Voice games are not all about competition. Earlier this year, Nina Meehan and Jonathan Shmidt Chapman, both youth theater professionals, created the K’ilu Kit: Passover Adventure for the upcoming Jewish holiday. They realized that for the second year in a row, the pandemic would disrupt the usual gathering of families and friends for the seder, the ritual dinner in which observants re-tell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt.
“And it’s not that great on Zoom,” says Shmidt Chapman. “A lot of these biblical stories are hard to explain to a three- to eight-year-old. How do we convey this story in an age-appropriate way?” The K’ilu Kit attempts to make the exodus story meaningful, understandable, and fun for children with the help of interactive elements: a paper flame wrapped around a flashlight becomes the burning bush through which God tells Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, for example.
“The audio experience guides kids into physically doing things with prompts rather than just listening,” Meehan says. “The Passover story is the story of recognizing complex topics about freedom from bondage and slavery and oppression. This is how kids can learn the Passover story. It’s not about just staring at a screen or hearing the story but the levels of importance, the understanding.”
Voice-led entertainment is uniquely capable of delivering that kind of understanding, according to Naomi Baron, professor emerita of linguistics at American University and author of How We Read Now: Strategic Choices for Print, Screen, and Audio. “The concern with screen time has not just been the hours our eyes have been glued to the screen, but the shallowness of most of the interaction,” Baron says. “You aren’t putting in mental effort.”
With audio stories and games, however, the information isn’t presented to you on a platter. Imagination is required, and it takes more focus and attention than gazing at a screen. Baron says research has shown that with this type of learning, comprehension and recall are much higher for developing readers. She adds that older listeners can benefit too, particularly if English is not their first language, their learning style is less visual, or they are visually impaired.
Whether screen time is “good” or “bad” is still debatable, and it’s too soon to tell if the pandemic’s boom in audio and voice games will end as vaccines make it possible to hang out in person once again. They’re not perfect. Voice games often misunderstand users, particularly kids who are just learning how to enunciate and interact with technology.
The Danielses, however, have doubled down on audio. The family recently bought their second Yoto, which 21-month-old baby Price has figured out how to use. “He’ll sing along to it. He loves it,” Kate says. Charlotte agrees: “I love it because it plays music and stories.”