In my struggle to avoid relying too much on screen time as a parenting crutch, I have a few overarching goals that I try to keep in mind. One is that I want to do what’s best for my kids, promoting their healthy development and fostering their natural curiosity. I want them to love reading, but I recognize that I can’t force this so I try to give them lots of positive exposure to books and reading. To the degree that it is age and developmentally appropriate, I want to foster their independence and ability to make good choices and to entertain themselves without constant input from mom and dad (and yes, this has the added benefit of giving mom and dad a little break once in awhile, too).
When I first started letting my older son use my iPhone, we kept the time and the apps very limited. We started with simple word and letter games, and Elmo’s Monster Maker to help acquaint him with the touch screen. I introduced ebooks a little hesitantly, because I was afraid that reading books on the iPad could make him lose interest in print books. Boy, was I ever wrong.
We have a handful of ebooks for which we don’t have a corresponding print version, but of the books where we have both formats I’ve found that reading the digital version increases my son’s interest in the print version every time. He interacts with them differently and has never seemed confused by the different formats, but moves back and forth between them with ease. This is one of the clearest and simplest connections you can make for your child, and when you want to limit screen time sometimes the easiest thing to do is to pull out the print version of a favorite digital book.
But there are quite a few other activities we’ve found that tie in well to what my son is interested in doing on the iPad, and I try to pay attention so I can capitalize on those. For example, he showed a lot of interest in the word and letter game apps that we started him with, and it was easy to connect those with printed alphabet books. I recommend having a variety of alphabet books, with different objects or animals tied to each letter, upper and lower cases (not always in the same book) and a variety of fonts. Fonts can be a little confusing to children when they’re first learning the alphabet, so exposing them to the different ways that an “a” or a “g” can look is helpful.
If a child is a kinesthetic learner, there are lots of great ways to encourage letter awareness – give them magnetic letters they can move around. Give them materials they can manipulate to make letters, or show them how to make letters with their bodies. As they develop skills in other areas, you can incorporate more activities. When I noticed my son drawing letters in the air with his fingers, I picked up a couple of dry-erase activity books that let him trace letters, numbers and words. This has become one of our go-to choices when we need to cook or do dishes. My son sits at the dining table and writes letters and numbers while we do our work. And if you don’t have an activity book, you can just write some words or letters on paper for a child to trace and copy.
Games and puzzles are also activities that have strong ties between digital and analog versions. Some are very direct, like concentration or memory matching apps. If a child responds well to those games on the tablet, look for analog versions with the paper cards that they flip over. My son has older cousins who play a variety of different types of games on the iPad, and he is always checking out what they do (and we monitor that carefully). When he was about 3 I noticed that he seemed especially interested in games that required some analytical skills, but couldn’t quite manage the complex tasks involved in games that were designed for older children. So we pulled out some jigsaw puzzles and he really took to them. As his skill developed he achieved a level of independence with the puzzles that allows us to focus on other things while he works (and as a bonus they are a great calming activity before bedtime).
Another activity my son enjoys is looking at family photos on the iPad. That’s another one that’s really easy to connect to a non-digital activity. Pull out old photo albums, have the child look for people he knows and tell stories about what’s going on in the photos. It’s another way to build narrative skills and engage a child in non-screen-time activities.
As my son gets older and develops more independence, it gets easier to find a balance between sitting right next to him whenever he’s engaged in media activities or play, and using media as a babysitter. It’s valuable and still often necessary to sit with him as he does certain types of things – paying attention pays dividends in more ways than one. But now we have a tool kit of activities that he can do while we accomplish other things. If we stay in the same room, I can carry on a conversation with him and ask him questions about what he’s doing while I fold and put away laundry, for example.
Boundaries and transitions are important, too. We don’t have hard and fast rules about “x minutes of screen time a day.” We’re a little flexible depending on the schedule for the whole family. So it’s crucial that my husband and I stay in communication about what we’ve done during the day. Some days there will be screen time, and some days there will be none, but we need to keep track to make sure we’re not inadvertently allowing too much. If we notice that our son is getting resistant to putting the iPad down when it’s time, we put it away for a couple of days. But we’ve found that we can often help him transition to another related activity and that really cuts down on the fuss. If he’s playing with an art app on the tablet when it’s time to turn off the screen, we might offer to get out markers and paper so he can keep drawing.
Another big key to this whole picture is modeling the behavior we want to see. Children are natural imitators. Every parent knows that the plastic toy cell phone has no appeal to their child. They know that’s not the one mom or dad actually uses. They want to get their hands on our devices BECAUSE that’s what they see us using. So sometimes the best way to encourage kids to engage in non-screen-related activities is to put away your own devices and let them see you doing other things.
I fully acknowledge that children are individuals, and that what works for one child or family doesn’t always work in other circumstances. But I think children are naturally voracious consumers of the world around them, and they are also naturally format agnostic. If we foster those qualities, they will last, and our kids will have skills that help them maintain a balanced media diet into the future.
There’s been a lot of discussion in library-land lately about whether or not libraries should be promoting screen time for kids by using iPads and other screen technology in storytimes and programs. Cen’s already made a strong case that we can use screen technology in a positive and educational way, and I agree with her wholeheartedly.
I’ve known Cen for a few years now. We attended the Eureka! Leadership Institute together in 2008, but we really bonded after the Institute, because we had our babies within a few months of each other. Now, I love being a mom, but it is HARD. Cen and I come from different family backgrounds and we have different parenting styles, but we commiserated over shared trials and tribulations of parenting, and a friendship was born. And although this isn’t my main point, I want to vouch for Cen: she is a woman who walks the walk. She has done an admirable job with her son of using screen time in a very limited way and not as a babysitter, and her son is reaping the benefits (seriously – his language skills are phenomenal). She wants libraries to be at the forefront of developing best practices in the use of technology with children because she recognizes that not every parent has the knowledge or skills to make the best use of screen technology, and there’s a lot of damage being done unintentionally. I’m in awe, honestly. You see, I’m coming at this from a somewhat…different place.
I was flipping through a fashion magazine recently and saw a little feature where actress/singer Jennifer Hudson talked about some of her favorite things. She mentioned the iPad as an essential tool for busy parents, and I felt a rather large twinge of librarian mommy guilt, because OMG can I relate! I think it’s important for libraries to promote healthy use of screen technology because, even though I am a librarian and I know all the research about screen time and brain development and attention, I still struggle not to fall back on it as a crutch with my older son.
And I’m one of the lucky ones – although I work full time, I have a supportive husband at home and an awesome mom who lives within a couple of miles of me, so it’s not like I’m a single parent trying to manage on my own. But juggling parenthood with other responsibilities still overwhelms me sometimes, and as much as I would like to say that my son never uses the iPad without me or my husband sitting right next to him and engaging in the activities with him, that’s just not the case.
And yes, I admit it, my sons saw lit screens before they were two.
I have two boys – ages 4 and 14 months. We’ve been successful in keeping my younger son away from screens for the most part, but he does occasionally get a little bit of incidental TV exposure. He hasn’t shown much interest yet, which makes things easier. My older son has a varied media diet – we read a lot of books, listen to music, watch TV and use the iPad or iPhone with a variety of apps. We are selective in what he consumes and try to be vigilant about how much, but that’s where things get dicey fast.
I remember talking to my sister on the phone a couple of months after I had my second son. I was in tears because I was so overwhelmed, and my older son was acting out and the only way I could manage him while I was busy with the baby was, you guessed it, screen time. I felt so guilty, and yet I didn’t have the mental or emotional resources at the time to find other ways of coping.
My sister talked me off the ledge and assured me that the difficult season would pass, and it did. But there have been others, and every time things get hard I have the inclination to fall back on screen time to help me manage.
I know, I know, first world problems. Parents managed to get by for centuries without screen technology. Of course it can be done. But when the option is right there, well…it’s still by far the easiest way to make sure that our 4-year-old is safely occupied when we need to be doing something that requires our full attention, and that’s a powerful draw. Because he’s too big for one of these. (And no, I would never, although I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind).
I always check out app recommendations for kids when I see them on Pinterest or other sites, and it’s dismaying to see how often parents are recommending apps as a way to buy some quiet time away from their very young kids, and focusing on apps that suck kids in without regard for any quality or educational benefits. The stories people tell and the comments from readers are eye-opening (here’s just one example), and I would suggest them as recommended reading for those who think libraries have no role in educating parents about healthy use of various screen media.
For all my failings, it’s important to me to select quality resources for my son, and to develop tools that help me as a mom counteract my own worst impulses. I’m working to find healthy ways to keep my older son engaged and occupied when I need to without resorting to using the iPad or TV as a babysitter, and I’ve found that interacting with him when he uses the iPad and paying attention to what he’s drawn to has helped me tie in non-screen activities that are just as engaging and help minimize his technology exposure.
As a librarian, it’s important to me to share what I find with others. Tomorrow I’ll talk about some of the techniques and activities that I’ve found helpful as I muddle my way through, and I hope you’ll use the comments to let us all know about others that you’ve come up with in your library or family experience so we can learn and grow together.
The final criterion I’m going to talk about in this series on evaluating apps is the consideration of how the app or ebook is going to be used. Different qualities become more important when you are using an ebook with a large group than when a single parent and child are using it together. What makes this difficult is that there’s no sure-fire way to tell if something is going to work in a storytime or program. There’s a certain amount of trial and error involved (see Cen’s posts on her Tablet Tales pilot project for more on this).
If interactive elements are too distracting in a storytime setting, that ebook might be more appropriate for one-on-one reading or for use in a more hands-on program (see Paige’s posts for some suggestions). You can choose ebooks that are a more direct analog with the print book instead of those that are filled with additional interactive features. The iBooks or Tumblebooks version of a book can sometimes be a better choice for a storytime setting than an interactive app. Librarians might feel more comfortable incorporating digital media into their storytimes if they start with the ebooks that lack interactivity or have interactive options turned off. As comfort with the technology increases, they can branch out into incorporating books with more interactivity.
My main caution here is not to dismiss an app or ebook just because it doesn’t work in one setting. Most books that work well in storytime will also work well for one-on-one reading (see The Very Cranky Bear), but the opposite is not always true. Cen found that Wild About Books can actually make you feel a little dizzy when it’s projected on a large screen. Some activity-based apps can be used both in a parent/child setting or in a larger program with multiple activities.
Just as it’s important to consider the intended age and developmental level when choosing apps, it’s also important to think about how the app will be used. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different ways of using an ebook or app – have fun with it! Play! And as you do so you will refine your knowledge of what works and what to look for in the future. Children learn by playing, and guess what? So do we! So enjoy branching out into a new area, and let your exploration of digital collection development for your library give you a great excuse to play and have a lot of fun on the job.
Today I want to talk about annoyance factors in apps and ebooks, and this is a little bit difficult because it’s largely subjective. We can probably all agree that adds in apps are a huge annoyance, but a voice that sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me might be perfectly pleasant to you, and vice versa. That’s why customization features in apps and ebooks are so wonderful.
I love apps that allow you to turn the reader’s voice on or off, and bonus points to those apps that allow you to choose from multiple voices. Turning music on and off is another common feature. One of my frustrations with the Freight Train app is that the music (with lyrics) plays OVER the book narration. Whose genius idea was that? But at least you can turn the music off and just read through the book.
I’ve been very happy with most of the apps I’ve seen from Learning Touch, but the narrator/singer’s voice in the First Letters app makes me contemplate violence. HULK SMASH IPAD!!!! Your mileage may vary. So far, my son seems largely unbothered by the things that drive me bonkers, but since we are trying to encourage parents to use electronic media alongside their children, the parental reaction has to be considered as well. Let parents know that they frequently have choices in how the app plays and sounds.
Free versions of apps are typically ad supported, and many apps will try to get you to purchase additional features or more apps from the same company. Even though you can turn off the possibility of in-app purchases on many devices, it’s still often possible for children to accidentally exit the app and open a website. As much as possible I only use free apps for evaluation purposes and spring for the paid version for the apps I want to keep. It reduces that particular annoyance significantly.
When you’re evaluating apps, try to consider whether aspects of the app might be annoying to some people and look for customization options that let you minimize the annoyance factors.
A lot of my discussion thus far has focused on avoiding potential negatives in apps and ebooks, but today I want to talk about how quality apps and ebooks can help develop children’s early literacy skills, enhancing, among other things, their interest and motivation for reading.
As a parent and a librarian, my goal with my sons is not that they be able to read at a 6th grade level by the time they are 5 years old, but mainly to develop in them a love for books so they have a foundation of a positive experience of reading to build on as they learn and grow. I don’t believe that’s something that can be forced, but it can certainly be modeled and fostered, and digital media can be helpful tools in that process. In a future post I’ll be talking in more detail about some helpful skills and techniques for parents who want to use digital media with kids in a positive way, but today I’m focusing on the features of the apps and ebooks themselves.
There are some common ebook features that do a nice job of fostering early literacy skills. Most ebooks have a “read-to-me” feature, where a recorded voice reads the story aloud and the words are highlighted as they are read. Children can then touch any word to have it repeated. This is an aid to developing print awareness in children. It helps them to become aware that a story is made up of individual words, and how to begin to decode the reading process. (NOTE: I’m not advocating using the device as a babysitter here – parent involvement is still recommended.) I like to read the book myself sometimes, and sometimes use the read-to-me feature just to vary the experience for my older son and emphasize different things at different times.
Word and letter games can also be great for developing letter knowledge, vocabulary, and phonological awareness. There are some excellent letter-matching apps available. We’ve had good success with the First Words apps which allow you to switch between letters and phonetic sounds, but there are others available as well. Books and apps with rhymes or songs can also help with phonological awareness. Matching words or letters with pictures can help a child develop vocabulary as well as letter knowledge. Tacky the Penguin is a nice book-based app where touching the pictures brings up a word that relates to the text of the story – very nice integration of skills, interactivity and story.
The great thing about apps and ebooks for kids is that there are wonderful and engaging stories and games available that do a nice job of educating and helping develop skills in children while keeping the experience fun. Look for apps that support one or more early literacy skills and you’ve given your staff and the parents in your community another fun tool to use to help children become lifelong readers.
Another aspect of interactivity that applies to both ebooks and other types of apps is affordance: the cues that make interactive elements discoverable and show children what the action possibilities are within the app. I perso
nally don’t mind if there are hidden “easter eggs” in an app that a child will only discover through random play, but the elements that are crucial for advancing the narrative of the story or moving forward through the app should be indicated in a way that a child can easily identify them.
It doesn’t have to be obtrusive. Affordances are handled subtly but beautifully in the Peekaboo Forest app. A small repeated motion on the otherwise still screen draws the child’s attention, and when they touch the moving object, an animal appears. It might be a waving tail, a moving leaf or a hint of flapping butterfly wing, but the movement within the Charley Harper illustrations is just enough to capture the attention of a child and draw the touch interaction that brings out the animal.
In the Barnyard Dance app, there are subtle arrows indicating which way to swipe to make the animals execute the various parts of the dance (click on picture to enlarge). In The Monster at the End of this Book app, touch points are highlighted in yellow. There are many ways to indicate interactive elements, and some are more obvious than others. When selecting and recommending an app or ebook, it’s important to think about whether those cues are simple and clear enough for the age and developmental level of the intended audience.
Interactivity is a big focus of many ebook designs, and is also getting a lot of the attention in the research on kids and digital media, for good reason. It has tremendous potential for both positive and negative application. And it’s easy to be swayed; some of the designs are beautifully or cleverly done, and it’s easy to lose sight of how they affect a child’s experience of the book in question.
It’s very important to pay attention to interactive elements in apps and ebooks for kids – watch children using them and you will quickly see if those elements enhance or detract from the experience. Based on my own observation, interactivity in ebooks should usually be minimal, and must be very well integrated or it disrupts the flow of the narrative. There’s much more leeway with other types of apps where linear progression is less important and the interactions can be very engaging.
My son loves Popout! The Tale of Peter Rabbit, and most of the interactive elements in that book are pretty subtle and just illustrate actions in the book. But I dread the part with the blackberries, because it pulls him out of the narrative into a blackberry squishing game and disrupts the flow of the story. I’m willing to continue using an app or an ebook with just one strike against it, but it’s totally unnecessary and the book would be better without it. It’s a shame. By contrast, the Callaway version of The Monster at the End of This Book is delightful, and the interactive elements are limited to those that move the story forward. It’s one of my son’s favorites, and one of mine, too.
When evaluating ebooks, make sure that any interactive elements are really enhancing the narrative and not distracting the child from the story, or that they can be turned off in the settings. I recommend saving game-like activities for actual game apps instead of stories.
Are the controls easy to identify, and where are they located? Are they placed in such a way that a child will be accidentally touching them all the time? Pagination controls for ebooks at the bottom of the screen will frequently be activated by accident. It may not be a disaster, but it takes the child out of the flow of the narrative and makes the reading experience less engaging.
Is it too easy to exit to the menu or other customization features? If these options are available on more than just the home screen, they should be as unobtrusive as possible. Requiring at least two touches to activate a menu is ideal as a guard against accidental exit from the narrative or the app experience. The First Words and First Letters apps handle this very nicely. The icon that takes you to the options page to change settings is very small and unobtrusive, in the upper corner. Touch it once and it moves to the center of the top of the screen. Touch it again and you exit to the menu. It’s difficult to activate without intention.
The best way to evaluate these issues is to field test with a child. Trust me, if there’s a button, they will push it. I didn’t realize how much of a problem controls on the bottom of the screen could be until I noticed that my son frequently holds the iPad on his lap right against his stomach and his tummy rolls will sometimes activate the controls! I doubt most app designers are thinking about that when they are working on their designs, but it’s the kind of real-world occurrence that you will see over and over when working with kids and technology.
Controls that are needed to successfully navigate the app should be clear, and ideally located at the top of the screen. They should be simple to use, and especially for young children there should not be too many options on the screen at once. A screen cluttered with controls is distracting and diminishes the effectiveness of the app or ebook.
One of the first things I think about when looking at a new app or ebook is the age appropriateness. As librarians, we’re used to doing this with books, but digital media add another issue into the mix. Now we’re not just talking about the appropriateness of the content, but the functionality. Does a typical 3-year-old have the dexterity to execute the necessary swipes, taps and other gestures needed to move through an ebook or complete tasks in an app? Are the gestures simple, or is the child expected to do two or more things at once? Are the navigation cues in an ebook clear enough for a young child?
With younger children or those who are just starting out with touch-screen technology, you want any touchable elements to be large and obvious enough that they don’t require too much precision or guesswork, but as children grow and develop they become adept at interacting with the screen and can handle more difficulty.
Older children may lose interest in apps or ebooks that are too simple for them, but many apps and games have levels or features that allow the app to grow with the child. Eric Carle’s My Very First App is a good example of this. It’s a memory/matching game, but with three different levels. The easiest level shows only two images at a time. The child swipes across the screen to change an image and is able to match a picture with its color or an animal with its home. The next level is a traditional matching game, with “cards” that the child turns over by touching. The third level is the same game, but with more (and therefore smaller) cards. Each level requires not only a higher level of cognitive development, but also a higher level of dexterity and precision.
With function as with content, we want to choose appropriate resources so that children are engaged and even challenged, but not frustrated or discouraged.
The holidays are officially over, and chances are good that a bunch of your library customers have shiny new tablets and electronic devices at home. If you haven’t already started, now is a great time to start curating a collection of apps for kids – apps you can recommend to help develop traditional and media literacy skills; apps that can be used for library programs or one-on-one with parents and children.
Cen has made a great case on this blog and elsewhere for libraries providing these services to parents and children. The fact is, kids are using these devices whether we like it or not. It’s not about whether we should encourage their use, but about helping the parents and kids who are already using them to use them wisely, to select good resources and to integrate them as part of a balanced media diet. It’s a very natural extension of what we do with books and other “traditional” media. And in some ways it’s even more important: app stores don’t let you “try before you buy” so parents are flying blind, using a few screenshots and customer reviews of <ahem> varying quality in order to make purchasing decisions. It’s a perfect place for libraries to step in and fill a need.
I think it’s a great idea to have resource lists for parents. I suggest having both a printable list you can hand out and a page on your library website that they can bookmark on their tablet device with links to recommended apps by age/device, etc. List any apps that you’re using in storytimes or programs, but also have a list of additional great apps and ebooks that parents and kids can use together at home.
But how do you choose the best apps? What do you look for, and what should you avoid? Over the next few days I’ll be talking about some of the criteria you can use when evaluating and selecting apps and ebooks to use or recommend for children. We’ll look at intended use and age appropriateness; interactivity; design and layout issues; support of print and media literacy skills; usability and affordance; customizability; and some of the more subjective criteria to think about (i.e. the “annoyance factor”).
With each post, please feel free to add your feedback in the comments – are there apps or ebooks that you’ve used with success? Any turkeys you’ve discovered? There’s no way we can cover them all, so join the discussion and share what you know, and we’ll all rock digital services together!