The Kiddy Pool: Got Preschoolers? There’s an App for that.

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

According to the research group The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, more than 80% of the apps sold in Apple’s “Education” category are intended for children. More than half—58%—of those target toddlers are preschoolers. At over a dollar per app, these statistics indicate a considerable and growing market, raising questions about the quality and purpose of “4th screens” for small children. One of the biggest concerns raised by the Cooney Center is the educational quality of the apps being sold, particularly in relation to the “app gap,” that hopes to provide the best apps to children in need but with little access to technology. This is where the rise of educational apps for preschoolers really starts to give me pause. I automatically question the label “educational” as it applies to children’s toys because it so often seems like a gimmick. For the toddler set, everything is educational, yet it can be difficult to determine what precisely children are learning and how translatable that knowledge is. In terms of simply manipulating the devices themselves, it’s unlikely that we can even imagine the kinds of technologies that will be in use when these children come of age.

It seems to me, then, that educational apps should focus more broadly on critical thinking, imagination, and basic skills like math and reading. Many of the apps for sale do represent those traits, yet the selection and usage still depends on the discernment of the adults making the purchases. “App gap” or not, children’s education always needs to be mediated by thoughtful and invested adults; in that ideal scenario, apps can serve as an enrichment tool (like so many kinds of media), but not as a substitute for other kinds of interactions. I also feel hesitant about the push to formalize educational efforts for young children; that desire seems to represent a tension in our culture, where we strive for more formal education earlier and earlier even as we continue to hear about how our students are “falling behind.” I can’t help but wonder if the two trends are related.

As a parent, my objective is to foster my daughter’s natural intellectual curiosity. I want her to be a lifelong learner, passionate and wise and self-directed, which, to be honest, is precisely the opposite of what I see in many of my college-aged students who love gadgets but lack basic information literacy skills (An issue I’ve written about here). I don’t own any device that would allow me to access these apps, but I engage in more “passive media” nearly every day with my daughter. It’s part of our rhythm to watch a little Dinosaur Train (either on or on Netflix streaming) after her nap; she wakes up slowly, like her mama, and with a snack, a drink, and some cuddle time, the time-traveling dinosaurs ease us into a more peaceful afternoon.

For children my daughter’s age, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends a maximum of 2 hours of “screen time” per day, so that little ones get to spend enough time in more physically active and intellectually-engaged play. Our use of media is non-interactive compared to the apps described in the Cooney Center’s report, but it’s educational in that we discuss the episodes and play dinosaurs beyond the show. Parents can make any media interactive by simply staying involved. A lot of the apps described in the Cooney Center’s report suggest the potential for rich and engaging experiences for children—an exciting trend for technologically-inclined families as well as those disadvantaged by the digital divide. But those apps can only fulfill their potential within a larger context of quality, access, and interaction with both new media and discerning adults. Apps can facilitate critical thinking and creativity, but when it comes to wisely using media, there’s just no app for that.

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  • Geoffrey R.


    As usual, thank you for a thoughtful and well-balanced post. While some older educators may shun technology entirely, the new trend seems to be hyping up educational technology as though it is the savior of a failing system. Your insights about the intangibles in education–critical thinking, creativity, and wisdom–are right on. Technology is only as valuable as the mind and heart using it.