Shalini Ramachandran works at the Boise State University library and is an MLIS distance student at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With the ubiquity of smartphones and tablets, web technology has become part of our everyday lives. Because the touch screen is simple to use, it has made our busy, multitasking adult schedules a little easier to navigate. There is an app for everything from shopping, to getting directions, to finding classes at the local gym. Children are also drawn to the mobile devices that they see their parents use. Because touch screen technology is more intuitive than a computer, we see more children, under the age of 5, playing and interacting with screens. There are also hundreds of apps and games available for children of all ages, many of which claim to be educational or help with school achievement. As a mother of a 10 year old and a 4 year old, both of whom use my phone and tablet to play games, I have wondered about the quality of these games and whether they are actually beneficial for children. I decided to do some research to find out more.
On the one hand, there is a school of thought that any media exposure, whether through T.V or computer screen time, is harmful to young children. On the other hand, there are companies that advertise astounding intellectual gains for children from use of their digital products. The reality for parents is that we have to look somewhere in between. Zero screen exposure can be unrealistic for families; most homes with children have mobile devices, and often, younger children see their older siblings playing a game and want to join in as well. Fortunately, there is credible research being conducted on gaming technologies and some of their positive effects. Not all of the “educational” apps are truly educational, but there are many really good ones. As a graduate student in library science, I took a class called Apps and Games for Children this summer, and came across some excellent resources that I will share here. I also visited the Meridian Library District in Meridian, Idaho, as public libraries can provide carefully considered suggestions for both reading materials and media resources for kids.
I found the three criteria recommended by educational media analyst, Lisa Guernsey, to be especially useful for how to choose high quality apps and games for children. Guernsey calls it the 3 Cs: Context, Content, and Child (cited in Julius). Context is about the purpose of the activity, what happens while the child is using the program. Young children learn through their senses. They learn best when they are being interacted with, talked to, read to, and played with. Some of you may have seen this sign, often posted in libraries: “There is no App to Replace the Lap.” Most early childhood research confirms that this is the case. What this means in terms of app usage is that for children under 5, the most beneficial apps are those that we can play together with them. Of course, most parents need time, here are there, for a break where we have children tinker independently with devices. There is no harm in that. But the biggest learning benefits for small children come from the human interaction, not just the app; a well-designed app promotes both hands on learning and social connection. The second C Guernsey mentions is Content. Researchers give high marks for apps and games that are creative and open ended. In contrast, games with violence and developmentally unsuitable content receive poor reviews. The final C is the child. Children learn in a variety of ways: active, exploratory, and sensory. The screen is just one of the ways to learn and play. Too much screen time can take away from other important activities such as reading, writing, socializing, pretend play, and active play. Balance is key.
When I visited the Meridian Library District this summer, the library was humming with children and parents, reading and checking out books, playing at computers, and on iPads. I asked Youth Services Librarian, Laura Abbott, about how the library selected their games and apps. She explained that all the technology in the Youth section was chosen for high quality educational content, good reviews from independent sources (such as Commonsense Media and Library Journal) appeal to kids (fun, interactive, and intuitive), and age appropriateness. Clearly, the Meridian Library pays close attention to the 3 Cs guidelines.
A question that is sometimes raised in discussions about childhood education is why have technology as an interface for learning at all? After all, many of us learned to read, write, and think, without apps. Why not just have pencil and paper, like the old days? This argument has some weight. In terms of the learning process, an app may not be superior to the low-tech ways that we gained knowledge in the past. However, there is good reason to expose children to technology at an early age, the main one being that computers and mobile devices are part of modern society. Not being able to use them with expertise will become a significant drawback as children proceed through school, into college, and the workforce. As the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center joint paper on technology and media for children points out: “Young children need opportunities to develop the early ‘technology-handling’ skills associated with early digital literacy that are akin to the ‘book-handling’ skills associated with early literacy development (National Institute for Literacy 2008). The International Society for Technology in Education (2007) recommends basic skills in technology operations and concepts by age 5.
I was heartened to observe that children had a lot of opportunities to handle technology at the Meridian Library District. Even toddlers were enjoying tapping buttons and making things happen on the screen. Even if they may not be playing a game “correctly,” they are gaining valuable skills. In addition to the young ones, Meridian also caters to the technology needs of tweens and teens. The teen room had a lot of collaborative gaming going on when I visited. The library also holds Game Nights, where teens play “Hunger Games” (via Minecraft) in a group setting.
Given the aggression in the storyline of The Hunger Games, I wondered about the level of violence in the game content during the library’s group gaming events. Guernsey and others have raised concerns about early exposure to intense media content. Gratuitous violence in video games is problematic, but the Meridian library is careful about screening for such negative content. Besides, some exposure to higher conflict themes can be developmentally appropriate for older children. My own 10-year-old plays Minecraft, and I figure that childhood play scenarios that involve difficult and even somewhat scary situations can be ways for children to understand and negotiate the world around them. In previous generations, children participated in backyard war games, “cops and robbers,” or other dramatic play. Today, some of that gaming action has shifted to virtual screens. Interestingly, education researchers Jose Bidarra, Meagan Rothschild et al. point out that online game-play may, in fact, have created more dynamic learning experiences for the current generation of youngsters: “[F]reedom of choice, challenge, participation, transparency, integrity, collaboration, fun, speed, and innovation has become a part of students’ learning experiences. In this context, playing games may be an important aspect of learning as this generation’s game-playing experiences are more widespread than the game-playing experiences of previous generations.”
The Meridian Library District’s technology resources are very good and thoughtfully chosen. Laura Abbott was also excited about the library’s plan to develop a new space for tweens, 10-13 year olds. The library studied the youth demographic in Meridian and found that the 3 top ages of library-card holders are 11, 12, and 13 year olds, whose needs are a little different from the older teen population. The library is, therefore, investing in books, board games, card games, and iPads for tweens. Apps and games are another tool in the arsenal for childhood learning, in addition to reading, school, and sports. Parents and educators can harness children’s natural enthusiasm for games to enhance their learning and academic skills. The Meridian Library District has recognized the advantages of introducing kids to technology at an early age, and is a leader in Idaho for creative digital programming for youth.
List of Apps available at Meridian Library District
ABC Theater: The alphabet Song
Adding Apples HD
Adventures of Captain Underpants
Animals in Pieces
Another Monster at the End of this Book
Ansel and Clair: Jurassic Dinosaurs
Art Makers by ABC
Atlas Matter (By Kid’s Discover)
Bobo explores light
Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe
Bug Zoo HD
Children’s Picture Dictionary
Curious George at the Zoo
Cyberchase 3D Builder
Daisy the Dino
Don’t let the pigeon run this app
Dr. Seuss Bookshelf from Oceanhouse Media
Draw along with Stella and Sam
Elmo Loves 123’s
Fish School HD
Geography Drive USA
iLuv Drawing Animals
Kids Discover Space
My Storybook Maker
OM Bookshelf from Oceanhouse Media
Pete the Cat
Tacky the Penguin
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
Wild about Books
Bidarra, Jose et al. “The AIDLET Model: A framework for selecting games, simulations and augmented reality environments in mobile learning.” International Journal of Web-Based Learning and Teaching Technologies. 8(4) Oct 2013: 50-71. https://www.academia.edu/11676682/The_AIDLET_Model_A_framework_for_selecting_games_simulations_and_augmented_reality_environments_in_mobile_learning. Retrieved July 20, 2015.
Julius, Gloria. “The 3 Cs for Choosing the Right Technology (Mobile Apps) for Children.” http://www.primroseschools.com/online-community/360-parenting/3-cs-choosing-right-technology-mobile-apps-children. Feb 18, 2014. Retrieved July 20, 2015.
“Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.” A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. Adopted Jan 2012. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PS_technology_WEB2.pdf. Retrieved July 20, 2015.