Feb 062012

ipad tablet & child development

Our iPad toddler at 18 months

Done wrong, an iPad can be cerebral junk food to your child. Done right, it’s a magical looking glass into a world of discovery. Our family had to experiment on our own offspring. We didn’t have a choice. There are no scientific studies on whether iPad usage accelerates or impedes child development. Until the science is done, our family (and perhaps yours) are the cutting edge of research. My 2 1/2 year old has used an iPad for nearly two years. We monitored what worked and what didn’t; making adjustments on the way. We’ve learned a lot. It boils down to five principles that can make all the difference.
The 5 Rules

1. Tablets are for two

When a toddler uses an iPad you must be there observing and interacting the entire time. This is hard. Tablets are the best electronic babysitters ever invented. A child might sit there lost in the “10-inch gaze” for days. This tempts weary caregivers to take a much needed break. Don’t. Tablet time = together time.

The results of our real-world experience are clear: Tablet time alone yields poor results, even with the best educational apps. However, with an engaged parent alongside, even a non-educational game can become a wonderful learning experience. The other day we were playing Angry Birds together and saw an intro scene of the pigs putting on an old-style Japanese outdoor play. This triggered a discussion about kabuki theater, what emotions the masks represent and how an alternate tonal scale can make different sounding music. That can’t happen if you’re not there.

2. The iPad should be a launch pad

Rubber band-powered bird launcher

The tablet can be perceived by a toddler as their highest value toy. Don’t let that happen. Just because it costs a lot, doesn’t make it valuable. In fact, without you, it’s worthless. To toddlers, an iPad by itself is not educational. Think of it like a jump rope or piece of chalk. It’s not an activity, it enables activities you share with your child. As neat as it is, no iPad will ever be as educational or meaningful as interacting with you.

Connect the virtual with the visceral. Look for opportunities to turn on-screen iPad experiences into shared experiences in the physical world. For instance, my daughter was struggling a bit with those Angry kabuki Birds. Launching the bird from the slingshot just wasn’t intuitive. The knack of angling the slingshot farther down to make the bird shoot higher up on the other side was eluding her. Not surprising since she’s never seen a real slingshot. So last week we made a slingshot “bird launcher” out of scrap wood and rubber bands. We drew pig faces on paper cups and stacked them over plastic eggs. Targeting the tower of pig cups with a rubber band-launched bird toy was awesome fun. The physics of angling the rubber bands? Intuitive. Creating the bird launcher with dad? Priceless.

3. Be as picky about apps as you are babysitters

Who do you trust? I know my wife isn’t alone in subjecting potential babysitters to a background investigation worthy of the FBI. So, why would any iPad parent ‘drive-by download’ random education apps based on a couple of six word user reviews and a pretty icon? There are tons of kid apps. Most of them suck. Call me crazy, but maybe parents should spend as much time vetting their kid’s iPad apps as they do reading labels on the kid’s food

The skills some educational apps target are about as relevant to our toddler’s development as teaching her E=MC2. Forget about what seems educational and focus on the skills your child actually needs to develop today. For example, you might be focusing on motor skills one week and spatial reasoning the next. Other skills may include sequencing, patience, identifying emotions and short-term working memory. Based on your current objective, it’s possible that Angry Birds could be more developmentally appropriate for your child than an educational alphabet game. Only you can make that judgement. Make the most informed choice you can, then track the results. Is the targeted skill being developed? Is competency increasing? If not, then move on. You want to fit the app to the child’s level, not the other way around.

We’ve had great educational success with some non-educational games. For example, with active parental participation, Cut the Rope can teach sequencing and those Angry Birds can build motor coordination and spatial reasoning. We’ve also had good success with iPad puzzle games. Some of them ‘snap’ the pieces into position when dropped close to the correct location. This lets our daughter solve the pattern matching part of a jigsaw puzzle before her motor skills are developed enough to place the physical pieces.

4. Bring your child’s world into the iPad

ipad educational application

Flash cards of her own things

One of the best apps we ever bought was a $.99 flash card program. It came with the usual stock photos of animals and random things but it had one feature that was awesome. The user could choose their own images and sound files. I took pictures of things in my daughter’s life such as her favorite toys, clothes, even photos we took of animals at the local zoo and made a flashcard slideshow. Each time she tapped the screen it would show another image of something that was already real to her and she’d hear my voice saying its name. At nine months old, this was a revelation to her and she loved it. 

5. Keep it short. Keep it fun! 

Some educational apps have a ‘drilling’ approach. We avoid those. While formal education may require some work, learning should always be fun. There will be plenty of time for study and drilling in a few years. If my daughter gets frustrated, or I find myself “over coaching” her, it’s time to move on to another activity away from the screen.

At first we weren’t sure how long iPad play sessions should last. After much experimentation here’s what’s working for us. We let our daughter choose when to initiate iPad play and have been surprised that she doesn’t want it every day. Sometimes she’ll go without touching the iPad for a week or more. Once she’s playing, she usually starts losing interest after 15 or 20 minutes. The longest I’ve seen her stay interested was about 30 minutes. It’s rare that she asks for another iPad session in the same day. If she does, we just tell her that we’ve already done that today and we can do it again tomorrow if she’d like. As always, it’s best to set expectations up front. When starting a session we remind her how long the session will last and what’s going to happen after we’re done. “Let’s play with the iPad for about 20 minutes and then go to the park”. This helps smooth transitions from one activity to the next. For us the iPad is now just another addition to our parenting toolbox; next to all the other tools, techniques and activities we use to shape the experiences from which our daughter learns and grows.

What do you think? Do you have any tablet and toddler tips or tricks? We’re all figuring this out together.

  3 Responses to “5 Rules for iPads & toddlers”

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  1. Hello Mark,

    I just finished listening to “Mark Randall’s tale of how losing $650m changed his life”. What a remarkable experience you went through and things you learned along the way. I can truly appreciate your insight towards global education. I believe the urge to make a difference becomes inevitable after you go through the experience of having a child. Making a difference in “their” world becomes more of a priority.
    I’ve always been hesitant on having my 3 year old get used to playing around with technology whether it’s my EVO, the laptop, tablet or television. I’m very strict on the amount of television he watches but open to the idea of having him play on the laptop and phone simple because he is much more engaged and requires him to think.
    But you are absolutely right that if we use technology as a babysitter while we take a break then it is completely fruitless. I really like the idea of you playing angry birds with your child and then actually going out and building one in real life. It gives the opportunity to experience it in real life as well. They get the best of both worlds.
    On a side note, I love your concept about building a virtual education system that is harnesses the methodologies we apply in gaming and online products. We’re able to create such innovative products surely we can produce something that will have a global impact on education!

  2. I am really looking for advise on ipad use for my 2 year old, but when I read this article saying, “Sometimes she’ll go without touching the iPad for a week or more. Once she’s playing, she usually starts losing interest after 15 or 20 minutes,” well, that is just NOT my son. So how can this advise fit him and us? We are well educated parents and our son has all the great educational toys and activities he could ever need/want. He still would play 4 hours a day on the ipad if I let him! I am going to keep rsearching :)

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