For children, technology is a natural part of everyday life. The boundaries between what is connected to the internet and what is a traditional toy or gadget is ever more blurred.
Understanding the benefits, costs and data implications of connected toys and wearable gadgets is an important aspect of parenting. While children often quickly understand how these things work, they need guidance on how to use them safely and healthily.
In the last year, these connected toys have offered a way to extend play beyond the home but also underlined the importance of what happens to our (and our children’s) data on these devices.
A new gadget that is increasingly popular, and useful, in the home is smart speakers. These don’t only play music but have built-in voice controls. As well as asking for your favourite song or artists “Play Yellow by Coldplay”, you can also use them as an interface with the internet.
Smart speakers can tell you what the weather is, read you your text messages as well as setting timers. This can be really useful in situations where you don’t want to use your smartphone — when cooking and hands are covered in flour for example. They are also a useful and unobtrusive way for children to interact with online information.
Newer smart speakers will also know when you are home and in the room. This enables them to adjust volume and content appropriately. It also means you can transfer music playing on a smartphone to a speaker by just tapping the phone on the speaker — a feature highlighted in Apple’s Homepod mini.
There are a few different versions you can purchase that offer different systems. Something like an Amazon Echo Dot with Clock will cost about £59.99 and offer a wide range of features based on Amazon’s Alexa service. Or the Apple Homepod (£279) and Homepod mini (£99) will offer better audio quality and use Apple’s Siri audio interface.
Although there were security concerns when these devices first started making their way into homes, you can specify how and when your device listens to you. They also offer robust agreements about what data is stored or shared so that privacy is seen as less of an issue.
Wearable devices such as smartwatches have increased in popularity recently. While adults are drawn to Garmin and Fitbit sport tracking features and the Apple Watch’s intelligent interactions, there are also watches aimed at the children’s market too.
Smartwatches generally extend functionality found in other devices like smartphones and make them available on your child’s wrist. They offer downloadable apps that can perform many of the same tasks on the watch screen as you can on larger devices. But of course, these devices also track our movements and health, so we need a little more caution when choosing these for kids.
Parental controls also work in the same way, with Apple and Google app stores for respective devices having rating systems and strict submission guidelines for apps. However, if you require extra control over the content, it will normally be available to set through the linked smartphone rather than directly on the watch itself.
VTech Kidizoom is a good example. For just £39.99, it lets children take photos and videos with its dual cameras. More playful than grownup smartwatches, the VTech keeps the focus on fun with special effects for picture and games like Monster Detector.
As with other fitness bands or move sensitive technology, smartwatches like this offer games that encourage children to be active. The VTech Kidizoom also offers a motion sensor, pedometer, alarm clock, timer, stopwatch and voice recorder.
Regardless of which smartwatch you go for, it’s worth talking to your child about appropriate behaviour around taking and sharing pictures. Also, some devices track their location and have social media options so these should be set up carefully ahead of handing them over to the child.
It’s worth noting that most smartwatches and activity trackers link to a smartphone or tablet app to configure and present the information they monitor. The information gathered can also be stored remotely in the cloud, allowing the phone or tablet to connect to the internet to access the information. This can mean that if a child doesn’t have access to their own smartphone the features they can use on their smart watch may be more limited.
If you are not comfortable with this information being shared for your child, there are some specific offline options like the Disney-themed Garmin Vivofit Jr. 2.
As artificial intelligence and robot technology has become more affordable, it has been incorporated into a wide range of children’s toys. This not only offers new interactive experience but can also extend the life of more traditional toys with online features.
The Sphero robotic ball is a good example. It’s a ball that can power itself around the room with gyroscopes and motors. It can be played interactively or driven with a related smartphone app.
By lighting up and responding to motion, it offers a range of educational experiences from learning colours and maths to developing a basic understanding of programming. It’s the “Big Track” of the modern era — for those that remember the programmable dump truck from the 80s.
Other examples include Boxer, a programmable intelligent robot with an emphasis on mischief and fun. It can learn different games by driving over special programming cards. Then there’s the build-it-yourself 4ft robot Meccanoid from traditional toy maker Meccanno.
Along with these more obvious robotic toys, this technology is also starting to appear in other products aimed at children. For example, the Anki Overdrive and Real FX cars extend the slot car racing of Scaletrix with cars that have their own artificial intelligence and can be controlled using a tablet or smartphone.
More recently, Lego Vidiyo offers smart minifigures and a video app that enables children to safely create and share novel videos using AR technology. This is a nice, safe way to try out social media with younger children before they have the platforms with fewer controls.
Many of the biggest toys your child will want for their birthdays and Christmas will be filled with technology and may even connect to a smartphone or the internet.
This means that you should be aware of exactly what a toy does before handing it over to your child in order to ensure that it is safe. Recent popular examples have been the My Friend Cayla doll and similar Hello Barbie doll that connects to the internet and can respond to vocal requests for information through search functionality.
The Cozmo and Vector robots from Anki are two more recent examples. These toys focus as much on their ability to create a relationship with your child as any particular technological feature. These are toys with a personality that responds to interactions in great detail and will even notice when your child is watching them or has got bored with the current game.
Other smart toys take intelligence in another direction. Starlink spaceships, for example, can be plugged into a PlayStation, Xbox or Switch controller and then appear in the related game on the screen. This extends the features of older trends like Skylanders or Lego Dimensions by allowing children to reconfigure the modular ships at will, matching their creations instantly on the screen.
One connected toy that is currently very cheap is the DropMix game. This is a fast-paced music-mixing game. You combine loops of well-known music from a wide range of genres by placing physical cards on the DropMix peripheral. Each card you place combines with those already in play to create an automatically synthesised mix. Although it was about £100 when it launched, you can find this for as little as £30 online.
Connected toys offer many benefits because they can extend the play experience over time. But, as mentioned, it’s important you understand the parental settings before handing it over to a child. Specifically, parents should pay attention to how, when and where data is shared from the child’s use of the toy along with any cost implications that go with its use.
Virtual Reality (VR) is a big new trend in gaming. There are a number of options. Although many of these games are aimed at teenagers and older players, there are still some brilliant age-appropriate titles for youngsters as well.
The VR headsets are worn over the eyes and ears and enable children to enter a virtual 3D world that is often, but not exclusively, an interactive game. The headset tracks where the child is looking so it can move the in-game camera responsively.
One example is the Traffic Jams game that is a multiplayer experience. Players work together to direct traffic by using hand gestures to signal the actions of cars, buses and pedestrians. It’s an immersive and challenging way to learn teamwork.
If you are thinking of this technology for your family, it’s best to try out the cheaper, simpler options to see how the children get on. These more basic VR headsets use a smartphone combined with dedicated apps to provide the screen. The phone slots into the front of a headset. Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR are two examples of some of the devices available.
If these prove positive, then you can graduate onto the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR. These each need a powerful computer or PlayStation 4 to connect to but create a much more immersive and interactive experience.
Augmented Reality (AR) offers a similar experience but combines the real world with an overlayed experience that extends (or augments) things in a fantasy direction. This can be as simple as tracking down creatures in your garden or as fantastic as identifying stars in the night sky.
AR is easier to experiment with and often works well by holding up a smartphone screen to the space around you without the need for a headset. A good example is the LEGO AR Studio on iPhones that lets you build Lego train sets, dragons and galleons in virtual space all around you. Another popular and educational experience is the Curiscope AR t-shirt. Virtualitee projects a living breathing body onto the wearer of the shirt. On the app screen, children can learn in great detail about how the muscles, bones, and organs work (provided they or their parents aren’t too squeamish).
Last year, Nintendo launched a toy version of its Mario Kart game, called Mario Kart Live Home Circuit. The game uses Augmented Reality technology, combined with a remote control car. This creates a unique racing experience controlled via the player’s Nintendo Switch while the car is racing around the carpet in the real world. It’s a great game for families, although you have to buy each Kart separately for £74.99, so it can get expensive for lots of players.
Watch this video to see examples of Mario Kart gameplay
Both AR and VR offer educational experiences that can be a great way to engage children in a new topic or offer learners a new way of engaging more deeply.
IoT is the umbrella term that refers to smart washing machines and fridges, smart TVs, cameras that can monitor your house and other devices connected to your home network. Smart appliances and devices connect to the internet, much like your computer, which means that you can control them even when you’re not at home to start your washing cycle or turn on your heating. The idea is that they will eventually be able to talk to each other. However, this is still some way off with a variety of protocols being used by different manufacturers.
The devices under IoT can mostly be controlled via an app on your smartphone, but many require a password, so your child won’t be able to turn the heating up or down without knowing your code.
Smart cameras also fall under the Internet of Things. Several companies offer smart cameras that allow you to remotely monitor what’s going on in various rooms in your house, depending on where they’re situated. The apps used to control them are password-protected, meaning you should still be safe from someone viewing what’s happening in your home without permission.