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Software designer dad creates computer 'toy' for toddlers

Published: Wednesday, April 2, 2008 | 3:44 PM ET
Canadian Press: Steve Mertl, THE CANADIAN PRESS

VANCOUVER - Ken Kavanagh was a software designer at video-game giant Electronic Arts Canada when he wondered why there were no computer games for his two-year-old son that didn't seem like going to school or aim to turn him into a cold-blooded killer.

To answer that question, Kavanagh took the drastic step of quitting a successful career and - two years and two more kids later - launching "Clicktoy," a simple-looking yet sophisticated computer program designed to amuse toddlers and allow parents some quality playtime with them at the keyboard.

A screenshot from a game called Clicktoy. It shows a virtual meadow populated by cute animals. Kids aged one to five can push buttons on the keyboard to make the animals move, make sounds or interact. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ HO - clicktoy.com.

Kavanagh, who helped design EA's "Sims Online" and "NBA Street" and "FIFA Street" games, was dismayed that most kids' computer games were crudely rendered and seemed designed for adult sensibilities.

"They weren't made for a kid," he says. "Children's toys, like Fisher-Price toys, are super simple, they're sandbox toys, open-ended play, no structure or goal, you just simply play with it."

Young children's toys offer few moving parts and simple stimulation: you press a button, lights flash, sounds play.

"I was not seeing that in software," says Kavanagh. "Invariably it was asking the child to use a mouse, which is a much more complex user interface, certainly not a child's tool."

Kavanagh sat and stared at his computer, especially the keyboard.

"I deconstructed the problem down to: I have 101 buttons. What can I make happen if you make every button do something different?

"The next thing was, what do I want my child to be looking at whenever they're doing anything?"

Kavanagh settled on the most benign thing he could think of: a pond and a meadow populated by bunnies, deer, frogs, cows, butterflies and other animals, each of whom could be made to move and make noise at the push of a button.

"I wanted something pastoral, innocent, wholesome," he says.

Unless you count being the dad of three kids under age five, Kavanagh is no child-behaviour expert and didn't consult one to create "Clicktoy." He used personal observation to guess what might amuse young kids.

Nor does he tout any educational benefits for "Clicktoy." It's not really a game either, he says, because it does not present challenges to overcome or goals to reach.

After it loads, "Clicktoy" opens like a virtual pop-up book and reveals the meadow and pond populated by animals.

Using the keyboard shift keys, children can move through 360 degrees of the meadow environment with two of the bunnies as their guide.

Push a button and a bunny nuzzles a squirrel amid floating love hearts; push another and a butterfly lands on a deer's nose. And so on.

While it seems aimlessly simplistic to an adult, Kavanagh says kids love the fact that they can hit buttons to repeat a action, much the way they like watching the same video over and over.

Early-childhood behaviour expert Hillel Goelman is on the same wavelength as Kavanagh about the need for free-form play but is skeptical about achieving that with a computer.

"What kids really need during those years is manipulation of things in a multi-sensory way," says Goelman, a professor at the University of British Columbia's faculty of education.

That's why they love Play-Doh, Lego blocks, finger paints and sandboxes, he says.

For very young children, even the simplest play is learning, says Goelman. They're "little scientists" who, as the cliche says, can get a new toy but become more fascinated by the box it came in.

"That's their job description when they play, to really explore and experiment," says Goelman.

"But sitting in front of a keyboard and a monitor, they'll have plenty of time to do that when they get older."

Several websites, such as CBC.ca/kidscbc, Sesameworkshop.org and Treehousetv.com, offer free computer games aimed at preschoolers.

Goelman says kids as young as three respond to story-driven programs that allow them to choose what a character does to move the story along.

Kavanagh says "Clicktoy" is good for children aged one and up but admits kids past the age of five might be looking for something more challenging.

He has designed in a feature into "Clicktoy" called ClickSafe, which locks the game onto the screen so a child can't get back to the computer desktop. But "Clicktoy" shouldn't be a babysitter, he stresses.

"Since the game provides no narration I think it's actually a wonderful opportunity to provide it as a parent. We can make up a story about the bunnies visiting their friends."

San Francisco child psychologist Stevanne Auerbach, known as Dr. Toy for the work she does evaluating toys and children's products, has not yet seen Clicktoy but likes its parent-child interactivity.

"I like the many positive innovations that have come from Canada such as Family Pastimes, games that are co-operative and all ages can play together," she said via e-mail.

"Clicktoy" has been available for about a month through Kavanagh's website www.Clicktoy.com, but he hopes to put it into stores.

The Meadow is the first instalment of a trilogy, each priced at $20, Kavanagh says. The Mountain is due out this fall, to be followed by The Sea.

The Canadian Press, 2008

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