Can Apps Be Educational For Preschoolers?
5.16.12 | A recent study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop found that 72 percent of the top-selling education apps in the iTunes store target preschool or elementary-age children, a significant increase from 47 percent in 2009. Study results also show that early learning apps for preschoolers and toddlers are the most popular app category and have experienced the greatest market growth.
Some education experts support the use of apps as an auxiliary learning tool for young children—so long as they’re not used as a replacement for face-to-face time. But many apps billed as “educational” fall far short of the mark. While market diversity means more options, it also means more apps will be touting educational bona fides—regardless of their real value.
Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation, writes at Slate that the days of plopping children in front of a screen to “zone out” have transitioned into handing kids tablets and e-readers for interactive screen-time. It may be less guilt-inducing for parents, but it makes it even more imperative to find useful apps for children to play with. The lingering question, however, is whether interactive screen time can be considered a valid teaching tool for children as young as 2½.
Guernsey describes a 2010 Georgetown study (pdf) that tested the importance of interactivity on the screen:
Researchers randomly assigned children, ages 30 to 36 months, to one of three groups. Each was treated to a different version of a show that took place in a laundry room, where puppets would pop out from baskets or from behind pajamas hanging on the clothesline. In one version, the children watched the show play out on video. In another, they viewed the action on a computer screen and had to touch the keyboard’s space bar whenever they wanted to find out where the puppets were hiding. The third—the live version—asked children to watch an enactment of the show in a room set up to look exactly like what their peers were seeing on-screen. They watched through a windowlike opening the same size as a TV or computer monitor.
After watching or playing, each child was unleashed into that room to find the puppets. Which of these children would use what they had seen just minutes before to help them find the puppets?
Researchers found that the video-watchers went through a process of trial-and-error before they succeeded. It was as if they weren’t sure where to look. But the kids who had played the interactive game or watched the live demonstration did quite well, with most of them heading straight for the right place. Even the younger children—the 30-month-olds—made a beeline for the right hiding places, according to Alexis Lauricella, the lead author of the study. (She’s now a post-doc at Northwestern University.) Something about interacting with the content—about pressing that space bar to make puppets appear from their hiding places—seemed to improve their ability to learn from the screen.
Contrary to these findings, however, other research suggests that interactivity does not necessarily ensure the perfect learning tool. According to Guernsey, e-book studies at Temple University and the University of California at Riverside show that the “wow factor” of some devices can impede a child’s ability to recall the storyline of a book. Guernsey compares these findings to those conducted by Cynthia Chong at the University of Virginia, who found that even pop-up books can lead children at 2½ and 3 years old to learn less from the story than they would have from a traditionally formatted book.
Guernsey suggests following her “three C’s” when it comes to using screen media with young children: content, context, and your child. She adds:
Be picky about the content of what children see on-screen, and when choosing interactive titles, seek out those that put children in control without so many dead-ends and distractions. [...] Focus on context by being aware of what is happening before, during, and after children play their games or watch their shows, taking time to talk about what they’ve seen, and play some games together. And to accomplish that last C, tune in to which games and shows really interest your kids, what piques their curiosity and helps them relate to people and things around them.
Guernsey expands on these ideas in her new book, “Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child.” The book is an update to “Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children From Birth to Age 5,” published in 2007.
Resources like Common Sense Media’s Learning Ratings and the Fred Rogers Center’s Ele, an early learning environment site for educators and families, are great tools to help parents make informed purchasing decisions. Both sites evaluate the educational and entertainment potential of each app, and Ele provides a platform for recommendations and discussion.
For more on this topic, read Who’s Curating Digital Content for Kids? and Technology in Early Childhood: Advice For Parents and Teachers From A Trusted Source.
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