Toddlers and tablets

Long before they start kindergarten, American children are playing with education tech at home, writes Alex Hernandez in Toddlers and Tablets on Education Next. At the iTunes store, “9 of the top 10 paid education apps are designed for small children, ages four and up.”

Touchscreens are the most intuitive interfaces ever created for small children. I still remember the weekend morning in 2008 when our 18-month-old padded into our bedroom, grabbed his mom’s new iPhone off the nightstand, turned on his favorite song, and began pawing through photos.

. . . Leading app developer Duck Duck Moose believed it was designing for four- and five-year-olds when it noticed two-year-olds using its math apps. Dragonbox, an algebra program for children eight and up was being used by five- and six-year-olds. No one informed these kids that they weren’t ready for higher-level math.

Children do incredible things when they are free to explore and learn.

Parents are dubious about young children using technology, Hernandez concedes. He thinks tablets are seen as too expensive for grubby-fingered preschoolers. There’s also a backlash against excess screen time. Education apps should supplement, not replace, hands-on play, Hernandez writes.

App creators shouldn’t just try to teach pre-academic skills, such as categorizing objects or recognizing letter sounds.

 . . . research suggests that children’s ability to pay attention and control their impulses (i.e., executive functions) are better predictors of future academic success than IQ. Children’s ability to manage their attention, emotions, and behaviors; learn appropriate ways to interact with others; and be creative are equally, if not more, important but often harder to target than pre-academic skills.

But not impossible. App maker Kidaptive recently released a turn-taking game in which children paint pictures alongside two animated characters. Children using the app must literally sit and wait for the animated characters to complete their turns before resuming their own painting (defying many conventions of good game design). The metrics don’t lie. Kids are being patient and taking turns.

The best new apps will develop preschoolers’ executive function, creativity, number sense and phonemic awareness, Hernandez predicts. Schools may be slow to use these games. Parents already are buying them.

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