It's hardly a surprise that mobile devices increasingly play a role in how children learn to communicate. One recent survey found that 38% of kids under the age of two know how to use a tablet before they know how to utter a complete sentence. This predilection for technology might be inevitable, but that doesn't banish the concern that the more we become captivated by screens, the less we connect to our surroundings.
So when Gauri Nanda and Audry Hill designed a 21st-century-appropriate kids toy, they stuck to an important maxim: "We didn't want to create another toy that puts a kid in front of a screen," Nanda says. Instead, they built Toymail, a cartoonish line of animal-mailbox hybrids that function like a messaging service for kids. The Mailmen sync to an app via Wi-Fi, where parents (or grandparents, or aunts and uncles, and so on) may send voice messages to the little ones. When a message is received, the Mailmen will oink or grunt to alert its owner, who can chat back through a built-in microphone.
Toymail cleverly rethinks not just a mobile communication device, but the toy category as well. Talking toys (think Woody and Buzz from Toy Story) have a finite number of expressions. The Toymail gang can actually scale, because the dialogue will become more sophisticated as the kid matures. "We realized that there was no better way to create evolving content than by letting the users do it," Nanda tells Co.Design. "Each of the Mailmen is its own character, a composite of all of the important people in a kid's life."
In other words, Toymail is designed to replicate the emotional connection we create with our phones—because they’re portals to people—by layering different voices and thoughts into the kid's Toymail experience each day.
With Toymail, Nanda is actually on to something besides conscious parenting. In 2011, she designed Clocky, the alarm clock on wheels that you have to chase and catch before it shuts up—jolting you awake in the meantime. "Alarm clocks don't have to be boring devices that beep at you. They can be unpredictable and funny in their approach to waking someone up," she says. Like Clocky, Toymail is technology that has a range of behavior—one that is as complex and unpredictable as human behavior—but isn’t confined to a few inches of a screen.
Get one of the Mailmen (names are Snort, Fairfax, Buck, Rochester, and Milksop) for $50, here.