Chris Crowell, a kindergarten teacher in Flemington, NJ, is summoned to the classroom kitchen area by Ava, 6, who has something to show him.
“Mr. Crowell, we have a spider in the sink,” she says, matter-of-factly.
“Why don't we check out the spider under the microscope?” he replies, perking up the rest of the students, who are enjoying free play at various stations around the room.
Ava carries the removable tub from the sink to the “teacher table,” where Pedro, 5, launches the Zoomy digital microscope, a small, egg-shaped device that connects via USB cable to the classroom laptop.
After a few minutes of observing the spider's image magnified onto the classroom billboard, most of the students drift back to the areas where they had been playing prior to the sighting. Pedro moves to the puppet area and uses Crowell's iPhone to film three classmates performing a show. Another student, Lindsey, remarks that the spider looks like the tap-dancing arachnid in Toca Band, the musical app the students play with on one of the classroom's three iPads.
Crowell has been incorporating technology into his daily teaching since the floppy-disc era. “There's never been a better time to be a teacher,” he says, “or a curious kid.”
For a child, technology plays many roles: teacher, babysitter, playmate, and pacifier. As a result, our kids are drifting between the digital and analog worlds, and often find themselves tripped up by the border between the two. Cue the viral video of the 1-year-old girl trying to “swipe” her way through a copy of Marie Claire. (Title of the video: “A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work.”)
That little girl is not alone: Nine out of ten parents with children under 2 years old report that their kids use some form of electronic media. Toddler/preschooler is the most popular age category in the education section of the iTunes app store, a venue with more than 550,000 downloadable brain testers, time killers, and layover fillers. (There are another 500,000 apps for Android devices.)
Are we replacing puzzles with pixels, wagons with Wi-Fi, blocks with bytes? Or are they simply merging? And the bigger question is: Is this such a bad thing?
Addiction vs. Engagement
“The word that gets tossed around is tech ‘addiction,’” says Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review. “Another similar word is ‘engagement.’” It's a thin line that separates the two, and considering the way the world is headed, should we be limiting our children's possibilities? “Wouldn't it have been a tragedy,” asks Buckleitner, “if some all-knowing adult told [Google co-founder] Sergey Brin ‘You can only play for twenty minutes at a time on your Commodore 64’?”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long stood by its recommendation that children under 2 not be exposed to screens at all—be they televisions, smartphones, or tablets—and that older children keep their time in front of screens to a minimum. But even the foremost pediatric organization in the country is slowly making concessions.
“We now have to reconcile that policy with the fact that little kids under two are able to use these devices and learn from them,” says Gwenn O'Keeffe, M.D., a pediatrician, fellow of the AAP, and author of CyberSafe: Protecting and Empowering Kids in the Digital World of Texting, Gaming, and Social Media. “What we have to do is continue to reassess.
“We used to talk about online and offline worlds,” she adds. “It's all kind of one space now. So the more important concern surrounding the screen-time debate isn't the time; it's the quality of the content.”
Anatomy of an App
More than half of all children ages 8 and younger have access to a mobile device at home, either a smartphone (41 percent), a video iPod (21 percent), or an iPad or other tablet (8 percent), according to a recent study by Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding and educating families about media and technology. More than a quarter (29 percent) of all parents have downloaded apps for their children.
While there is huge demand, there is also very little oversight. A whopping 72 percent of iTunes' top-selling education apps are designed for preschoolers and elementary school children, according to a report by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. But there is no true vetting process. This lack of standards makes it difficult for parents to discern whether a website or an app is what its developers claim it to be. A great place to start is commonsense.org, which provides learning ratings for games, apps, and websites.
Mindy Brooks is the director of education and research at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational engine behind Sesame Street. She has overseen more than 60 studies involving touch devices. For each of their apps, Sesame Workshop's research and early-childhood education teams work together to meet a rigorous series of checks and balances, from initial idea to the final app release.
“Every app is developed based on the curriculum goal we're trying to hit,” says Brooks. For example, storybook apps like The Monster at the End of This Book or The Great Cookie Thief incorporate touch-point animation to underscore the storyline, as it's been shown to enhance retention.
Brooks is correct: Research has shown that kids engaged in interactive media appear to retain information better than their peers who passively watch. An experiment at Georgetown University divided children between the ages of 30 and 36 months into three groups. Each group got a different version of a nearly identical hide-and-seek puppet show: One was live, another was taped and shown on video, and another appeared on a computer screen where kids could push a space bar to find out where the puppets were hiding.
After watching (and clicking), the children were sent into the actual room to locate the puppets. Children who had watched the play on video hunted through the room on a trial-and-error basis. Those who had played the interactive game or watched the show live were far more likely to walk directly to where the puppets were hiding.
Swiping Sooner, Tying Shoes Later
Dr. O'Keeffe worries that all the clicking and swiping is impeding good ol' fashioned jumping, grabbing, and running. “For children under five, it's not the use of technology that's the issue,” she says. “It's the need for them to develop other skills.” She points out that children spending more time with screens has led to a dip in the amount of time they spend reading, and that they are slower to develop key motor skills like the ability to tie shoes. Fifty-eight percent of children ages 2 to 5 know how to play a basic computer game; conversely, 52 percent can ride a bike, according to a survey of 2,200 moms by the Internet security company AVG.
Such concerns may be valid, but has anyone met a college student who couldn't tie his own shoes? And although kids may be riding bicycles later, they're also designing computer programs earlier.
That's right: programming. Jamie Leslie is a typical 7-year-old boy. He wakes up and grabs either the family iPad or his mother's Kindle for a little reading. After school—and violin lessons—he gets roughly 45 more minutes of screen time. Jamie loves playing with Scratch, a super-basic programming language designed by MIT that lets kids create their own interactive stories, games, music, and art.
“Recently, he drew a stick-figure Justin Bieber and synched it up to music that he recorded with my phone,” says his dad, Jay Leslie, who runs the IT department of an education-related nonprofit in Boston. “Mostly it's daddy-bonding time. I taught him how to use it. He gets the basics of how to stick to something.”
Leslie believes it's the message, not the medium, that's important when it comes to technology and his son. Jamie, for example, can get completely absorbed playing the Lego Star Wars video game.
“One way to look at it is he's just wasting time,” says Leslie. “But for him, there are no instructions. You figure out how to do it yourself. It's ‘how do I make my guy take over an Imperial Ship?’ It teaches logic and tenacity, and how to solve your own problems.”
Technology never ceases to show us new—and amazing—ways to solve some very real social and developmental problems. When Steve Jobs unveiled the iPad 2, he aired a video in which Howard Shane, Ph.D., professor of speech-language pathology and director of the Autism Language Program at Children's Hospital Boston, said the iPad is a critical component of his program's clinical practice with disabled children, particularly those on the spectrum.
“The iPad gives them more opportunities to be better communicators, to be better learners,” Shane said. “The iPad is clearly the next step. It's a game changer.” Meanwhile, Autism Speaks has launched an initiative titled Hacking Autism, where programmers and developers are invited to work on technology-based ideas to aid kids on the spectrum with learning and social skills. One by-product of the program is Go Go Games, an app that focuses on visual discrimination, matching, and pattern recognition.
“As a teacher, I appreciate the goal of this app—to focus kids on the characteristics that make objects different,” writes one reviewer on iTunes. “I've seen autistic kids who really struggle with this task.”
The Department of Education (DOE) is investing resources in this arena as well. Last September the DOE announced it would award more than $1.1 million in grants for early-intervention and preschool programs that use technology with disabled children.
“It's no longer about buying big desktop computers and sticking them in labs in schools,” says Karen Cator, director of the DOE's office of educational technology. “It's about personalizing learning and getting the right resources to the student or teacher at the right time.”
Pity the classroom-dwelling spiders of the world.