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Kai Ryssdal: Christmas and the holidays are, if nothing else, a chance for kids to dream big. To ask Santa for that pony or for the hottest gadget they can think of. That's how it is that my six-year-old somehow believes there's going to be an iPad waiting for him under the tree Saturday morning. But more kids are using smartphones and tablet computers -- their parents or their own -- thanks to all the educational and gaming apps that're out there. And Marketplace's Megan Larson reports, the rest of the kids' toy market is watching very carefully.
Megan Larson: So here's how it all began: My family was driving to Santa Barbara, up the coast from Los Angeles. What should have taken an hour and a half turned into nearly three hours on the road in stop-and-go traffic.
My two-year old was gettin' itchy, so I was getting itchy. We sang songs, played I Spy, ate snacks and read books. I was running out of ideas and the itchiness turned to tears. I myself wanted to cry, so I forked over my iPhone. And it worked brilliantly.
Caroline Hu Flexer: That's exactly how we got started. When I first got my iPhone, I saw how my then two-year-old just, you know, quickly picked up my phone and started to use it.
Caroline Hu Flexer is the co-founder of Duck Duck Moose, an independent developer of iPhone and iPad apps. Two years ago, she says there weren't many applications she could feel good about letting her toddler use. So she and her partners came up with some.
Man singing "The Wheels on the bus" on an app
Flexer: It's very close to manipulations in the real world. So if you want to move something across the screen, you move it in the direction that you want it to go, sort of like moving a toy across a table.
The touchscreen is really easy for little fingers to use and there are now so many options -- from Starfall ABC's to CookieDoodle to Dora's Big Adventure. It's no wonder that at the end of the day my son would rather see my phone than me. Imagine if I had an iPad.
Sean McGowan is a Toy industry Analyst AT Needham & Co.
Sean McGowan: It's not surprising that somebody would look at the iPad and all its features and say, "Wow, this would be a great toy." But I wouldn't say it is the number one toy; it is still expensive and it is still made of glass. But I think it is a good potential toy for kids, especially with all the applications that I think anyone would think would be great things for kids to have.
There are more than 300,000 apps for the iPhone and iPad. Another 100,000 available for Google's Android Phone. The education portion is still pretty slim -- maybe 5 percent. But it is expected to grow with the rest of the app market. Exact figures are hard to come by, but market research firm IDC projects the total app market to rake in about $35 billion by 2014.
Now, if you are feeling a little guilty about handing over your not-so-cheap phone or tablet computer to your kid for screen time, there is evidence that kids can learn from some of these apps. And this has caught the attention of the kids toy market, especially companies like LeapFrog and V-Tech that specialize in electronic educational toys.
Analyst McGowan covers LeapFrog.
McGowan: It certainly is front and center on minds of the companies that are putting these products and the executives probably go to bed each night wondering, "How am I going to turn this potential threat into an opportunity?"
And there is opportunity. McGowan says the best part of Leapfrog's products, for example, is the content, not the plastic casings they come in. So when the day comes that you can buy a quality $99 tablet -- and he says that day is coming soon -- McGowan figures that parents just might opt for the glass product over the plastic one.
McGowan: I see this as eventually becoming the preferred delivery method for educational software that today is being delivered through bulky plastic and chip formats.
I'll be waiting for that. In the mean time, I just wish someone would create an app that would make my kid give me my phone back.
I'm Megan Larson for Marketplace.