Baby's first smartphone

Now preschoolers can send text messages too

If the LeapFrog toy company has its way, texting will soon join reading, writing and arithmetic as a staple of early childhood eduction. Starting in June, the company will begin selling a BlackBerry-like toy called the Text & Learn. The device is aimed at tots and features a full keyboard, calendar, LCD screen, and texting capacity. The big difference between the $25 Text & Learn and the several-hundred-dollar gadgets for grown-ups that inspired it is that it connects to a fake internet browser where preschoolers can exchange texts with a digital puppy named Scout whose five preprogrammed text messages include “Hi! We’re out of puppy biscuits. Thanks!” and “Let’s meet up later to play some fetch!”

The toy is designed to teach kids basic spelling and computer skills through games. Gord Terry, the general manager for LeapFrog Canada, says copy-cat toys like pretend cell phones and laptops are the newest trend in the toy industry. (Fisher Price, for example, makes kid-proof digital cameras and DVD players, while Lego will soon be making Digital Camera and MP3 players that look like their building bricks.) According to Terry, parents have embraced the fakes because they allow for children to be introduced to technology in a safe, controlled environment. “Whatever mom and dad have the kids want to play with,” he says. “My kids grab my BlackBerry all the time and play the games on there so its inspirational for them to be as much like mum and dad as they can.” While other toys with keyboards typically use an ABC-style format, the decision to use a standard QWERTY keypad, says Terry, came after the majority of parents in marketing trials said they would prefer having their children learn on a computer keyboard as early as possible.

Some reports have hinted at a possible partnership between the toy maker and Reasearch in Motion, the Waterloo-based company that makes the real BlackBerry, though Terry would only confirm that discussions are ongoing with several companies to create interesting ways for kids to learn. Either way, websites dedicated to emerging technological gadgets are already predicting the Text & Learn will be a huge hit. If the spread of BlackBerry-addicted parents is any indication, weaning tots off the Text & Learn could prove a bigger challenge than getting them to play with it.