The first impulse of most well-intentioned parents is to think that toys that are labelled “educational” are better than those that are non-educational, according to Jennifer Adair, Professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Texas.
She says device and App marketing can be the most convincing.
“Why do we think phones and tablets will make young children smarter automatically if the games come from the “educational” section?” she asks. “Simply because App developers told us so?
“Everywhere I go – including in my own house – I see children on electronic devices having little interaction with peers or adults. Sometimes they look up, excitedly shout that they made it to a new level and then go back to the intense concentration some call learning.”
Professor Adair said she saw a recent television program that showed young children in poverty-stricken areas of West Africa using tablets to learn how to read.
“Children held tablets in their arms like teddy bears and smiled to the camera. One young girl alone on a bench stared intently at a phone, giggling to herself. The tech company executive said that tablet applications were key to improving education in places that don’t have enough teachers, such as Africa.”
But Jennifer Adair wonders what 5-year-old child with a tablet is going to get herself out of poverty.
“I know that children learn and grow in many different ways. Too often, tablets, phones, and apps distract rather than support the types of educational experiences young children need most.”
She says even CEOs of major tech companies saw technology as potentially harmful for young children.
“Technology can be a part of the process of learning, but not without people being involved and creating a creative and social experience with the technology.
“The problem is that so many children using iPhone or tablets are doing so alone without any kind of social engagement afterwards. In the report on tablets and education in Africa, there were no adults in any of the pictures, as if saying the technology made them unnecessary or replaced them.”
Professor Adair says that selling the idea that technology alone is the key to educating young children or changing the academic trajectory of a young child, regardless of where they live, is a “dangerous idea”.
“I often hear parents saying in disbelief but also proudly that their toddler can use the iPad by themselves with no help. But just because they can doesn’t mean they should.
“Young children need more than phones and tablets to learn. Young children learn best when there is stability, relationships, sustained dynamic learning opportunities, and positive environments that support healthy identity formation.
“So far, apps have mostly created isolated children, rather than experimentation, discovery, or socially engaged learning experiences.
“We need more apps that foster collective creativity and social experiences with young children, particularly for classrooms. There are only a few apps that allow young children to conduct research, pursue interests, or work collaboratively. Too many just act like electronic worksheets with points and cute graphics.”
Professor Adair says that she is like other parents.
“I get caught up sometimes in the promise of new technology with my eleven, nine, and four-year -olds. I want my kids to be able to use technology easily and effortlessly, but I don’t want the electronics to isolate them from one another.”
She says she has three operating principles when it comes to using and purchasing apps and devices in her household.
1. Electronics are always used with a sibling, friend, or in a social space, never completely alone.
2. Apps that are purchased should mostly be those that ignite curiosity or allow kids (even young kids) to do research.
3. Electronics have to take a rest if relationships within the household are suffering.
“Devices and apps are educational when young kids can be creative with them and apply what they are learn to objects and situations in their real lives.
“We try to keep anything that is not really educational but super fun rooted in the physical world and face-to-face interaction.”
Nonetheless, Professor Adair acknowledges that technology is critical for children around the world. She says the lack of both technology and teachers who are well trained to incorporate technology in innovative, engaging, dynamic curriculum have continued the digital divide between rich and poor in many countries.
“Technology should encourage and even require creative manipulation and social engagement.
“Just because a device or app is labeled as “educational” doesn’t make it so. Toys that prompt lots of creativity and social, in-person interaction are a much more educational option for a young child than a letter or maths game app.”