When you and I were kids, we played with (and learned from) toys like Lego and handmade puppets. These days, kids are turning to digital gadgets like the iPad.

Launchpad Toys wants to create a suite of creative play tools to reach kids on those devices: touchable, fun games that help kids learn to use digital platforms to accomplish digital tasks.

In a presentation at Y Combinator’s Demo Days today in Silicon Valley, we talked to co-founder Andy Russell. During the startup’s presentation, Russell explained that the most popular toys among kids today are tablets, smartphones and multi-featured gadgets like the iPod.

Russell’s company wants to channel the desire for digital toys into something helpful and constructive: simple play to get kids learning about how to create things with digital tools, eventually helping to level the gender, racial, class and economic barriers many face.

The company is planning to release several applications for kids of all ages to play creatively. The first of these apps is Toontastic, an iPad application that allows children to animate their own cartoons. Along the way, kids learn about storytelling elements, music and narration. Already, more than 165,000 cartoons have been created, and the app was added to the App Store Hall of Fame.

“I saw the movie Big when I was 8, and I decided I wanted to be Tom Hanks,” Russell told VentureBeat. “I was a toy designer for Hasbro, and the iPhone came out. I thought that would be the end of the industry. For years, I was stuffing electronics into toys. In the end, we needed to start stuffing toys into electronics. So I left for grad school, and started building a prototype.”

With a minimal amount of funding with an investor who understood and had previously worked on education software, Russell and his co-founder Thushan Amarasiriwardena got Toontastic off the ground.

“For all of our products, we take a play pattern and a learning goal and we match them together,” Russell. “For Toontastic, we took a puppet theatre and brought it to life in a digital platform. The learning goal was storytelling – conflict, resolution, characters, setting. And we teach that through Toontastic.”

Kids also learn to tell different types of stories — mystery, adventure, romance — and earn genre badges as an incentive for doing so.

Not only is the app fun and educational, it’s also got a revenue stream. In addition to selling the app for $1.99, the Launchpad Toys team is also going to be creating and selling virtual toys, such as extra characters and backgrounds, within the app.

Another interesting facet of the entire digital play concept is storage. “You think back on all the stuff you did as a kid, they’re lost. These things can go into a digital archive,” said Russell. Also a boon to many a space-starved parent is the fact that these artifacts are stored in cyberspace rather than meatspace, which means no deciding what to throw away, no packing drawings in boxes. etc.

Eventually, Launchpad Toys hopes to create between eight and 10 apps around creative play patterns, “all the classic play patterns — Easy-Bake Ovens, drawing, modeling, Erector Sets, Tinker Toys,” said Russell.

Toontastic is aimed at kids in the 5 to 10 years old range. “We want to go as low as 3 or as high as 12,” Russell said. The company is currently focused on touchscreens and mobile devices, but Russell can envision creating gestural interfaces or TV-friendly apps and features, too. “It’s about hands-on play.”

Finally, we asked Russell if he thought his startup could change the world. He told us, “In the textbooks I grew up with, if there was anything about Sri Lanka, it was 30 years old. And now, with a flick of my finger, I can learn about the culture and develop friendships there…

“I believe that kids can learn from each other as well as or better than from adults. Peer learning is about your friends and cousins, those close to you. But with tools like this, you can learn from kids halfway around the world.”

Stay tuned for ongoing coverage of new Y Combinator comanies from the 2011 class.

Image courtesy of fritzon.

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