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Planet of the Apps

February 04, 2014 | posted in: Apps, Early Childhood Education, STEM | comment

posted by: Mary Hynes-Berry

I’m beginning to see evidence that we have evolved into the Planet of the Apps. Technology is controlling human communication, with the dominant species tweeting, twittering, texting, and taking and sending photos and videos with Instagram instead of conversing and cuddling. This is especially true for young children. Photo/ Erikson Institute Photo/ Erikson Institute

I did find it disconcerting to have my 13-month-old granddaughter come over to me and manipulate my cell phone to see her cute little self in the photo I’d just taken. By 2 years old, she was joining her 6-year-old sister in playing games on the family iPad while on a long airplane trip. She’s 3 now and not only can she turn the device on and off, but she can find the game she wants to play or the book she wants to listen to. And she is by no means alone—just look around and you’ll see little ones everywhere doing the same all over the world.

Don’t get me wrong—I love technology. As a team member of the Early Math Collaborative at Erikson Institute in Chicago, I absolutely endorse the Fred Rogers Center/ NAEYC joint position statement on young children and technology, which states: “When used intentionally and appropriately, technology and interactive media are effective tools to support learning and development” (emphasis mine).

The question in my mind is how often the “intentionally and appropriately” condition is being met. For example, in my hometown of Chicago, 60 public schools serving at risk populations were closed last spring. Over the summer, schools that the displaced children moved to were shipped tens of thousands of dollars worth of iPads and tablets. However, absolutely no guidance has been provided to the teachers or administrations about effective ways to use the devices; nor has there been any training about how to choose and use apps that actually would further teaching and learning. This lack of support extends to the many other schools in Chicago and elsewhere, which are scrambling to get iPads in kid’s hands without doing anything to address the Joint Commissions’ second key point: “Intentional use requires early childhood teachers and administrators to have information and resources regarding the nature of these tools and the implications of their use with children.”

It’s a little like providing someone who has never fished with the latest in high-end fishing equipment and expecting that giving them the tools is the same as teaching them to fish. This kind of quick fix tends to be a waste of resources.

The best apps I’ve found are tech versions of the kinds of games and activities that parents, teachers, and siblings have done together for years —puzzles, card games, and dominoes.   

And the latest research shows there are no quick fixes when it comes to mathematics learning. There is good evidence that the quality of a child’s early mathematics experience is the best predictor of future school success. Furthermore, researchers agree that what constitutes quality are preschool and kindergarten experiences that encourage children to discover, explore, and actively engage in problem solving using many “math all around us” questions.

What does not pay off is getting 3-year-olds to chant the numbers from 1 to 100 rapidly or having 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds complete timed tests showing their mastery of math facts without demonstrating any understanding of place value or strategic thinking.

Unfortunately, the research I’ve done—as a grandparent as well as an early math expert—is discouraging. The vast majority of apps for toddlers to 8-year-olds are technological flashcards; children are asked to shoot down the correct answer to a naked math problem such as 3 + 5 and get rewarded with a higher score and brassy sounds. The graphics are poor quality with trite animated characters, the pacing tends to emphasize speed, and the sound effects are loud and jarring. If the wrong answer is given, there’s no guidance to help the child see and learn from her mistake.

Worst of all, the vast majority seem to be designed to keep the kids distracted instead of inviting the kind of conversation and interaction that promotes real learning.

There are some exceptions, but ironically, the best apps I’ve found are tech versions of the kinds of games and activities that parents, teachers, and siblings have done together for years, such as puzzles, card games, and dominoes. These all begin for young children as matching games (Old Maid, Go Fish, or simple dominoes) and then progress into games that call for calculation (21, Make 5).

Working with Amanda Armstrong of Erikson Institute’s TEC Center, we are in the process of drafting a rubric designed to help family members and teachers become more critical consumers of apps for young children. We consider three dimensions: the child, the content/design, and the context in which it is used. The following lists are what we examine in each dimension. 

Child Dimension

Tune in to the games and shows that really interest your kids. What piques their curiosity and helps them relate to people and things around them?

Find apps that meet the child(ren)’s abilities, needs, interests, and developmental level: Very well suited apps are:

  • Highly likely to deeply engage them initially
  • Highly likely to sustain interest
  • Likely to motivate playing/using again and again (and yet again)

Content Dimension

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.

Find apps that focus on growth in social-emotional and cognitive domains and feature strong technological design. Very well suited apps:

  • Thoughtfully focus on key social-emotional cognitive goals
  • Include rich, engaging activities that invite a high degree of interactivity and control by the user
  • Offer authentic problem situations that require strategic thinking to resolve
  • Provide effective feedback and scaffolding so that with repeated use player gets better and are offered new challenges
  • Make good use of latest technology and have aesthetic merit, free from extraneous/distracting “cute” sound and graphics

Context Dimension

Be aware of what is happening before, during, and after children play their games. Watch their shows, taking time to talk about what they’ve seen. And play some games together.

Find apps that complement children’s natural play and productive interaction with others instead of interrupting it. Very well suited apps:

  • Promote play along/play with important others, in a way that engages all parties
  • Prompt good conversation and connections between others prior to, during, and after play

One of the best app developers I’ve found based on these rubrics is A&R Entertainment. Its 123 Domino and My First Tangrams 2 are nicely paced and aesthetically pleasing in terms of graphics and background music. Children as young as 2 use their fingers to move the shapes directly. As the difficulty increases, they may need to flip or rotate them. Unfortunately, despite all my education, I had one problem. I couldn’t figure out how to access the Help function. I may have to contact my granddaughter…

Mary Hynes-Berry's avatar

Mary Hynes-Berry

Mary Hynes–Berry, Ph.D., is on the faculty at Erikson Institute and is a member of the Early Math Collaborative at the Erikson Institute. Once a math-phobic educator with a doctorate in English, she was converted to a math enthusiast when she directed a K-3 mathematics curriculum project for Encyclopedia Britannica.

Read more by Mary Hynes-Berry