My son Leo, like most kids, glows with an awesomeness that takes many forms: he's a fierce bicycle rider, a fish-like swimmer, a walking happiness explosion, and an iPad fiend. He's also autistic, which for him means speaking is difficult (though he hears just fine), learning is unpredictable, reading is hard, other people can be confusing, and even independent play can be overwhelming.
Having an iPad helps Leo through many challenges. It's changed his life, and I don't write that casually. The touch-based interface makes interacting with the tablet computer an intuitive process, as well as very, very accessible. Leo dives into his iPad without hesitation, noticing instantly if new apps have been installed, questing, learning, having a blast. And all on his own! Without needing anyone to show him what to do! I rarely have to instruct him how to use apps on the iPad, though I do gently guide if he needs it, and keep an eye on how he's using his iDevice (Safari and YouTube and Google, oh my).
But it's not just the iPad that makes a difference, for Leo it's the apps — their content, their design, their interactive animations and sounds motivate Leo to engage, engage, engage, learn learn learn, play play play. The best apps for Leo have simple, elegantly designed, easy-to-use, structured interfaces that make learning enticing, and play extra-fun — yet are predictable enough that Leo can get familiar with them instantly while still providing enough creative bandwidth to sidestep boredom.
It's no secret that Toca Boca makes open-ended digital toys that Leo loves, and it's not surprising, either: they provide exactly the kind of well-designed iPad experiences he seeks out and obsesses over. They have funky-cool graphics and characters to draw Leo in, plus they're designed for an international audience — which means minimal text. Which means Leo's pre-reader status is not an issue. Which means, again, that he can use the toys independently! That’s a huge achievement for my boy.
Toca Boca’s digital toy apps apps are unique in that they're not really geared towards academics or pure play, but a mesmerizing third space: pretend play. Leo was never interested in pretend play before he started playing with these apps, but now he is having daily tea parties, birthday parties, giving hair cuts and colors, playing doctor pretending to cook meals, and playing house. All things he used to care less about, outside his iPad. It's fun to see him get silly and creative: giving a dog a rainbow-colored mohawk, frying up a fish and feeding it to an appreciative cat. It's even more gratifying to see the Toca cues translate to real world actions like Leo setting and clearing the table — completing said chores with much less fuss than his sisters, I might add.
Social opportunities are another lovely benefit of Toca Boca’s toys. Other kids don't always know how to play with Leo, and he doesn't always know how to play with them, but I've yet to meet a kid who didn't want to play with Toca Boca toys. When Leo is playing with them, other kids will approach him and ask if they can join in, which is tremendous — especially when it's his seven-year-old sister India. Leo is learning to get past his social anxiety and not only let other kids play with him, but learning to tolerate turn taking. I know I'm not the only autism parent who lies awake at night, thinking up strategies for encouraging my autistic child to interact socially, so watching these social connections happen spontaneously is heart-warming. Especially since Leo seems to enjoy them, too.
Possibly my favorite aspect of the digital toys that Toca Boca makes is how they encourage Leo to play independently. My enthusiasm for his solo play may seem silly to some parents, but it's a huge deal for a kid who loathes spontaneity and free-form scenarios. The toys provide the basic structure and predictability Leo craves while still providing plenty of opportunities to create. Witness the 30+ different hairstyles he created in Toca Hair Salon, all on his own. He. Is. Having. Fun.
The toys also help keep Leo occupied during one of the banes of childhood existence — being forced to go accompany his mother on endless errands. The erranding can't be helped, but at least Leo now has a way to keep himself occupied most of the time, and even when the lights go dim as during his sister's ophthalmology appointments. Too bad I can't go back in time and hand my childhood self an iPad before going carpet shopping or to the dry cleaner with my own mother.
Leo's not the only Toca Boca fan in the house, by the way. His little sister India is a vocal and unabashed enthusiast, and has a lot to say about why she likes the toys, too, particularly Toca Hair Salon:
I really just want Leo to be happy. I want all three of my kids to be happy. Finding apps that make them happy makes me happy. And when those apps also make it easier for my autistic son to share, learn, socialize, and play? Then I feel perfectly justified in slapping on a pair of rose-colored sunglasses, and declaring the world a better place.
/Shannon Des Roches Rosa
More about Shannon:
I am more than a parent, but with three kids — one of whom has autism — the current playlist has parenting on heavy rotation. I am a kick-ass writer and editor, and have been blogging fearlessly and compassionately about parenting and autism since 2003, at www.Squidalicious.com. I'm also a co-founder and editor at the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism.
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