Should Preschoolers Have iPads?

Lisa Guernsey, writing in Slate, questions whether iPads for preschoolers are really an appropriate and sensible way for them to learn.

The appeal is obvious. Many families are busy and stretched with work responsibilities that leave little time for active supervision and interaction with children. Since the television became an everyday household appliance it has been used as a pseudo-babysitter, albeit one which is widely condemned as a parenting failure. Now the advent of interactive media assuages some of the parental guilt at letting their children’s brains turn to mush in front of the idiot box. If it’s interactive the child’s mind must be working and engaged, right? Guernsey isn’t so sure.

As she points out there have been very few studies so far in the infancy of the technology that specifically look at tablets and touch screen phones as educational devices. The obvious answer is that yes, it is likely to provide benefit if pitfalls are avoided. In this case the obvious answer seems likely to be correct, backed up by a 2010 study from Georgetown University that engaged children aged 30 to 36 months with a simple electronic game that appeared to show a degree of interactivity significantly increased learning. However the interactivity needs to be genuine and integrated. It cannot simply be tacked on in a random, haphazard way if it is to be effective.

Child development specialists say young children learn best when they are fully engaged and imbued with a feeling of control. They encourage parents to seek out more open-ended games and toys in which children could explore and create at their own pace. Yet at the moment, not many apps are built with this approach in mind. A recent Australian study showed that only 2 percent of “education” apps in the iTunes Store allow for open-ended discovery and exploration.

Guernsey acknowledges that some recent products do a much better job of allowing true creation, such as DoodleCast, ItzaBitza and the programming software specifically designed for preschoolers, Scratch Jr., however she remains skeptical about the iPad’s suitability and value as an educational tool for the very young:

We have to keep testing interactivity’s value: Is that touch screen triggering actions and ways of thinking that could come in handy in the real world—or merely leading our kids to touch another button?

A platform which seems to be having more success with enhancing the quality of young children’s education is the NOOK; an e-reading device from Barnes and Noble that provides additional help for children still learning to read by offering interactive options and the ability to have the story read aloud.

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