I’m not talking about the app that lets you take care of a baby on your iPhone – feed it, clothe it, change the diaper on its little animated arse. (Yes, there’s an app for that, and everything else you can possibly imagine from totally amazing to utterly useless.) But in this case, the iBaby I refer to is my Max. Right now, he’s sitting on the couch honing his radical finger action as he plays interactive games on my schnazzy pink iPhone.

He’s snickering away. Probably tweeting another “yo mama” joke, or uploading pics of his belly button to his facebook page again.

Naw, social networking will come much later for my wee one. Today, he’s playing with the apps I’ve downloaded just for him. There’s an animated cat that repeats everything you say, purrs when you rub its belly, and farts when you… wait for it… press the fart button! There’s an app with a baby that dances to different songs, from a Celtic lilt to a disco boogie. And, of course, I have a couple Thomas the Tank Engine apps including a memory game, a puzzle challenge, and a book where Max can flip the pages with the swish of his little index finger. His hand-eye coordination is pretty impressive; how he puts the train puzzles together by smoothly sliding each coloured piece into place. He’s not even two yet. With this dexterity, he’s gonna be a brain surgeon. Or a basket weaver. Whatev. He’s so keen with the touch screen, he often touches the television screen to try and press a button or drag something around. Maybe one day this will work, but not today. Our flatscreen is covered in grimy little fingerprints.

Go ahead and judge me: You let your toddler play with your iPhone??? Yes, I do. Not all the time, but occasionally. Why not? He’s not harming it, although I’ve wiped raisin residue from the screen protector more than once. That’s why they invented screen protectors! And I do avoid apps that require kids to blow into the phone, like Ocarina – the iPhone version of a flute. Apple won’t fix your phone if it has liquid damage, including liquid damage caused by excessive drool!

I am not condoning technology as a replacement for books (you know, those paper things with the pages) and blocks (those wooden cubes with pictures and letters on them) and all the classic tools of the fundamentals of learning. Anyone who knows me knows I am a sucker for all things vintage, especially toys: spin-tops, jack-in-the-boxes, sticks, rocks, etc. But technology is the future, people. It’s happening and it’s happening fast and we need to stay abreast of it or get left in the dust jacket.

Think I’m techie? Bah. I may have an app that keeps track of my period, but some days I forget how to use the bloody microwave. A colleague of mine has an iPad that reads her daughter to sleep at night. Seriously. The thing emulates the voice of a loving grandpa and reads her fairy tales – with animation, mind you – until she drifts off to sleep. To some, this sounds sadly impersonal. I think it’s perfect progress: Mom gets a break, the kid learns independence, and is on course to becoming a digital mastermind – not to mention an avid reader! And by the way, this family also has heaps of regular books and reads together all the time. There’s more than one way to skin a cat – and read a book (about skinning a cat?)

On the flip side of things, a friend of mine sent her twin boys off to kindergarten last year. One day they came home from school clearly deflated. The teacher had started talking about websites, and the boys didn’t know what a website was. Their mama felt kinda bad, like she hadn’t adequately prepared them for big scary school. I actually think she should be applauded for managing to do the impossible: keep them away from the addictive (and expensive) world of video games – Nintendo, Playstation, X-Box, etc. – for five whole years. Instead of growing up in front of TV sets and computer screens, they sprouted up in the Great Outdoors. They might not be the most web-savvy kindergarteners (yet), but by age 10 those boys will be able to build go-carts, grow potatoes, chop wood, and survive in the wilderness for a week. Try learning all that from a Webkin.

Update: After reading this post, my friend Kelly of whom I speak above informs me that her twins’ kindergarten teacher challenged all the kids in the class to build a boat using only items in the classroom. There was a tie – between her boys! Alex’s and Riley’s boats were the only ones that could float. Booyah.

I guess balance is the key. Interaction with other humans and Mother Nature should always be at the top of the family agenda. Soak up the Vitamin D, people; we don’t get enough of it here in Siberia. But it’s also wise to prepare them for the ever-evolving digital world of iThis and iThat, smart this and smart that. We all want to give our children the world. And in many ways, that world is literally at their fingertips. As parents, it’s our responsibility to show them how to use the tools to get there. And by the way, not all apps are books and games to be played in the car or on the couch; some are extremely useful tools for real life. In fact, Apple has a handful of apps for the Great Outdoors, including MyNature Animal Tracks that helps you identify paw marks based on size and shape, and AccuTerra which features hundreds of detailed maps that cover over 220,000 miles of trails. The iPhone also comes with a free digital compass so you can always find your way home. You know, if you know how to use a compass.

With everything constantly changing, how can we possibly keep up? Well, we can’t. But we can start simple. With an animated cat that farts, for example. Hey, it’s a lesson in cause and effect! And here are a couple more iPhone apps for toddlers like mine that really do teach and entertain him, particularly when mommy is busy blogging about it.

Tappy Tunes: Kids tap the screen to play music. They control the pace but not the tune. Brill. And kinda fun for mama too.

Peekaboo Barn: Moo, quack, oink, etc. Guess the animal behind the barn doors by its sound. This is Max’s favourite.

Toddler Teasers: All the basics like shape, colour, and number identification, with instructions spoken out loud and kids’ voices cheering when you get the answer right.

BugSquash: Squash bugs as they race across the screen. Improves hand-eye coordination. And your kid’s ability to kill things.

And don’t forget the books – app versions of all the classics with subtle animation, nothing too crazy, so it’s the same story you’ve cherished for decades. It just happens to be on a little screen instead of paper. Tomayto, tomahto.

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Classic toys… for poor people.

Are we still in a recession? Not sure what the official word is from the money people. But let’s face it, we all po’. How in the love of loot-bags does anyone afford to buy a home these days? I see these ginormous houses being built to the moon and I’m like – what do those people DO? It’s got to be drug money. They definitely don’t have kids. Or maybe the kids are running the meth lab.

Kids are expensive! Of course, my lack of a social life cushions the cost, so it kinda works itself out. But I do have to be cautious of overspending in the face of so many cute outfits and baby gadgets and – my favourite thing on earth besides rhubarb martinis – toys!

How many of you have given your kid a gift, only to watch him or her toss the pricey present aside and play with the damn wrapping paper? How ungrateful. And when your poor, deprived offspring have opened their skyward heap of gifts, don’t they often pick the cheapest ol’ thing to play with first? GAWD. Why waste your hard-earned money? Max is getting one gift for Christmas this year – a telescope. And by telescope I mean an empty paper towel roll.

Here are a few classic – and I mean really classic – toys for your wee ones. Each one fosters imagination and creativity, and guess what? They’re all… wait for it… wait for it… free!

The Cardboard Box. A classic among children everywhere. It comes with a built-in, saloon-style door, and windows can be installed custom. (Well, more like cut-out than put-in… even easier.) The cardboard box is incredibly multi-functional; it can be a house, a cave, a hospital, or a totally pimped out go-cart. For entrepreneurial kids, it makes a kickass lemonade stand. People spend a fortune on these child-size kitchens, but why? Just toss a few pots and pans in the box and your pint-size chef is good to go, money saved. For easy storage, the cardboard box can be folded flat and stored under the couch or bed. Sizes may vary. A refrigerator box = a swagadelic luxury hotel.

The Blunt Stick. Please note: this is different from the Sharp Stick, which is a toy for nimbler kids over seven. The ancestor of the Swiss Army Knife, the Blunt Stick is mega multi-functional. Is it a hockey stick, a golf club, a baseball bat, a fishing rod, or a javelin? All of the above, sports star. It’s also a light-saber for a young Jedi knight. It’s a sword, if your youngster wants to get medieval on another kid’s ass. (Please note: I endorse chivalry and theatre, not bullying.) It’s a baton for your future gymnast, and, for the big-boned child, it’s a trusty roaster of marshmallows. (Oh wait, that’s the Sharp Stick, nevermind.) Best of all, the Blunt Stick is eco-friendly, as long as you don’t snap it from the endangered St. Helena Gumwood.

The Empty Pill Bottle with Macaroni Inside. Note I said macaroni, not pills. Take an empty, plastic pill bottle – preferably one of those chunky, bulk-size vitamin jars – and toss in a few rotini. Whatcha got? Instant maracas! Shake that baby booty! I recommend making a new label for the bottle so others don’t think your kid’s toybox doubles as a medicine cabinet.

The Wooden Spoon. A mere spoon? To the unimaginative, perhaps. This common kitchen utensil is actually a magic wand. Seriously – bang anything with it and that thing magically transforms into a drum. Throw in a stainless steel mixing bowl and it’s a percussionist’s starter set. At Long and McQuade, something like this would cost major coin. But lucky for you, the elves that live in your cupboard dish out this playtime fun for free.

The Pet Rock. A knockoff of the 70s fad. (Yes, this really was a huge novelty in that era.) Create your own 21st-century model by going no further than your own backyard, preferably un-landscaped. Fat ones or skinny ones, bumpy ones or smooth ones, sedimentary or igneous, your child can choose the pet that he or she wants, not necessarily the one that doesn’t shed. Disclaimer: If you live in a glass house, get a cat.

The Imaginary Friend. The success of this “toy” depends on your level of commitment. Start talking to the space next to your child. For example, when I ask Max, “Would you like to read a book?”, I then move my head 20 degrees to the right or left and ask the same question again. At first, Max looked confused. But within days he started to realize – there is someone there. A friend! In two to three weeks, your child will be enjoying the constant companionship of a kid you never actually have to feed. Or give birth to.

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A toy story…

The toy people are pretty smart, aren’t they? Bringing back all the toys from the 80s, to play on the sentiment of the 30-ish crowd who are now parents with Christmas lists longer than Barbie’s dream home. Every toy section is a labyrinth of dolls and trucks and games and gadgets. A multi billion-dollar industry indeed. What’s going to catch my attention? The familiar face of a Cabbage Patch Doll smiling back at me, of course. (RIP, Casey Gwendolyn.)

Or a Smurf. La la la la la la… la la la la la. Best lyrics ever.

My Little Pony. I brushed that horse’s hair ‘til the cows came home.

The Etch-a-Sketch. A love child of the 60s, it’s the great-great-grand-daddy of PhotoShop. And it’s so simple to use. I mean, why draw with crayons on paper when you can twist knobs to move a stylus to displace alumimun powder on the back of a screen in a plastic frame?

Strawberry Shortcake. I had the complete bedding set – bedspread, curtains, pillow shams, booyah.

These and more are all back with a GI Joe-caliber vengeance. I’m holding out for a Popple – the “soft fuzzy ball that turns into a friend.” Who needs a friend with soft, fuzzy balls when you can have a friend who IS a soft, fuzzy ball? Simple logic, really. The other day, I saw a Monchhichi and for a moment I was six again, minus the buck teeth and mullet.

Every jar of Play-Doh slingshots me back to a time and a place when life was as simple as a Rubiks Cube. Er, scratch that. A Slinky. That’s better. It was a time when fun was all that mattered. When my problems extended no further than my Flintstones toybox.

Max is just a toddler, so most of these retro toys are too advanced for him yet. He’d bake himself in the EasyBake Oven. But he does have a couple truly classic toys in his stash, in all their uncomplicated, no-instruction-booklet-no-assembly-or-batteries-required glory…

The Jack in the Box. This toy dates back to the Middle Ages, invented by some dude named Jack who got in a box and popped out and everybody laughed. Max has a Sock Monkey jack-in-the-box. Crank the lever to churn out the classic yet creepy “Pop Goes the Weasel” and – BOING! – a Sock Monkey, doing a poor job at pretending to be a weasel, springs out from inside. I’m glad it’s not a clown popping out of there; I watched Stephen King’s “It” way too early in life. Sock monkey – way friendlier. He’s made from a SOCK, for cryin’ out loud! But Max was frightened shitless of the thing nonetheless. As soon as I started to turn the handle, he’d start to back up in sheer terror. And when the song came to an end and the monkey popped up, his lips would start to wriggle – a prelude to tears. And yet, seconds later, he’d set the little metal box on my lap once again. “Do it again, mommy,” his big brown eyes beseeched me.

You can buy a Sock Monkey jack-in-the-box at Chapters online for about $25. Or scope out a local boutique store. I bought this one at Target in Florida for about $18 US.

Wooden blocks. These date back a trillion years. I bet young Jesus had such blocks; his father was a carpenter for Christ sake. (SFX: short drum roll with cymbal crash.) Max’s blocks are extra classy, each one sporting the Montreal Canadiens logo. A gift from daddy, straight from the Bell Centre. They’re chunkier than most blocks you’ll find in stores – a better fit for a curious but clumsy hand. Though they feature letters, numbers, and pictures to boot, Max has learned nothing from them except how to incorporate them into his arsenal of weapons.

Blocks are pretty easy to find. Winners has a decent set by Melissa and Doug™ for about $15. Or take one for the team and order a set of Habs blocks on ebay for about $25, or get the real deal at the Bell Centre for about $30.

The Spin Top. This toy is older than dirt. In fact, clay tops were uncovered in the ancient city of Ur, near modern-day Baghdad, dating back to 3500 BC. Even Shakespeare wrote about the “whipped top” in his plays. To us, it’s a classic toy from the 1960s, revived in the 1990s, and still adding a touch of old school charm to playrooms everywhere.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a metal “push top” at Winners for about $15. For just a little more dough, get a metal Thomas the Tank Engine spin top at the Railway Coastal Museum on Water Street.

Up next: MY version of classic toys for toddlers, for fun-seeking but frugal folk. 🙂

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