my kids don't whine and argue without screen time because they do but TV was an obvious catalyst that was easy to take away. It is now a weekend treat or used when they are totally exhausted. They seem to find much more pleasure in the other games they play which are often "make believe" and they do get very creative in the things that they do. It does often create more work (tidying up herbs and mud from the garden that have found their way into their play kitchen) but it is satisfying to see them playing creatively. My eldest is 6 and he is starting to use the computer occasionally, but I am determined not to buy any PS3 or Nintendo DS etc (let alone an Ipad...) for as long as possible. As for keeping them entertained when out and about - mine are now 3, 4 and 6 and so books, pens and paper, stickers and games like I spy work really well - I have even found conversation works!! I also like to play word games and number games with them varying the difficulty according to age and ability obviously. (What does cat start worth, where do we get milk from, what is 2 add 2 or 22 add 22 etc etc). Computers, TV, video games do have their appeal, but for me they are not as appealing as sports, using the brain, and engaging with others, so I will continue to restrict my children's usage of them as I truly believe it will be better for their ability to think independently, relate well to others, and get passionate about life.

  4. Agreed! With a minor observation...
    A little of everything in moderation...
    When my oldest children (now 21, 18 and 15) were young, it was the dreaded tv that was vilified as the lazy parents fallback.
    Well, it was, I guess, sometimes. But only sometimes...
    The came Playstations, the XBox, the GameCube, the Nintendo (numerous incarnations) and so on. My 5 children have gone through phases of wanting to play with these electronic sources of fun. But never for so very long. We live in the country and they are just as likely to want to go fishing or build a den in the garden as play with the PSP or Wii. In fact, during the summer the electronic gadgets tend to be ignored.
    I had initial pangs of parental angst about the use of electronica and computers etc. But this is the age in which we live. There is great skill involved in mastering the electronic tools - and they will be used at school too.
    We tend to put parenting selves under such stress. Particularly at this time of year. Children are naturally curious and inventive. Probably my greatest revelation was the xmas morning when my then 6 yr old preferred the large cardboard boxes to anything that had come in them...
    Enjoying your blog.

  5. la mujer libre, thanks for taking the time to stop by for a read, and thanks very much for sharing your insightful thoughts. It is great to get a bit of perspective from a parent whose children (five, really? wow!) are older - at the moment, with my kids still quite small, I'm fairly clueless and fearful of the unknown! It's a real relief to hear that, at the end of the day, children seem to find their own balance, and are good judges of what is truly interesting and satisfying.

  6. Giving kids that young electronics is a terrible idea! Both because well hell, if you spend $700 on a gift as a toddler, what will you be buying them at 17? Also what about the wifi electromagnetic fields etc etc that can have serious consequences? They tell us not to let our kids even use a cell phone because of the dangers, what about these things? People just want easy answers, your ideas are much more interesting, educational and healthy!

  7. Mmmmmm okay I think two is too young. However we regularly allow our four year old 'play' with technology. I use it as an additional learning experience for him. But here's the extra catch. My son is diagnosed with high functioning autism. What this means is that he is a high visual learner. So I find that the use of technology actually aids in helping him understand things. My understanding from his therapists is that this will persist and become even moe pronounced as he gets older. The other interesting tidbit that I'll give you is that with government funding that you receive for ASD children, you can buy technology, yes an ipad, that can help them. I'm not sure how that sits with me as I believe the money should go on therapy, but hey, that's another debate for another day. :)

  8. anobservantmind, it sounds like we are on the same page!
    scribeswindow, thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I must admit that I haven't had much experience with autism, but surely what works for a non-autistic child and what works for an autistic child are two completely different things. I would imagine that you just have to play it by ear and do whatever seems to help your son learn and thrive, and that iPad would help you tap into a whole realm that he wouldn't otherwise have access to. All the very best!