Show of hands, how many of your kids asked for an electronic device like an iPad, Kindle Fire, etc. for the holidays? Now with low-cost options on the market (like the Kurio), giving your child this type of “luxurious” gift might not be out of the question. But chances are, if you are like most parents I talk to you are worried about screen time, Internet safety, and whether your kids will learn from these devices.
In this post I am going to focus on children’s learning from these devices. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between student learning and tablet-mediated experiences. As an educational researcher, I have spent the last 3 years focused on students’ comprehension of texts they read on these devices – ranging from younger students reading interactive eBooks to older students exploring articles. In these two completed studies, my colleagues and I found that students generally had more difficulty reading texts on tablets than in paper form. Some might think that would lead me to conclude that tablet reading is “bad” for kids…but that is not my position on this topic (I’ll explain why below!).
To answer your question – should you get a tablet for your child? If you want to and you have the financial means to, go for it. But know that a tablet is not going to turn your child into a genius and it is not going to “teach” your child what you and your child’s school are not teaching. Below I will share some things for you to consider about your child’s tablet-based learning from an educator’s perspective:
Interact with your child and the device.
Kids are unlikely to learn from tablet devices without a caregiver or teacher directing the interaction. Think about what you do when you read a book with your child – do you stop and ask questions, point out pictures, and make connections to other books you read? Well, do these things with eBooks too! In a study out of Temple University, researchers found that parent-child interactions when reading eBooks often focused on technical aspects (turn the page here, touch this interaction) instead on the content of the book. Make a conscious effort to try and keep conversation focused on the book or the educational aspects of the apps – NOT on how to “use” the app.
Give your child a strategy for “reading” books on a tablet.
Kids are likely to quickly become overwhelmed with all of the choices they face when reading an interactive book on a tablet. With a print-based text, children’s interactions with the book are fairly straightforward…read the text, look at the pictures, turn the page. In an interactive book, there might be options for kids to make the illustrations move, look up terms in the dictionary, have words read aloud, color a picture, watch a video, or do a puzzle right in the middle of the child’s reading experience! One thing you can do is to help your child prioritize what interactions they should privilege as the read – i.e., encourage them to read the book first, then go back and read it with the interactions – (for me, the exception to this rule would be to encourage them to use the “read to me” feature if they are not capable of reading the book independently.).
Know your child is likely to be motivated by a tablet device.
This is an especially important consideration if you have a reluctant or struggling reader. Plenty of research and anecdotal evidence exists to support the notion that kids like using tablets for educational purposes. Just because kids like using a tablet doesn’t mean that a tablet is good for learning. However, as a former teacher, I can attest to the fact that my most difficult job was to motivate resistant learners. So, if a tablet motivates a child to read more, I believe it is my responsibility to find instructional techniques that help kids read on these devices instead of writing off the devices as ineffective for learning. My opinion is that teachers (and parents providing instructional support) need to begin to adjust our instruction so that what we teach is compatible and easily transferred to interactive texts. Because let’s be honest, interactive texts and tablet devices aren’t going to disappear as tools marketed for education any time soon.
Set limits that work for your family.
We use tablets for short periods of time on a near-daily basis in our house. I am not going to lie – we have definitely used the iPad to babysit our toddler when we have had an important conference call or papers to grade that just couldn’t wait. However, we generally try to set limits for iPad use that meet our needs. Often we are sitting next to our children interacting with them about what they are experiencing on the tablet. We have carefully selected what apps they may access (my iPad has folders like Preschool and Young Readers that house the apps I allow the boys to use). We try to limit the time they spend with their favorite “play” apps like youTube and Cookie Doodle, while encouraging them to spend more time with apps with a clearer educational focus. With this method, we find the kids are just as likely to choose Alien Buddies or Preschool Panda as they are to ask to watch the creepy dude who plays with kids’ toys on youTube (are anyone else’s kids into this guy or just my kids?).