The iPad 2
iPad prepped for toddler use with a puffy case and a screen protector

I thought I wasn’t going to let my kid play with computers or watch TV until he was much, much older. Like maybe sixth grade. I wanted him to get comfortable in the “real world.” I wanted him to run around and use his limbs and his senses. I wanted him to get bored and to learn to entertain himself. And I wanted to be all the way there for him. I didn’t want to substitute screen time for my attention.

Guess what. We let our two-year-old play with the iPad.

I spent the first year and a half of his life with an old school cell phone because I was afraid a smart phone would be too sticky. I went online during his naps, and my internet time was rushed and short. I had always thought that screen time was wasted time — that if I watched TV, surfed the internet or checked Facebook, I was avoiding being fully present.

Then I got an iPhone.

After a year and a half, I was connected again.  It felt good. It didn’t feel like it was changing my parenting. It just felt like I was getting more — and better — brain food here and there. And getting in touch with people more easily. And not needing to print out Google maps before I left the house.

I used to read my kindle or actual paper books when I was nursing. Now I read my iPhone. Pretty soon, my son started grabbing for it. I locked it and let him hold it. Why not let him explore? What could he do?

Within a week or two of poking at it, he pushed the little slider all the way across the screen with his finger, and it clicked unlocked.

I laughed in surprise and grabbed it back.

It turned into a game. He unlocked it and shrieked with laughter while I tried to get the phone back. After a few days, I just let him have it. Why not let him mess around with my phone? It felt… okay. It didn’t feel wrong. Then he started poking around in my email and randomly calling people in my contacts, and I realized I could make us both happier by installing a few games for him. Soon after that, we got a big puffy plastic case and some screen protectors for our iPad and let him play with it in earnest.

He wanted to play with it a lot. I didn’t want to use it as a substitute for my attention, so I sat with him while he played. He loved it. He got really upset if I wanted him to stop and do something else, and I was bored. The amount of time we were spending playing with it bugged me. I knew that if I didn’t add any new apps, eventually he would get tired of it and move on to other things, but I didn’t want to wait for weeks or maybe even months. Left to his own devices, we wouldn’t be going outside or reading books or doing anything other than swiping at screens for a long time. That didn’t feel right.

Around the same time, he started fighting getting into his carseat and stroller. He hated them so much that we stayed home more often than not. That’s when it all clicked. I stopped giving him the iPad on demand and offered it to him whenever he had to be strapped down instead. He was playing with it by himself and I hadn’t wanted to substitute screen time for my attention, but this was different — it felt like substituting one kind of freedom for another and during a time when he wouldn’t have very much of my attention anyway. It worked. Having clear times when he would get to use the iPad (when strapped in) and clear times when the iPad would be put away (when we got where we were going) made it easier for him to stop, and it turned riding in the carseat or stroller into something he liked instead of something painful for both of us.

We went to museums, aquariums, parks, the library, playgroups and playdates. We played in the sun and the dirt and the water. In between, when we were driving or strolling to the places where we could do these things, he played with the iPad on his own and started doing things that amazed me.

One of the apps I thought would be way too hard for him had an activity where you moved four batteries into a toy with the positive and negative sides alternating directions (like how you stick batteries into things in the real world). The next thing I knew, he had it all figured out and was clicking them into place by himself in the back seat. There’s another one — Truck Tunes — that showed music videos about construction vehicles. The menu didn’t have pictures of the trucks — just numbers and text, and the menu was split between two screens. So to choose the backhoe video, you had to touch “Next Screen” and then “7 – Backhoe”, for example. After a lot trial and error, he could navigate it.

He started recognizing numbers. Then, he could kind of count to fifteen. He matched letters. Then he knew most of the letter names. He knew letter sounds. He was two — less than two and a half. From what my friends were telling me, their kids who played with iPads or iPhones could do the same things or even more.

On a touch screen, it was safe to explore and mess up. He wouldn’t get hurt or break something or make a fantastically huge mess. He chose what to try or not to try. He chose when to quit and when to try again. There were fewer interruptions, corrections, instructions, admonishments or directions. It was just freedom — the kind of freedom he almost never got in the real world. It’s not like I punished him or constantly bossed him around, but he didn’t get to walk in the street or squish dog poop between his fingers or pour rice on the floor. There were a lot of things he wanted to try that I pulled him back from. On the iPad, it was different. I could load it with apps that I thought were safe for him, and then let him loose. With this kind of freedom, he learned like crazy.

Watching my son play with the iPad — especially seeing what he could do on his own — took my respect for him to new levels. I still want him to be comfortable in the real world, but I’m starting to feel like reality is more complicated than I initially thought. These days I’m thinking that screens are part of the real world, too.