“Now I want to see it dance,” she said. But the software had something else in mind. “You’re doing great,” it said. “You only need one more type of clothing to complete the outfit.” Reluctantly, my daughter selected the top hat, launching the puppet into a little dance as a song labeled its arms, legs, and head. Though my daughter quickly forgave the software for its stubbornness and begged for more, this was not the learning experience I had hoped for. Granted, it was supposed to be a vocab game, not a child-directed fashion show. But the interactivity seemed like an add-on—narrow, arbitrary, and overly directive. Another drawback: When the song came to the word “arms,” it was the hands that moved.
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. (However, I have seen some recent products that favor creation, including DoodleCast, ItzaBitza and in-development computer programming software for preschoolers called Scratch Jr.)
My family never went back to the JumpStart software (and my kids have since grown out of preschool games). Instead, the research led me to come up with a mantra for when and how to use screen media with young kids. It’s the Three C’s: content, context, and your child. (OK, so I fudged the last C a little.) 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. (Common Sense Media, a nonprofit children’s advocacy organization, is making this a little easier with its just-released website that rates apps for their learning potential.) 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.
Our households may not be Georgetown labs, but we have to keep testing interactivity’s value: Is that touchscreen triggering actions and ways of thinking that could come in handy in the real world—or merely leading our kids to touch another button?
This article is adapted from Screen Time: How Electronic Media—From Baby Videos to Educational Software—Affects Your Young Child. Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate, explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.