I’m not usually an early adopter of technology. Sure, I bought every one of my cell phones on Day 1, and bought a brand new car, and… good God I am an early adopter! That might explain why I own an Xbox One despite having no valid reason to own one, currently. There are no good games to play on it yet, the TV function actively downgrades the incoming signal, and great new games are still being made for the 360. There is one feature however, that has yielded unexpected fruit: the Kinect.
One would think the Minority Report functionality the Kinect affords its users would wear thin over time, but I assure you that’s not the case. One would also assume that, in the absence of a game utilizing its full potential, the Kinect stands as nothing more than a party gimmick. Also wrong! As it turns out, the Kinect on the Xbox One is one of the most effective yet accidental educational tools I have come across as a parent of a “Generation Z” toddler.
There are two ways of interacting with the Kinect: speech and movement. I task you with finding any child’s toy that doesn’t list those as benefits of said plaything. Could this then mean that the Xbox One can be used as an educational device, expanding the abilities of toddlers even without spending God-knows how much money on tailored lesson/games? I say so.
Toddlers are a bit short to really utilize movement so I’ll focus on the speech aspect, and how I’ve used it to positively influence my child’s communication skills as well as his behavior. Like any voice-activated software, slurring words is a no-go. One must clearly enunciate “Xbox: On” for the system to spur to life, bringing with it the attached TV and cable box (I smile like a goon every time). While I and most adults can achieve this success on the first or second try, a toddler speaks like a drunk person. Words are slurred and rearranged, pronouns are just missing, and usually only their parents have any idea what they want. But the Kinect doesn’t care that a toddler means “yellow” when they say “lellow.” All it knows are the preprogrammed statements in its memory banks. So when my son wants to watch Pixar’s Cars for the 50th time, and he says, “Eks box… go on!” nothing happens.
Usually my son makes several attempts before he asks me to help. I make sure he says the magic word (read: Please) and then I jump in. I speak clearly and say the correct phrasing, and then the system wakes up. Generally, in his excitement of our mutual success, he will repeat what I said with proper enunciation and all. In this sense, the Kinect is teaching him in an extremely direct and relatable scenario that he needs to speak clearly and use words correctly to communicate commands. There are several other learning opportunities in place before Jake and the Neverland Pirates can be watched, however. “Xbox: Sign in. Choose this person. Go to Netflix. Play.” are all phrases that have helped my son speak more clearly than many of his classmates.
I’ve talked with other parents who have signed their children up for dictation classes, or general speech courses. To me – barring speech or learning disorders (or the desire for bilingual children) – this is a waste of money and time, and is more for the parents than the kids. A child will pick up the language spoken at home on their own, given enough time. Everyone learns at different paces, and sometimes that range bothers parents. They will sign their kids up for whatever needless tutoring they can afford to speed up the learning process, just so they can beam with pride as their kid runs laps around classmates. Using the Kinect to practice clear speech and correct language has resulted in my toddler speaking in full paragraphs constantly, equal to or better than those privately tutored, and it was only $450. Plus it came with Titanfall!
It certainly helped that the carrot at the end of the stick is Netflix. I won’t go into the merits and dangers of Netflix just yet (that’s for a different article) but suffice to say it houses my toddler’s favorite shows. To get to those favorite shows, one must say the right combination of words in the right order, just like any other communication in life. I submit that this effort/reward system is far better than a private tutelage bankrolled by over-eager parents. Sure, a speech therapist or language tutor can use various tricks and games to goad the child into participating, but at the end of the day kids only do what they want to do. You can corral them in the direction you want, but it’s a chore. With the Kinect and Netflix, kids know that if they want to watch Mickey Mouse, they have to speak clearly and correctly. Thus, kids self-motivate to keep trying, and actively listen to their parents to get it right.
It may seem foreign to let a machine, let alone a voice-activated gaming device, help reinforce a toddler’s speech development. Those of us that are still gushing over the cool factor might meet with some resistance from those who feel traditional tutors and flashcards are the “correct” way to go. It’s a digital world now, and those of this new generation are digital natives. They will grow up with better and better voice-activated tech all around them, and think nothing of it.
I predict the generation after this new one (What would they be called, Generation AA? I hope not.) will have stuffed animals, a la Teddy Ruxpin, outfitted with voice-activated interactions. We might see children speaking earlier and earlier in order to have conversations with their toys. A new wave of robo-tools will emerge that, while we roll our eyes in disbelief at the notion, future generations will view as “the correct way” of learning. And it all started with the Kinect.