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Do Tablets and Smartphones Help Kids Learn?

Those of you who love all things tech will know that this week CES International 2012 took place. I was thrilled to be able to attend. Let me just say there are a whole lot of exciting products launching for kids (and moms and dads, too)! I’m still processing all the amazing gadgets I got to try out and learn about, so I’m going to hold off until the next post to give you a thorough look at the hot technology you should know about.

Now for a not-so-smooth segue into the topic at hand. As I was in a crowded corner of the show, speaking with the marketing manager for 3M’s touch screens, she candidly asked me an interesting question, “Do you think all these gadgets we’re giving kids are actually hurting them intellectually? Isn’t it over stimulation? Will they even be able to function in the real world eventually?” Her question is one that is asked by nearly every parent, teacher, grandparent, doctor and anyone else who cares about children’s development.

Our little family loves technology. My husband builds computers from scratch, I am obsessed with gadgets and our kids know their way around an iPhone and iPad better than most adults. I admit it – we’re addicted.

Having majored in education in college, I have often wondered if all the educational apps I have our 2 and 3-year-old playing are really doing them any good. I’ve read the articles and heard the interviews, but have been surprised at the lack of actual studies done on the question. I’m a skeptic and wanted to test it for myself. Just recently, my husband and I made a startling discovery.

Our 2-year-old taught himself to read…with the help of our iPad.

Sure, I taught him the alphabet and letter sounds, but nothing much beyond that. He’s only 2 – I was waiting until his third birthday to begin the basics of phonics and teaching him how to decode simple words. Obviously, my initial reaction was to think I owed all my thanks to the iPad, but that would simply be incorrect logic. Our 3-year-old plays the same games and can read simple words, but she did not teach herself – she would rather be outside doing cartwheels than sounding out words. Lincoln, our two-year-old, however has natural intellectual tendencies and the iPad simply suits his independent learning style. He can sit for hours and play around with letters and words and not get bored of it. Not every child can or will naturally do this.

Now, of course, our experience alone is not sufficient evidence to prove that tablets and other technological devices can help kids learn. This video, featuring a study done by experts, provides more substantial evidence than our seemingly-isolated experience.

Of course, balance is key in everything. If a school is considering implementing iPads into every educational program their curriculum offers, I would strongly discourage them from doing so. Some subjects lend themselves better to lecture format and could be seriously hampered by the exclusive use of iPads. Excessive use can also hamper children’s ability to listen well and comprehend auditorially.

Most parents, however, send their children to school that do not use tablets or computers heavily. As the video and study above demonstrates, tablets can be a wonderful way for children to get excited about subjects they typically appall. Thankfully, hundreds of wonderful developers have taken on the subjects of math and reading with vigor and the app store is loaded with wonderful options for parents to utilize. We have certainly benefited from them as a family.

I strongly encourage parents to do research and formulate their own opinion on this topic – every “expert” has a different opinion which is often not based on real-life studies, but rather on their own philosophical projections. As a family, we have decided to include the iPad when it comes to particular learning objectives and we’ve had great success with it. Each child is different and will respond to technology differently as their learning style develops. Ultimately, it boils down to you understanding your child and how he or she will best learn (whether than means including a tablet device or excluding it altogether).

If you love keeping your devices loaded up with educational apps, I highly recommend you become a regular reader for Moms With Apps. The wonderful ladies who run the site work tirelessly to keep parents informed about new educational apps as well as keeping parents informed about privacy issues regarding children’s apps.

I know there are dozens of opinions on this topic and every parent needs to delve into the controversy for themselves. I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter of handheld devices for the use of education in the comments below!

Hannah Camacho is an educator, mom to three wonderful children ages 3 and younger and proud wife of an Operation Iraqi Freedom Veteran. She is the founder of and When she’s not chasing her three busy little ones, she does freelance work for application developers as a mobile app marketing and pr specialist.

Author: hannah

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  1. Great discussion, Hannah. My kids know how to navigate my iPhone better than I do and are thrilled their classrooms are getting smartboards. That said, I’m intrigued and looking into enrolling my daughter into a Waldorf-inspired school that focuses on imagination and the arts to teach, not technology. Definitely an interesting discussion!

    • That is awesome, Amber. I really like the Waldorf method (my degree is in education). I know they are more anti-technology for kids, and I think it’s great! I’m interested to hear if you end up sending her there.

  2. They may help kids learn, but unfortunately they aren’t teaching kids anything that they need to know. The last thing I was my two year old to do (outside of a plane ride) is to sit on his tush for two hours and even worse would be seeing him spend that time staring at a screen. While it might be fun to brag about a toddler knowing to read or having them show off their ABCs, there are much more important things for them to be learning and doing.

    A toddler staring at a device for hours on end is missing out on physical activity, creative play, and any kind of personal interaction. They are also learning that they need to be constantly entertained and stimulated. Good luck getting them to focus on boring things like school work, or even yourself, in the future. Look around when you go out to dinner because that is your future. Two parents multi-tasking with their phones and two kids tuned into their devices. Ah yes, the avoidance of all interaction. You may have the least disruptive kids in the restaurant, but your relationship, and your kid’s ability to appropriately socialize are the price you pay.

    We keep pushing things so much earlier in this country yet we seem so surprised that our kids are falling behind when it comes to education. Your kid spending hours staring at any screen would be better served by basically any sort of interaction with you, his peers, or even playing alone. Desperate for your kid to learn the ABCs? Sit down and sing them the song.

    On the other hand, if you are looking for your kid to leave you alone and be quiet, then by all means hand over the device and let them zone out. To justify it as educational may make you feel better about it, but that doesn’t mean your child will benefit. This is one where the risk greatly outweighs the reward.

  3. Jenns, thanks for sharing your thoughts! I just wanted to clarify a few things that it seems maybe I didn’t communicate clearly enough and it seems you feel I was communicating. 🙂

    First, our kids go days without the iPad and are just fine about it. They gladly toss it aside to go play at the park or interact with other children. I don’t let them have unlimited access to it – as the parent it’s my job to step in and stop them if they are spending too much time on it. They actually completely in favor of playing together and exercising their imaginations.

    Also, I may have made it sound as if we’ve been pushing our two-year-old to learn to read via the iPad. This is not the case – I didn’t think he was cognitively ready to. However, on his own he kept exploring the reading apps and somehow figured it out on his own.

    I agree with you – kids cannot be dependent on technology and forget how to interact with people. Parents should limit their children’s time on the devices. My point in the article was that many people have strong opinions that aren’t backed up by studies and it’s interesting to go into debate with an open mind. Educational tv doesn’t necessarily force our kids to think – educational apps on the other hand force children to think and respond to questions in order to proceed.

    Also, I never want to “get rid” of my kids as you mentioned. I cherish all three of them. The iPad is a fun way for me to interact with them and teach them concepts they are interested in learning.

    Balance, of course, is key – too much of one thing is never good for our kids. I appreciate that you are cautious and careful about everything your child does. I look forward to the day when we have a backyard and live in a better neighborhood so they can run outside and play for hours on end. For now, that’s not an option, so the iPad occasionally provides a fun way for them to learn.

  4. A two-year-old learning to read is somewhat like a chicken learning to play tic-tac-toe. Interesting and intriguing — a conversation piece — but in the end the chicken is still a chicken and the two-year-old is still a two-year-old. Early readers start out ahead in school, but studies show that that “head start” balances out pretty quickly and early and late readers look much the same by mid- elementary school.

    At two,the most imporant learning that happens is along the sensory pathways, not the cognitive pathways. At two, children should be doing their learning based on what things look like, taste like, feel like and sound. They should be learning to make eye contact, to touch things gently (or to kick the stuffing out of them — depending on the circumstance) they should be pushing heavy things and spinnning in circles. They should be laying on the ground and looking at the sky.

    Studies show that there is a strong connection between children who have never crawled and learning difficulties later in life. This is because leaning about space and place and perspective and dimension is the work that babies and toddlers need to be doing.

    A tablet can “read” to a child, but — no matter how good the recording — there is a frequency compression that takes place in recording so that it can never fully replicate the human voice. More importantly, a tablet cannot replicate the rumbling vibrations on the chest and throat, the feel of mom or dad’s soft shirt or them smell of them, all of which add to the experience. This is part of the reason that having story time with your child curled into your lap is so satisfying.

    In my opinion, all screens should be avoided until two years, and then used only minimally (half-hour a day until age five and then an hour a day from then on). None of us is perfect, and most parents I know (myself included) succumb to the technological babysitter from time to time, but I am highly suspicious of claims that including screen time in your baby’s life is of benefit to his or her learning.

  5. Gwen, thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    I completely agree with you – our two-year-old learning to read offers no proof that the iPad is some “miracle” educational tool. I was simply trying to introduce the topic in an intriguing way. My degree is in the field of education and our son is in the moderately gifted category so naturally any learning tools and information he receives he soaks up like a sponge (whether it’s from me or a technological tool).

    I must not have communicated my thoughts very clearly here seeing as a few of you feel I’m suggesting the iPad become a babysitter or a substitute parent. That’s not at all what I was trying to communicate.

    I absolutely agree that parent-to-child interaction is THE MOST important thing for little ones. An iPad should never replace reading time. My point was that it can simply be used as a fun tool to reinforce what children are already being taught by their parents and at school. If a parents disagrees with me on that point, I’m more than supportive of their decision.

    I also agree with you that children under 2 should not be exposed to touch screen devices – our 1-year-old is never allowed to play with them. He will only be allowed limited use (as are our other children) after he is 2 years old.

    Hopefully that clarifies my thoughts a bit more. 🙂 I’m not presenting my views dogmatically or saying you are wrong – just wanted to open a dialogue on this hot topic.

  6. Hannah,

    Just to be clear, my comments weren’t directed at you but were about technology for small children in general. The trend that I see is that parents need a break (or just something fun for the kids to do) and so they hand over a device but tell themselves it is ok because it is educational.

    As a stay at home mom to a 3.5 year old and a 2 year old I totally get it. Taking away all television and screens from my boys doesn’t make my job super easy. I will say that there is compelling research showing that tv/screens lead to more challenging behavior and sleep issues and I have been surprised by how full our days our without those distractions.

    The Plug in Drug by Marie Winn is a great (old but updated) book that has loads of information and studies with regard to television use in children and touches on how similar to other screens it actually is. Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne is another great resource on how all of this screen time is really pushing our kids away from a true childhood and into the adult world.

    So again, while I understand why people use screens, to distract or to “teach,” I personally think that the harm outweighs the good. But as with parenting choices from circumcision to breastfeeding, all of our children are lucky that we care to do the research and make the decisions we feel are best.

  7. I totally believe in the tablet’s educational powers. My son has several apps on my iPad and my husbands Touch. He turned 2 in October and can count to 10 with a little assistance, has learned many letters and I think also recognizes some words.
    We have sat and counted toys and worked to teach him the letters in his name, but I can tell the pad’s impact as well.
    He usually watches PBS when he gets to watch TV, so Sesame Street also has an impact.
    It’s also taught him finger dexterity and problem solving, since he learned to navigate the apps by himself.

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