Dining out with young kids is like taking an aerobics class for the first time: it takes quite a bit of preparation and energy to get there, and when you finally do, the instructor introduces a new move that throws off your coordination, killing any good intention you may have had for wanting to do something good for your body.
So too is dining as a family in public. We find ourselves talking in one-syllable phrases, chasing a child by their back pant loops, or getting up (several times) to avoid their vocals from reaching a high octave. On one such particular night, I couldn't help but notice a family like ours dining so peacefully. In fact, there were no words exchanged, and the mom's hair was intact with no fly-aways. After further inspection in between my kids bobbing and weaving around me, I discovered that their children were both preoccupied with other matters: hand-held video games. I leaned over to my husband and whispered, "We'll never do that with our kids. What's become of family dinner time?" When in secrecy I actually meant, "We can't be out in public until our kids are old enough to play video games while we eat." After all, their utensils were still on the table... and sugar packets untouched and neatly lined in its cup...
Flash forward a year later and with two iPhones now in our household, we... ahem... became one of "those" types of parents.
And while I loathe how technology has taken over so many of our good 'ol fashioned habits -- like writing a letter, or having long telephone conversations instead of speaking in acronyms with text messages -- integrating mobile devices into our lifestyles has actually helped us multitask, accomplish details at our fingertips before they get written down on yet another "to-do" list. So true has it become for our little ones as well. Their motor and cognitive skills are zipping through fun, colorful games that helps them solve puzzles, practice math and literacy skills, and craft their artistic sides too.
There are many wonderful apps available today, and if you can get past the flashing "Buy Full Version Now" banners that stream overhead, start with some free ones. And as with most things, set some guidelines as to when they can play, for how long, and most importantly, which buttons they can not tap on (like email or contacts). I've created a personal "Games" folder just for the kids, and when they ask if they can use my phone, this is the only folder they tap into. I also play the games with the kids first and help them steer from the flashing options (for example, many have the "invite a friend" option) and note where the play buttons are so they can get to their games faster.
ABC Phonics Animals Free Lite - Talking & Spelling Alphabet Flashcards was our first big hit, although this may be attributed to its silly illustrations, loud applause or "Awesome" and "Great Job" quips after each play that seems to boost their confidence to play over and over again. The Animal Match and Flashcards games each have one free level (full versions are $1.99) and helps children pronunciate full words and recognize letters and sounds in a winning "can-do" setting. According to its creators, BrainCounts, this game is appropriate for ages 2+. Other games in this free series include Kids Math Ace Games, 123 Animals Counting, and ABC Phonics Sight Words.
If you have a Picasso to indulge, Doodle Buddy is a great free finger painting app, except there's no mess. Select your background or start with a blank screen, choose different brushes, fun stamps, and let their imaginations soar. Our son loves the sound the stamps make and has rolled on the floor laughing on many occasions. Want to start over? All they have to do is shake the phone (think Etch-a-Sketch).
Our favorite feature is the capability to save it to our camera roll; these are after all, master pieces that must be shared. We like to email the children's doodles to family and friends like digital greeting cards, especially the ones they draw of us! You can also post it on Facebook or earn "Doodle Bucks" to download more tools.
Baby Piano Lite elevates ears of all sizes. This is one piano we don't mind hearing (except in farm mode where the animals bark, moo, quack to the tune). Not only can they compose their own notes, but they can also follow the lighted keys to perform and learn some of our classic favorites.
Love Tetris? Then you'll love this one too. No buttons to press -- just glide the mismatched shapes over to make a giant square. Fit It! is rated for ages 4+, but our 3 year-old quickly figured out the concept. You can't turn the shapes to fit; the challenge is to use what you have as its laid out. The feng-shui calming tune plays in the background, helping them play along to their own soothing thoughts. The only challenge that comes with this app is sharing it. Fun for both adults and kids, it's fun to take turns with the kids and see how we can help each other figure out where that L-shaped piece goes!
Bottomline: the iPhone is like the next best thing (after baby wipes) and, in moderation, embraces a fun new way to educate and entertain our tech-trodden kids. It's intelligent, engaging, and convenient, allowing for the little people in our lives to tap into their own skill sets on big people's gadgets. The all too common wisdom that "kids are a lot smarter than we think" rings true here and debunks the idea that children will become sedentary while playing. On the contrary, they continue to be active, cheering up and down when they get a question right or dancing to their Beethoven tune they are learning to play.
At dinner last Friday, after the white space on our tablecloth disappeared with crayon drawings, we let the kids have our phones while my husband and I enjoyed a mini date to ourselves. And I'm happy to report, we left the restaurant with no sugar packets on the floor this time.
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