Turtle Mail Toy Lets Today’s Kids Experience the Thrill of Snail Mail
If you have a kid, it is very possible they will never know the joy of receiving a handwritten letter. Email hasn’t totally replaced snail mail, but for most of us, the mailbox is for bills and Amazon deliveries.
Some new up-and-coming toy designers, who are also new parents, don’t want that to be the case. Turtle Mail is a small wooden toy mailbox for kids that prints messages sent via Wi-Fi from its web or desktop app (there isn’t a mobile app yet, but the web app works on mobile).
“When my daughter turned one-year-old, we started putting her in front of more advanced toys,” said Alysia Finger, one of the creators of Turtle Mail. “But the toys that family members were buying her and were available at the time were all really flashy electronics that felt like they were built for adults and just wrapped in rubber and plastic and marketed as kids products.”
So Alysia and her partner Albert Niko Triulzi set out to make something different. They were both students at Carnegie Mellon University, and in the course of their research, they interviewed over 100 kids, parents, and caregivers. “What I heard over and over during my interviews with parents and caregivers is that they were exhausted with screen time, apps, and videogames,” Finger told WIRED. “They were all very reluctant to add another screen-time activity to their children’s day, and many expressed how hard it was to get their kids off of computers and tablets.”
Since the TV set invaded living rooms, parents have been concerned about how much time their children spend in front of a screen. And now that they’re more mobile and come with games, that concern remains relevant, if not larger.
“There are a number of problems with excessive screen time,” says Josh Golin, Executive Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “It is linked to poor school performance, childhood obesity, attention problems, and social problems in school. And the other thing that research has shown, is that it’s habit forming.”
Using the app, parents can send messages to their kids that are then printed using a thermal printer inside of the tiny wooden mailbox. Parents can control what time their kids get new letters and if other family members also have access to the mailbox—so if a grandparent wants to send a note, parents can enable that. And since this is 2016, the toy mailbox also receives and prints photos, so you can send your children a picture, minus more screen time.
Turtle Mail uses a thermal printer, so it doesn’t require replacing ink, just paper. The manufacturers provide BPA and BPS-free replacement paper and plan to sell it on their website, but it’s also the standard 2.5-inch size receipt paper for sale at any office supply store. It seems easy to reload—just unscrew the top and put in a new roll.
Perhaps the coolest thing that Turtle Mail does is give voice to toys. Parents can create profiles and send messages from their kids’ favorite stuffed animals or other characters.
“We get a little bit of information about the toy: If it’s a doll or it’s an animal; if it’s plush or if it’s an action figure. We ask a few questions about how the child views the personality of that toy. Is it silly, shy, adventurous or curious?” says Finger. And then the app suggests a series of pre-written messages that you can edit and schedule to send to your child.
According to Finger, if it’s a toy dog, some of the messages your kid might receive describe what the dog smelled throughout the day or will let them know that they saw a cat out the window while your child was away at school. “One kid had a toy dragon that watched over them at night and so parents would leave them messages from the dragon about how it had its eyes peeled and was keeping watch. The dragon had a friend, Master Puppy, and they’d leave messages about some of the adventures they would have at night.”
“Right now the pre-written messages are kind of standard and not too out of the range of possibility of the kinds of things a stuffed animal might get into while you’re away.” The app lets parents field, edit, and schedule all pre-written messages, or just write their own, as well as assign special fonts from each sender to personalize them. “We encourage parents to always make it personal to their kids. Parents know their kids best, so whatever a parent has to say is probably the most appropriate thing that can be said to a child.”
Parents can also send mazes, crossword puzzles, or riddles to their kids’ mailbox to print out and solve, all provided by the app. There are even characters, like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, that parents can send messages from using Turtle Mail.
Turtle Mail is supposed to be a sort of antithesis of Facebook: It’s not meant for refreshing, over and over, obsessively checking. Alysia and Niko wanted to keep the act of getting a letter special, so parents can schedule it to only send messages at a healthy frequency, like once a day after school.
While Turtle Mail only receives and prints messages, kind of like a one-sided fax machine, the creators do hope that it encourages kids to write more and send real mail. After all, letter-writing is an art, and not even a toy mailbox can replace the intimacy of a handwritten note. Even if it’s penned with crayon.
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