Toddler tech toys 101

You can’t walk down a supermarket aisle today without seeing at least one toddler clutching mommy or daddy’s smartphone. But while very young children don’t need phones, a few just-for-kids tech toys can help children feel connected and round out their pretend play toy box. 

Learning Stages

By Candace Lindemann

Children's Author & Education Consultant

Candace Lindemann is a published children’s writer and educational consultant. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.Ed. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You can also find Candace blogging at While Candace’s degrees prepared her for a career in education, she’s found that the best preparation for parenting is on-the-job training.

Confession time: I've let my almost 2-year-old play with my iPhone to keep him calm while waiting in line. And I've downloaded a few educational games for my almost 4-year-old daughter. Although I completely agree that learning to wait patiently is an important life skill, there are times when our society is just not set up for small children, or I did not or could not plan ahead, or the crayons and books are just not working.

One time, I handed my son my phone while I changed a diaper, to distract him from practicing the wrestling moves toddlers seem to employ to maximize the mess. Later, I had to explain to my friends that I hadn't updated my Facebook status with "YURGHKN" because I was frustrated but rather that my toddler had managed to get onto the application, type in a few keys, and hit update all without me realizing it.

While we were waiting for the fireworks to start on July 4th weekend, I even let them make fireworks with a touch-screen application. But when the real fireworks appeared, we put away the phone and enjoyed the experience.

Although as a parent and an educator I wholeheartedly agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation of "no screen time under age two" and limited screen time after that, I am no Luddite.

The majority of a young child's time should be spent interacting with other people, enjoying nature, and playing with open-ended toys. Under two, children learn best from human interaction, including speaking, reading, and singing. Older children, however, can benefit from some well-designed educational programming. Even for toddlers, I do not think there is anything wrong with having a few quality electronic interactive toys as part of your pretend play toy box. Desiree Spence pointed out on LeapFrog’s Facebook page: "For those worried about pushing tech devices on's a 'pretend' computer. It's not like you're asking them to write software. If your kid likes to pretend to use your computer why not give them a tool more age appropriate? Was buying my son a work bench pushing him to be a, it helps him pretend to do things he feels like doing."

Kids have always wanted to play with pretend keys, telephones, hair dryers, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, whatever they see their parents modeling. I rely on the computer for my work as an educational consultant and freelance writer. I try to limit my screen time to when the kids are asleep or supervised by other adults—I do not watch any television during the day and I try to work during my toddler's nap. Still, there are times when I need to finish a deadline, or print out directions to a local children's event, or check the weather before we head to the beach. Technology allows me to stay at home with my children and actually facilitates our quality time together. Even if kids only see you on the computer for 30 minutes a day, they pick up on the allure very quickly. After all, it has lights, buttons, and sounds—and it sure got your attention!

Young children are digital natives and do not need to be explicitly taught technology—just hand an iPhone to any toddler and watch how quickly they figure it out. (They do, however, need to be taught responsible use of technology.) Rather, these toys are props for the rich imaginative life of your child.

Just like the toy technology of my childhood, rotary pretend phones that allowed me to "call Grandma" or listen to animal sounds, pretend tech toys add fundamental toddler and preschooler skills, like the alphabet and animal recognition. Technology may not be necessary for learning these skills but it can be a fun addition to your child's learning tools in moderation—especially if you find yourself on a long line or a lengthy road trip.

Ultimately, it is not a question of whether or not your children will encounter technology but rather how and when. As the parents, the answers to those questions are up to us.