As if hoardes of beanie babies lying all over the house and a laughing Elmo doll rolling on the floor and little expired tomagachi keychains sitting in a pile weren’t enough, we now have a new toy that has hit the “have to have” list. Its a Webkinz. And what makes this one different is that it teaches preschool children how to use the internet to have fun and make friends.
A Webkinz is a fairly affordable, actually quite cute little stuffed animal. It comes with a special code that your child can then punch into a website where a whole world awaits. There is virtual reality, sort of a pre-school version of Second Life, where your child can make money, spend money, and play games. As part of this online community, your child is given the responsibility of caring for a virtual version of his or her pet and is able to feed it, take it for walks, take it to the vet, or just play with it in the park. There are fun little games your child can play in the process, including mazes, treasure hunts, trivia, even short stories to read.
In addition to hanging out in a virtual world, your child can also “play” with other kids. There is a very elementary sort of chat function where kids can choose from a list of canned phrases to share with one another. Parents can also engage “Kinzchat plus” where kids actually type in their own thoughts and interact with other users. The conversation is limited, however to the words found in the Kinzchat dictionary. A child could not, for instance, share his or her name or address.
So, do Webkinz provide a safe first step for young children as they learn how to live in a wired world? Maybe. It certainly seems like a sweet, almost benign web environment that also feels well controlled. What is a bit more troubling however, is the thought of 3 and 5 year olds sitting for hours at a time in front of a computer screen playing with their virtual friends. This age is the point at which young children are experiencing significant brain growth. A two-dimensional world may help activate certain skills, but it may also limit other necessary skills they develop as they run around outside, playing with very tactile and real pets, friends, and toys.
From my perspective, this may be a first step that needs to be used wisely. As tempting as it is to leave kids with the new soft and fuzzy and virtual babysitter, be part of the experience. Teach them about limits. After twenty minutes or an amount of time that seems adequate, let them know their time is up. Be tough. Help them get good at turning off the computer and moving on to something else. (This skill will become invaluable as they get older.) Go online with them and be part of the learning experience. Help them understand the difference between real and virtual. For instance, after doing something in the Webkinz world, go outside and try the same thing in the real world, then talk about the differences.
Clearly, our kids are living in a technical world. The thought of a 5 year old knowing more than me about technology is a bit disheartening. But, lets face it. Technology is part of our kids lives and we need to be the ones to train them how to use it wisely. Beanie babies–move over. Your new and improved stuffed, virtual buddies are taking over!