You know who is a parent’s best fair-weather friend? A smart device. Give a child one of those things and you’ll find that the old adage of a mother’s work never being done is untrue. As adults, we’re pretty much addicted to our devices – so imagine what happens to the curious, sharp and quick brains of children when suddenly handed an entire world of entertainment or information at the slightest swipe of a shiny tablet.

Giving your kid an internet-enabled device means you can keep them busy for hours. I decided to keep my home media-free because the advertisements both on television and the internet are not really appropriate, not to mention misleading. Unsupervised time on either medium is dangerous, and I don’t want them to become video game addicts at least until they are teenagers.

This is why we don’t have a television set. We don’t watch YouTube or Netflix (well, not until the kids are asleep and I open it up like some guilty pleasure.) I chose the Waldorf education system for my eight and nine-year olds for its keen no-electronic-media philosophy. My biggest challenge, as you can probably imagine, is keeping them engaged.

If this sounds tough, imagine going on a road trip with kids and having the no-device policy. Thankfully, as more and more parents recognise the damage visual media can inflict on children, some of us have also found podcasts.

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No such thing as boredom

A little over two years ago, I was on the road a lot and thanks to a friend, discovered a fascinating curiosity podcast called No Such Thing As A Fish. A podcast created by researchers and producers of the BBC game show QI, the podcast permanently changed the way I consumed content.

As a single mother, I run a tight schedule. School runs are timed to perfection. Snacks, playtime, shower, a little cuddling, dinner, and finally, all of this culminating in bedtime at about 7:30 pm. Even when I wasn’t driving, the podcast allowed me to get around the house and finish work without the dreariness of boredom seeping in. I would fold the laundry, make a snack or clean up shelves all the while listening to voices discuss several interesting facts or break a concept down.

Six months ago, the children and I were on a road trip and I downloaded a few podcasts for the way. I picked three podcasts that seemed promising – a science-themed one called Brains On, a history-based one called The Past and The Curious and one called The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian. It was perfect, because podcasts engage a child’s imagination just like reading stories to them – children have to listen carefully to every word spoken and create the image in their heads. The road trip was the most peaceful one any one of us has ever had.

The creators of Brains On, an NPR podcast, for instance, firmly believe their ideal podcast audience is both children and curious adults. “Having the kids who write in with questions become our co-hosts is a great way to engage,” said Molly Bloom, one of the creators, in an interview.

Perhaps the only problem I foresaw was that most podcasts follow a single theme. If one child got bored and wanted to switch to, say, a science podcast, instead of the history one while I was driving, they’d have to go through the other apps on the phone, running the risk of getting distracted and abandoning the exercise altogether. Children are masters of distraction – by the time they chose a podcast or an episode, I knew they’d decide they wanted to do something else altogether.

Representative image. Photo credit: Amanda Golden/Flickr [Licensed under CC BY 2.0]

Child-friendly virtual space

Leela Kids, an app for children between the ages of three and 15, was launched by California-based Leela Labs on iOS in late July and on Android in the second week of August. It’s a carefully and thoughtfully curated app for children’s podcasts. Children need not exit it to look for another podcast or theme they like, so they don’t run the risk of getting lost on the internet and getting distracted by something shinier.

Sandeep Jain, the founder of Leela Labs, the company that makes Leela Kids, said: “I quit my fairly well-paid job to build Leela Labs as I found podcasting technology to be completely broken and saw a tremendous business opportunity. Radio advertising is worth around $20 billion while podcast advertising is only about $200 million. The idea for the Leela Kids Podcast App came about when I had to spend hours to find an episode on Dinosaurs that my 4-year-old son could listen to. In the App, we curate individual episodes based on kids’ ages and topics of interest and the results are ranked based on individual episodes and how far along the users have listened to a given episode.”

Jain observed what kind of topics his kid and kids of other friends liked – dinosaurs, oceans, science, history curiosity. “Of course, everyone loves stories,” he said.

The hunger for content that is exciting, engaging and yet not addictive is one that, for now, only books provide in many households. Kids Listen, an organisation in the US working towards engaging kids in learning while making them listen, suggests that children are more “actively engaged” after listening to a podcast than watching a TV show. TV is deluged with advertisements that are not entirely inappropriate for kids, not to mention highly misleading. There is the occasional advertisement on podcasts too, but the content is mostly seamless.

Podcasts are perfect for days that the kids are rained in, or sick, or when they’re travelling. The only downside? You’re spending the next hour on Google trying to answer all the questions that popped up in their heads while listening to the episode.