When a toddler plays educational games on the ipod, ipad or other screen device, are they actually learning? What is happening with their brain development? Pediatricians don’t know, but they have seen a corollary between early TV watching and shorter attention spans. There are many educational apps out there, and quite a few of them are aimed at toddlers and small children.
I have my doubts that a child playing with a finger paint app is enjoying and learning in the same way as a child sticking his hand in gobs of gooey finger paint, smearing it all over the paper, making patterns, and creating pathways of paint with depth and texture. He can smell the paint, feel the paint, create with the paint, and of course he can make a huge mess with the paint. But, perhaps that is the point; his paint is real, with true consequences, sensations, and responses.
The smells of finger-paint and play dough triggers pleasant memories. What will the iPad playing toddler remember? Flashing lights and an unnatural zoning out, a calm dopamine enhanced trance?
When my kids were younger we tried a few of the educational computer programs, but quickly I discovered that they were simply clicking on answers until the right one was chosen. They were not thinking, creating or working; they were chasing green lights or whatever electronic reward they could get. Some games were better than others; our favorites were puzzle-solving games that made the kids try to figure out clues or keys to solving problems. Their favorite educational game was The Oregon Trail, where we learned that pioneers died of dysentery, nearly all of them. I never blocked computer and video games for my older children. As long as the kids were enjoying real experiences, real books, and the outdoors, I had no trouble letting my school age kids play on computers or video games. I would feel different about toddlers and babies, who do not need computers, iPods or video games and especially TV.
Games have improved, but they are also targeting younger and younger children. I believe these games encourage passivity, not creative thinking or working for an answer, just a passive clicking to earn a reward.
Do I think computers and electronic items are bad for kids? It depends on the age of the child and how they are used. I read about a group of children that used their tablets in exactly what I would call the perfect learning activity.
A group called One Computer per Child chose two very isolated villages in Ethiopia and dropped off boxes of tablets. Each village got a solar powered charger and instructions on how to use it before the group left.
The children opened the boxes, found the tablets and began to explore. The goal was to see if the children could learn to read through the use of educational apps alone. A few of the kids learned to sing the ABC’s, and one boy worked out how to write LION on an animal word app, but the real learning was observed in a different and unpredictable way. With no computer training or experience, some of the kids figured out how to override programming that had disabled the cameras, and they also figured out how to change the tablet start up screens, overriding another program. Instead of learning how to spell or read, they learned how to hack systems that were beyond their experience.
Now these kids were learning! They took an unfamiliar object, learned how to use it, and then with creativity they leaped beyond the expectations. There was no one to direct them to correct learning outcomes, no one to show them what they should be learning, so their natural curiosity and desire to understand and achieve a goal pushed these Ethiopian children to learn more than planned.