Friday, June 18, 2010

Kids, Technology and Tablet Computing

The other day I picked up a book at the library called Buy Buy Baby, by Susan Gregory Thomas. As the title would suggest, it was about the way that marketers target children. Some of the topics the author discussed were quite interesting, such as the KGOY, or "Kids Getting Older Younger" phenomenon. But after a few pages, I felt the author's skepticism about technology and children went a little overboard.

Generally speaking, I'm dubious of the claims made by the makers of "educational" toys. I applaud Ms. Thomas for calling attention to some of the silly tactics used by these toy makers to snag well-meaning parents. I'm especially wary of talking toys that purport to teach the alphabet, numbers, etc. If I can't decipher what a so-called educational toy is saying, how on earth is my kid supposed to learn from it? We've known for some time that children learn best by playing and exploring their environment.

But this is where I part ways with Ms. Thomas. She advocates "doing Nothing", which, to her mind, means shielding your children from technology and "watching and listening...with no goal in mind"(Thomas 227). She even pooh-poohs the notion of early literacy, scorning board books as "chewables" and suggesting that it's inappropriate to read to any child who still might be tempted to gnaw on reading material (163-165).

Technology may not make your children smarter, per-se, but I believe that mastering computing skills early in life greatly increases the ease with which children can adapt to new technologies. But technology can oftentimes do something even more miraculous: open new windows on the world for people with disabilities.

I read an incredible article this morning on BlogHer about a young boy with autism for whom the iPad is not just another toy - it's a tool that has changed his life. His mother calls it a near-miracle: the iPad has given her son a new sense of independence and has allowed him to play and communicate in a whole new way. Now, the author of Buy, Buy, Baby would probably dismiss the entire story as an example of viral marketing. I hope we aren't that cynical.

Tablet computers like the iPad are particularly accessible to children, and applications that don't require typing  on the qwerty keyboard are especially easy for them to use. But what if older kids and adults could write on the iPad touch keyboard without really knowing how to type? My husband introduced me to Swype the other day, and I'm in love. The technology is still in its infancy, and right now I believe it's only available for Google's Android phones, but if things go well, I'm sure it will be coming to other touch devices soon. Swype allows users to "type" or "swipe" 50 words per minute on touch-screen phones (without developing carpal tunnel!). Pretty neat!


acornmoon said...

A friend of mine has an autistic grandchild, she tells a similar tale. It seems that he suddenly started to write using the keyboard from the iPod, which was a great surprise because they did not know that he could spell or read.

Margaret said...

Thank you for the comment, Valerie! (I think this post might have been a little too tech-focused for a lot of readers). Anyway, I'm so glad to hear that your friend has had a similar experience with the iPad. I find it fascinating that this technology has been having some positive, unanticipated effects. Pretty neat!

skatej said...

As a Family and Child Development student, this is near and dear to my heart! Piaget was a proponent of letting a child learn by exploring their environment and even said that children learn on their own (which I agree with) and I think this is also part of Montessori's theory. I have heard some people mention that some things done in the name of early literacy have actually been detrimental to acquisition of literacy, though I do not know the research behind that.
From what I know about brain activity, a child probably shouldn't do much in front of the television before age two (interfering with the development of neuropathways), and Disney has already publicized a retraction of statements that the Baby Einstein videos increase intelligence(I've seen one and frankly don't know how they purported it to be educational). I agree that children should have access to technology as it is necessary to learn the skills needed later, much like a child should have access to a crayon and paper before they are able to actually draw or write, they need to develop those muscles and motor memory to develop fine motor movement necessary to write or draw.
Educational toys are another thing. I work at a Child Development Center on campus and was surprised to learn that playing with blocks helps children develop math skills. These blocks are cut so that they are units of a whole, four of one making up one of the other, etc., so they are not only developing spatial reasoning but knowledge of fractions, geometry, balance, and in many situations teamwork all through simple pieces of wood. Children are so hungry to learn that they will learn from anything in their environment. They really truly do not need battery operated toys to encourage what they will naturally do (in my opinion). That being said, there are some toys out there that I really think are rather revolutionary in their thinking. Instead of focusing on letters and numbers, they teach patterns, that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. Truly interesting. Again, though, this is something kids can learn through playing with various blocks and through reading with their parents.
As far as board books go, I think the important part early on is not so much the actual text of the book but the visuals. Engaging a child in the goings on of the pictures in the book have helped me teach children animal names, sounds, colors, different actions, feelings, all sorts of things.
What are this author's credentials? She does indeed seem on the cynical side!

skatej said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
skatej said...

Alright, a quick web search shows that Susan Gregory Thomas is an investigative journalist and doesn't really have academic experience in the field of child development. I hope she cited studies that were well-researched and had as little bias as possible.

Margaret said...

Thanks for the comment, Kate! The author of the book is a journalist, so not all that qualified on the subject, although she cites a number of selective studies. I think common sense comes into play here - obviously some educational toys are worthwhile, while others aren't (Baby Einstein definitely falls in the pure entertainment category for me, although it's probably not a risk to your children's health - unless you make them watch it 24/7).