In a coastal house south of San Francisco, Kirin, 8, is happily clacking away on her typewriter. She is working on the dialogue for a script that she and her younger sister, Kaori, 6, will later act out. Kaori, meanwhile, is looking for her 1980s Gremlins vinyl record, so she can play it on her turntable. It’s a read-along album for a book about the scary hijinks that ensue when cuddly Mogwais are exposed to water.
In this house, the exposure to be avoided is modern electronics. The girls’ parents, Kelly Goto and Skip Lancaster, decided early on that they wanted their children to grow up with analog toys, those that are mechanical rather then digital. Their play room, one side of which has been converted into a climbing wall, has abundant stacks of paper for typing and drawing, a microscope, a Panasonic tape recorder the size of two bricks, a Polaroid camera, an orange Olympia typewriter, and a baby blue Crosley record player.
“We were always concerned about how we would introduce new technology so we held back,” says Lancaster.
There are some hints of modernity: an electronic Brother word processor, two electronic keyboards and the simple XO laptop that was distributed to kids in the developing world a decade ago through Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child program.
Kirin likes drawing and writing. Kaori leans toward music and sounds, carrying her Panasonic tape recorder around and capturing noises that are interesting to her on her cassette tape. When she plays back the current tape, she’s surprised to discover she’s recorded adults having a conversation. “What is this?” she says, laughing.
“We try to keep objects of creativity around them,” says their mother, Kelly Goto, a research and design consultant. “When there’s an iPad with a game on it around, they can’t look at anything else. I want them using their minds.”
I ask the girls what their friends like to play with. “Video games!” they say in unison. “They love it. They play everyday. Everyone plays Minecraft,” Kaori adds.
Ironically, both parents love technology. Skip Lancaster is a tech entrepreneur. “You’re always on your phones, but you don’t let us,” complains Kirin, who was born the year the iPhone came out.
Goto and Lancaster’s desire to slow the introduction of technology into their kids’ lives has several different motivations. Goto worries about the way technology that turns her daughters into passive consumers could hurt their creativity and curiosity. Lancaster worries about his daughters’ privacy given toys with artificial intelligence and cloud-based memory that siphon up information about children and send it out of their control, or store it insecurely so it gets hacked. (They also insist people don’t post photos of their daughters online, which is why you won’t see their faces in our video above.)
But they also just want their kids to understand how it all works. They hope that by giving them mechanical toys, that they can take apart and examine, they’ll better understand the evolution of human tinkering that led to the sleek, thin smartphones we have today—devices that can do, essentially, everything the toys in this room can, but that consist of a mysterious box that can’t easily be pried open.
They’re not the only parents in Silicon Valley trying to keep their kids from becoming screen zombies. They point out that Apple founder Steve Jobs was reportedly a low-tech parent and that lots of tech executives limit their kids’ gadget use—though few are as extreme as Goto and Lancaster.
“It’s not that they can’t ever use it,” says Lancaster, who is thinking about teaching Kirin and Kaori to program soon. “It’s about what’s best for development. As technology progresses, a lot of knowledge gets jettisoned along with the old tech. The hope is that they will retain some of that thinking and knowledge.”