Old Mobile Phones as Toys

In the past I have had parents ask for advice on buying a digital camera for a young child. For some years there have been digital cameras on sale for much less than $100 – cheap enough that no-one will be THAT bothered if the child breaks it, so digital photography is a good hobby for a young child. Such cameras are however quite bulky and require AA batteries – which often don’t last that long between charges. Some of the cheap phones are large enough that a 3yo child can have trouble carrying them.

I recently gave an old LG U8110 phone to a young child for use as a camera. The phone has a 640*480 resolution camera and a display that is a few centimeters wide. It’s no good for any remotely serious photography, and among other problems I never managed to get it’s USB connection to work so the only way I ever managed to get a photograph off it was to MMS it to a newer camera. But it’s quite adequate for a child to play with, it’s small, light, and the battery stays charged for ages. Also the phone has a clock built in which is a handy feature – it seems that nowadays the trend in society is away from wearing a watch and towards using a mobile phone to discover the time.

Also a phone is a fairly capable computer, I think that the first two computers that I owned had significantly less CPU power and RAM than an LG U8110 and lots of newer phones compare well to PCs that were manufactured in the mid 90’s. The trend has been towards having an increasing number of applications and games on phones which of course gives more things for a child to play with. I believe that playing with computers that have a variety of different user interfaces and sets of applications is good for the education of young children.

Now to make a phone work you need to have a SIM. If a phone was designed by someone who was intelligent and who was acting on behalf of the owner of the phone then it would support the camera etc without a SIM. But it seems that mobile phones are either designed by idiots or they are designed to act on behalf of the phone companies to the exclusion of the customer’s interests, so I haven’t seen a camera-phone that is usable for any purpose other than calling the emergency services when there is no SIM installed. Fortunately it is possible to get old SIMs, I had one that was replaced due to an intermittent fault that caused calls to drop out. I also have some SIMs from other telcos that would probably work (I’m not sure whether a phone that is locked to one carrier will take photos if a SIM from another carrier is installed).

Update: It seems that there is a range of phones that operate without a SIM, a Nokia N900 (if you consider it to be a phone rather than an Internet tablet), an Android, or a phone running the Symbian OS. I suspect that the majority of phones that are currently in use and due to be replaced soon will require a SIM though.

One final notable aspect of giving a phone to a child is the possibility of it being used to call emergency services (which will work even when there is no SIM or a SIM that is not associated with an account). If you are planning to give a phone to someone else’s child then you should ask the parents first, some parents believe (either correctly or incorrectly) that the chance of their child making prank calls to the emergency services is too great. A present that a child receives which is undesired by their parents will probably get lost or broken quickly…

When such a phone gets broken by a child (they are tough, but almost everything that is used without restriction by a child gets broken) the next thing to do is to disassemble it. With modern design and manufacturing probably all that a child could really learn from a phone is how the keyboard works – and not even that for a touch-screen phone. But it’s still a good experience for a child to take apart old machines. When I was young my father gave me many old machines to take apart, I had a lot of fun and learned some interesting things.

I find it really sad to see those boxes for recycling old phones at the mobile phone stores which are full of 2yo phones that are mostly in good condition. Almost everyone has some young relatives or friends who have children who could find a good use for that stuff. Send the bits to be recycled AFTER the children nearest to you have finished doing things to the old phone!

4 comments to Old Mobile Phones as Toys

  • nion

    true this is kind of sad, i agree. the nokia n900 is different though,pretty usable without a sim. though it’s also more a personal computer which is small and has mobile capabilities.

  • Steinar H. Gunderson

    FWIW, all Android phones I’ve seen can work just fine without a SIM, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen S60 phones that can as well.

    (Disclaimer: I work at Google.)

    /* Steinar */

  • Peter De Schrijver

    S60 phones (at least N81, N95, E71) and N900 are perfectly useable without SIM card.

  • etbe

    nion: Wikipedia documents the N900 as superseding the N810 – which wasn’t a phone. I expect that their customers would riot if the upgrade to a device that wasn’t a phone suddenly required a SIM to work.

    Steinar: That’s great news! I hadn’t had occasion to test this as Android phones are too new. As for being a Google employee, it’s good to get comments from people who have more experience with the devices in question than most people (I know that being a Google employee doesn’t necessarily make you an expert – but it does mean that you’ve seen at least a few of them).

    Peter: Thanks for that information. It seems that my comment in this post was excessively generalised. I’ll update the post accordingly. Also for the benefit of other readers the above URL has background information on the S60 Symbian platform.