Computer Companies Give Birth To 'Lapware' for Babies

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Computer programs designed for the diaper set—including infants as young as 9 months old—are carving out a niche in the nation's flourishing educational software market.

Known as "lapware," these new software programs enable a baby seated on a caregiver's lap to bang away at a keyboard or move a mouse while watching on-screen images and listening to computer-generated songs.

Manufacturers are billing the products—which have developed into a multimillion-dollar business— as a great way for parents to bond and interact with their young children. They say the programs also tap into infants' desires to mimic other household members who use computers.

"Kids are just going to jump up there and go to town," said Bernard Camarao, an associate brand manager in charge of marketing Reader Rabbit Playtime for Baby, a software title by Mattel Interactive. "This software gives them something that's age-appropriate and that they can benefit from."

But this image of "plugged-in" infants has stirred some controversy in the field of early education.

"I think it's a pretty grim picture," said Jane M. Healy, the author of the 1999 book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children and What We Can Do About It. Ms. Healy, who believes children should not use computers until age 7, said she has heard that babies are being strapped into infant seats and put in front of the computer. "If you have time to hold a child on your lap, you should be playing with them, reading with them, dancing with them, and laughing with them," she said.

Another Toy?

Still, not all early-childhood experts feel as strongly about lapware as Ms. Healy does. Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist with Zero to Three, a Washington-based advocacy organization, said that while she does not believe the software is necessary, limited interaction with it is acceptable.

"I think it is another toy, and it is a toy that has limitations because it is so stimulating that a child doesn't have to do a lot to be engaged with it," she said.

In most of these programs, babies randomly hit the keyboard to cause bubbles to pop or musical instruments to play. When babies play with a real jack-in-the- box, by contrast, they have to figure out how to place the box and how to turn the crank, Ms. Lerner pointed out. "That actually requires much more work on the part of the child," she said.

Considering the fervor surrounding recent brain research indicating that a vast amount of learning and development occurs in the first years of a child's life, the introduction of lapware into the software arena is no surprise. And given the tremendous success of computer programs targeted at preschoolers, the move to expand the target age range made sense to software manufacturers.

Ten years ago, the typical educational software product was most appropriate for children between the ages of 7 and 12, according to Ann Stephens, the chief executive officer of PC Data, a Reston, Va.-based market-research firm. Since then, the age range has crept lower and lower. In 1999, sales of software labeled as appropriate for preschool children—ages 3 to 6—totaled $309 million, Ms. Stephens said.

Lapware was introduced in 1998 with JumpStart Baby, a title produced by Knowledge Adventure, a software developer based in Torrance, Calif.

"Every time they went backward, it kept selling," Ms. Stephens said of the software developers. "There really isn't a whole lot further you can go: JumpStart Fetus?"

Though not as popular as preschool software, lapware sales are holding steady, with annual sales of $16.2 million in both 1998 and 1999. But only about eight titles are on the market, compared with the far larger number of programs aimed at preschoolers, Ms. Stephens said. The software for both age groups tends to cost between $20 and $30 per title.

"The baby market is a very niche-oriented market," said Mr. Camarao of Mattel Interactive. "It has met our expectation, but I think there is a lot of room for the market to grow."

According to PC Data, 770,000 copies of software programs for babies were sold last year alone.

Naturally, software marketers hope those sales will foster brand loyalty as parents enter the market for the various companies' series of programs geared to successively older children, starting with toddlers.

JumpStart Baby, for example, is now the first program in a line of software that uses interactive games to teach academic skills, both with grade-specific titles like JumpStart Fifth Grade and programs geared to skills such as Spanish and typing. The Reader Rabbit line also aims to teach academic skills to children up to 3rd grade through interactive games and puzzles using the same rabbit character in each program.

"Our hope is that once they experience Reader Rabbit at that young age, they will continue through the line," said Mr. Camarao.

Cause and Effect

Though developers of the software say that the programs are not designed to push children developmentally, their names suggest otherwise.

Packaging for JumpStart Baby proclaims, "There is no stopping a kid with a JumpStart!" And the Reader Rabbit software line hints at early literacy. The program's introductory video informs parents that the software can enhance literacy and creativity skills, as well as children's social, emotional, and physical development.

The video also promotes computers as a way for parents to interact with their babies, and warns parents that their young children may not be ready for the program. But if they are not, it says, babies develop so quickly that they may be ready to play a program a few days or weeks down the road.

"We tried to create an environment which would grow with them," said Toby Levenson, the manager of education design for Mattel Interactive, who helped develop the Reader Rabbit program for babies.

Ms. Levenson said she researched developmental milestones, read up on infant learning, visited playgroups to watch children and parents interact, and conducted extensive testing of the program before it was released—all in an effort to make it developmentally appropriate. "One of the things that we found from our research was that everything should have a reaction," she said. That is why the child can move the mouse or randomly use the keyboard to work the program.

Each title offers something a little different. Both the Reader Rabbit lapware title and Sesame Street: Baby and Me, also produced by Mattel Interactive, allow parents to integrate family photographs and voices into the program. In the Sesame Street program, the photos pop up during an art gallery tour given by Elmo, the popular Muppet character from the "Sesame Street" public-television show.

And JumpStart Baby gives parents ideas on how to interact with their babies away from the computer. Makers of that product have even developed a specially designed mouse for babies to bang.

Real-World Learning

The bright colors, catchy music, and large images can be very engrossing for babies, potentially tempting parents and caregivers to let them use the computer for prolonged periods of time, experts say. But doing so can cut down on the time the child spends interacting with an adult, they warn, which could hinder the child's social and emotional development.

"I think it is limiting their opportunity to develop some critical skills they need to be successful in school," said Ms. Lerner of Zero to Three. Getting along with other people, self-control, and curiosity arise in the context of relationships with other people, she noted. "That is why real-world learning is so important and can never be replaced by a computer," she said.

Neil Postman, the chairman of the culture and communications department at New York University and the author of books on childhood and technology, compared lapware to products that claim to teach children to read while in the womb.

"A child of 9 months has many things to learn. For example, walking. And a few months after that, he has to learn talking and sleeping," he said. "What's the rush?"

Vol. 19, Issue 35, Page 5

Published in Print: May 10, 2000, as Computer Companies Give Birth To 'Lapware' for Babies
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