If young children are going to use and consume electronic media, which is better: playing an interactive app or watching a video? In a piece for Slate today, I describe results from an experiment at Georgetown University that tries to answer that question. The short answer is that an interactive touch-responsive game may promote more learning, at least with 2-and-a-half-year-olds. But the caveats are many. What I learned from researchers reminded me of a lackluster experience I had with my oldest daughter, then 4, when we tried out an interactive JumpStart game several years ago:
At my desk, with my daughter on my lap, we popped in the Language Club CD-ROM. In the game, children were supposed to dress a puppet by clicking on various clothing items, which the software identified out loud in whatever language was being taught. Once the puppet was dressed, it would dance. The computer told my daughter that she could choose a hat, shirt, pants, and shoes. “I want to pick a dress,” she said. “That’s not an option, kiddo. Pick one of the four on the screen,” I told her. My husband came in, peered over our shoulders, playfully snagged the mouse and chose a black top hat. “No!” my daughter hollered. “I don’t want her to wear a hat.” The hat came off.
“Now I want to see it dance,” she said. But the software had something else in mind. “You’re doing great,” it said. “You only need one more type of clothing to complete the outfit.” Reluctantly, my daughter selected the top hat, launching the puppet into a little dance as a song labeled its arms, legs, and head. Though my daughter quickly forgave the software for its stubbornness and begged for more, this was not the learning experience I had hoped for.
The story, "Can Your Preschooler Learn Anything from an iPad App?" (and the Screen Time book from which it is excerpted) explains how my family eventually dealt with demands for interactive technologies. I write about how we came to see the Three C's -- content, context and your child -- as a useful mantra for making decisions about media use. My hope is that stories like these might provoke dialogue among educators and parents as we and our children are whisked into the e-media whirl of the coming years.