January 06, 2008

Looking for fun and safe playgrounds - online

The first time I saw a child-friendly keyboard back in the mid 1990's I thought they were a just a natural evolution of the "My First Sony" tape recorder + microphone that my friend Sara got as a present when we were both 11.

Fast forward 20 years. I’ve got a four-year-old who can spend 90 minutes, on his own, reading stories and playing a virtual xylophone. And I’ve got a two-year-old that is more adept at using a mouse than I was at age 12.

In a world where three-year-olds can’t figure out how to ring up grandma on the phone but have no problem skyping her, shouldn’t we invest more effort in ensuring their online time is quality time?

A recent article from The New York Times (free access, requires login) caught my eye.

“Forget Second Life. The real virtual world gold rush centers on the
grammar-school set.”

An estimate from eMarketer quoted in the article: by the year 2011, 20 million children will be members of a virtual world, up from 8.2 million today.

For now most of these sites have been extensions of old media empires (Walt Disney Co. or my local version, satellite TV’s Arutz Hop) or toy manufacturers (Mattel, Lego - or in my case, Sony)

Hopefully, there will be some real grass-roots efforts here and things will begin to change.

In the meantime, two big barriers to overcome:

1) Trust: I want top quality content for my kids. No ads (covert or otherwise). And safe logins. I can take more risks with myself and my online identity, but really don’t want my kids to be exposed in any way.
2) Money: Kids (or should I say, their parents) are buying online virtual pets at Webkinz (in the picture) or paying up $5,95 a month to dress up and play with online penguins at Club Penguin. But who else out there has a proven business model?

These two factors are, of course, interconnected. Unless they rid themselves of advertising based revenue models, it’s going to be really hard to build a safe, ad-free, educationally rich and well designed (and maintained!) virtual playground.

But this is exactly where web 2.0 grassroots initiatives from enthusiastic parents (and parents-to-be) might pay off.

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