The Future of Toys Is…Apple’s iPad?

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Could tablets like the iPad ever replace toys like LEGOs, Erector Sets and crayons? Probably not, but startup Launchpad Toys thinks the iPad (and presumably tablets in general) has the potential to.

Okay, so the iPad’s already fairly toy-like. If you have one and kids, or you’re just a big kid (like me), you’ve probably goofed around with toy-like apps. Take iBrite, which is basically Light Brite for tablets (or just take Hasbro’s official Light Brite app). Also: Battleship, Crayolas, Simon, Barbie something-or-other, Army Men, Play-Doh, LEGOs, Etch-A-Sketch and Weeble Wobbles, all with App Store versions for Apple’s storied tablet. Okay, a few of those are technically games, but you get the point. The toy-ification of the tablet-verse is happening.

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But happening at a relatively glacial pace. Where’s Mr. Potato Head? Slinky? G.I. Joe? The Transformers? My Little Pony? Silly Putty? Tinker Toys? A few cheap knockoffs and “mature” parodies notwithstanding, the toy community’s just scratching the surface of the tablet market, to say nothing of all the completely original toy-like tablet apps still unrealized.

Enter Launchpad Toys, a startup looking to build piles of toy-like iPad apps aimed at actually educating kids. According to TechCrunch, they’re aiming to be “the Lego of digital play” and not just figuratively. They’re looking to bring in classic toys like Play-Doh, Crayola and Erector Sets, but in ways that hew to the National Education Assocation‘s educational standards.

Take the company’s premiere iPad app, Toontastic. It lets kids create stories using virtual characters and record audio to give them voices, then run the whole thing back as a kind of virtual puppet show. TechCrunch reports the app was just added to Apple’s App Store Hall of Fame, and that it’s managed to snag 40,000 paid downloads. I’m not sure where, specifically, the NEA links come in, but it certainly sounds like a step in that direction.

Hold up, you may be saying. Isn’t there something unique and important about playing with actual Play-Doh? Watching a real Slinky pour itself end over end down stairs? Manipulating the limbs or outfits of physical dolls and action figures? Of course. And while tablets like the iPad stand to complement physical toys, I can’t see them ever fully supplanting them. The only concern I have has to do with the level of creative engagement tablets allow in lieu of physical toys. Tablet-toy apps are going to be inevitably game-ified, meaning that they’ll be restricted by the app developer’s finite ruleset. You can do this and this and this, but not that. Physical toys have limitations, too, and lack the feedback mechanisms apps bring to the table, but a child’s ability to imagine her or his way out of a given limitation with a physical toy is boundless. In that sense, physical toys will always have an edge over simulations.

The biggest upside of tablet-toys probably lies in their ability to bring educational structure and context to “pure play” scenarios. They’re not replacements for toy-based free-play or “pure imagination,” but ways of steering or directing the experience to, in theory at least, instill important educational principles.

MORE: Apple’s iPad Poised to Dominate Through 2020?

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.