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Yibu blocks and app. Image credit: frog design.

To put it lightly, kids in Asia use phones and tablets quite a bit. In South Korea, children spend an estimated five and a half hours per day staring at their screens. In China, teens are shipped off to military-style internet rehab camps to break them of the habit.

A cottage industry of startups has developed to bring kids into the age of tech without gluing their eyes to five-inch glass panels; Xiaomi has rolled out a child-centric smartwatch that eschews a screen in favor of some bright LEDs, and Shenzhen-based Makeblock has unvieled a “Codeybot” that helps kids learn to code while keeping them tied to the real world.

The trend is towards using tech to bring kids deeper into the world, rather than treating the phone or tablet as barrier between the kid and everything else.

Where toys meet tech

“Not all technology and experiences have to be immersive and in front of our face,” says Simone Rebaudengo, a senior interaction designer at frog design studios in Shanghai.

Simone cites Osmo as a prime example for this new design philosophy. The American startup uses an iPad to track real world elements like drawing, sorting out flashcards, or playing with blocks. Kids are using a screen, sure, but they’re also interacting with the world and developing things like fine motor skills. In the UK, the Kickstarter-backed Primo uses wooden blocks to teach kids to code.

In that vein, Simone and his team have been working on a project called Yibu (a rough transliteration of the Chinese for “One Step”). Remember Tamagotchi? Think of your 1990s-era digital pet brought into the age of tablets and Internet of Things.

Think of your 1990s-era digital pet brought into the age of tablets and Internet of Things.

Yibu is still a proof-of-concept, which Simone and his team recently demoed in Shanghai. The system consists of five wooden toys and an iPad app, which sports a sleeping polar bear.

To wake the bear up, a child gives a shout into the microphone toy. Once he’s up, the bear might get hot or cold. The user can then snag the thermometer toy and place it under a hot sun or in the fridge. You can blow a breeze on the bear using the fan toy, or spin him around on the wheel-shaped motion sensor. This promo video shows it in action:

“We saw an opportunity to transform the use of sensing technology into something that kids can play with and explore the world,” says Simone. “To do that you need to translate graphs into stories, sensors into toys, and a digital game into something that is played in reality.”

Don’t run from tech!

“Screen use and VR aren’t actual problems per se,” says Simone. The goal isn’t to keep kids a mile away from the nearest screen – it’s to make sure that they’re also interacting with things made out of material other than pixels.

Some organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children under two shouldn’t use much of any screened device, whether TV or tablet, and use in older children should be strictly regulated as well.

While limiting screen use in very young children is possible without infringing too much on their lives (because, you know, they’re like two), it becomes increasingly unrealistic as kids get older. Between staying in touch with friends, studying, and a thousand other 21st-century uses, it’s essentially a given that teens and tweens will be using a screen.

But if that screen time can also involve real world interactions and maybe a bit of learning, then kids will get the best of both worlds.

Yibu is still in development, without a definite release date. But the trend is clear: the world of kid-tech isn’t leaving the screen behind, but it is adding plastic, wood, and the rest of the world into it.

This post Kid-focused tech startups are moving away from screens, and towards blocks and toys appeared first on Tech in Asia.

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