In an age of digital devices, worrying whether your young kids are getting enough physical play can be a concern. It's all too easy to thrust the iPad at a child and leave them to it.
French company Marbotic is trying to solve this dilemma by merging physical accessories and digital play together, allowing you to have your cake and eat it, as the famous French queen would say.
But does it work? And will your kids enjoy and learn from the experience?
We've been testing Marbotic Smart Letters on an iPad Air 2 to find out.
Marbotic Smart Letters: What are they?
The concept is simple. In the box you get 26 wooden letters, one for each letter of the alphabet, and those letters each have a rubberised back that enables you to press them onto your iPad screen.
Each letter has three conducive protruding feet, all in different locations, and it is they that tell the dedicated Marbotic apps to know which letter you are putting on the screen at any given time.
It is a concept that has been used before by other toy companies, such as Hasbro. A number of years ago it released a physical Hot Wheels car that you could manoeuvre across your iPad screen. But here the technology it is used to capture letters rather than vehicles.
The wooden letters themselves are made from 5 ply which has been sanded and vanished. There's a handle for making it easier to hold the letters and and the rubberised back is glued on well enough that it is unlikely to un-stick and peel off. The letters look and feel the part.
In the box you get the letters and nothing else. Annoyingly there is no pouch or bag, meaning if you want to take this to a restaurant you'll have to provide your own carry case. At around £37 for the letters, the least the company could have done was throw in a nice sack to you can keep them all together, allowing you to ditch the overly large packaging.
Marbotic Smart Letters: The apps
There are three apps available for free if you've bought the letters. Vocabubble, Alphamonster, and Bla Bla Box.
The Vocabubble app tasks a child to find specific letters and then gives them words starting with those letters in return. It is here that parents will be frustrated with the trio of apps from the start. Why? Because Marbotic Smart Letters ignores phonics teaching, opting instead to pronounce the letters as an adult would, such as "tee" for "t". If you've got young kids learning to read and write, you'll know this is a real no-no.
If you can get past that fact - something we find difficult, having young children currently being taught to read through phonics at school - and the choice of words to illustrate letters is also pretty random and unhelpful too.
Telling a three-year old that k is for knot or a is for Anubis is about as much help as throwing them your car keys and telling them to pop to the shops to get you a chocolate bar. Oh, and the word suggestions seemingly run out after about five words. Dull.
Alphamonster does have some reference to phonics so we know Marbotic is aware of them.
Here the app is broken into a number of untitled sections, some of which you don't need the letters at all. The phonics are almost impossible to fathom, and only confused our kids who we'd let loose on the app. The most interesting part sees you place a letter in a octopus' mouth to be blitzed with the phonic sound before being shown an object starting with that letter; w for wagon, for example.
Bla Bla Box is the third app and a blank canvas on which to place the letters before they are sounded out. Again there is no phonic support, so if your child does spell out a word it is sounded out like "bee" for b rather than "ber". Spelling "box", for example, makes no sense in comparison to the way UK schools teach.
We were really excited by the concept of the Marbotic Smart Letters when we heard about them, but even after five minutes playing with young kids we realised that while the idea is sound, the execution is way off the mark.
Thankfully Marbotic, if it is reading this, has the ability to change and adapt the apps to better suit teaching habits in the UK to make this a much more compelling experience.
Until then, it could be at odds with the way your child is learning to read and write at school, and therefore a pointless exercise. It could even confuse rather than help.
Lots of potential, but disappointing.