Wired to learn

If they're capable of being as educational as they are entertaining, will learning-based apps actually make kids smarter earlier?
March 31, 2011

If they’re capable of being as educational as they are entertaining, will learning-based apps actually make kids smarter earlier?

Peer into the odd minivan and you’re bound to find a bucket-seated toddler swiping his or her tiny fingers across the screen of a sophisticated device like an iPad or iPhone. This phenomenon of young children playing with their parents’ mobile devices—aptly called the pass-back effect—has become so pervasive that it’s sparked questions about whether or not kids can actually glean educational value and accelerate their developmental milestones by fiddling around with learning-based apps. The debate is only beginning to be explored by emerging studies and reinforced through a slew of new preschool-targeted games designed to hone specific skills such as speech. While the jury is still out on whether kids are actually becoming smarter at an earlier age, researchers and mobile developers seem to agree that intuitive mobile devices and properly developed apps are making it easier to augment preschoolers’ pre-existing skills.

“There are a lot of apps on the market that claim to be educational. Many are and many are not,” says Carly Shuler, an industry analyst working for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. “We don’t know yet which are validated by research and which are just being marketed that way.” What Shuler’s fall 2010 study Learning: Is There An App For That? did show is that American kids have the potential to benefit educationally from properly designed apps.

The study—which focused on PBS Kids’ Martha Speaks and Super Why! iPhone and iPod Touch learning-based games—is the product of a children’s app market that has experienced exponential growth over the past two years. At the time of the study, 60% of the top-25 bestselling apps on iTunes targeted toddlers and preschoolers. While 66% of smartphone-owning parents are handing over their devices, they’re not completely sold on the idea of kids using them as learning tools. But learning tools they have become. The study found that 14% of three-year-olds improved their comprehensive vocabulary skills by using the Martha Speaks app, which is designed to bolster vocabulary and literary skills for preschoolers. And more than 50% of the four- to-seven-year-olds of various socio-economic backgrounds surveyed were inherently able to figure out the iPod Touch almost instantly.

The research also found that the most successful educational apps consider a child’s evolving motor skills, feature content that is narrowly tailored to a specific developmental age, link context to what children are already learning in the outside world, engage kids through laughter but are not necessarily edutainment, provide incentives, and offer shorter playing times. When these characteristics are properly implemented, Shuler believes that apps can have the same perception-altering affect on parents as Sesame Street has had over its past four decades on-air. “I am hoping that more industry and game developers will partner with curriculum developers, researchers and psychologists on app development,” says Shuler. “You need to test everything with kids, and that knowledge helps inform the field.”

Michael LeFort and his team at Brooklyn-based Mammalfish are already heeding that advice. The digital creative studio, which has developed mobile games for media companies like HIT Entertainment and Publications International Limited, is collaborating with Thomas Brothers Interactive, also in Brooklyn, and a number of development professionals to launch Shamba. This voice-recognition app is designed to help preschoolers sharpen their speaking skills.

“We’ve learned that kids enjoy fun, interactive and instantly rewarding content. But what also gets Apple excited is the opportunity to bring kids and parents together through learning tools,” says LeFort. The app’s main character, Shamba the “phonic fox,” prompts kids ages two to seven to say words aloud and responds with either applause or further encouragement. The app recognizes words in their simplest forms based on vocal pitch, attaching corresponding 3D objects to each word on-screen.

Mammalfish teamed with speech pathologists and audiologists to develop a vocabulary that varies from monosyllabic words to complex phrasing. The game is also the by-product of multiple focus group sessions and served as a catalyst in the establishment of Little Fish, the company’s new study work group that performs usability testing with children. “It’s monumental to stay within age-appropriate parameters,” says LeFort, citing a recent example where his company developed a children’s app that proved to be too difficult for its intended audience. “If we don’t overstep and use the tools of today to augment the lessons of yesterday, then we can all benefit,” he contends.

As a consultant to app developers and marketing companies, Gary Pope, director of UK-based Kids Industries, cautions clients about overestimating the physical and cognitive abilities of young children in the digital age. “The human brain has been the same for 150,000 years,” he says. “The fact that some clever people in California have made a device that humankind has been waiting for since the first Mac does not mean the next generation is ready to pilot the Starship Enterprise.” Broadly speaking, he adds, three-year-olds are in a pre-logical phase of development “and no amount of app play is ever going to make that change.”

Still, Pope does believe that the intuitive nature of Apple devices makes them an extremely age-appropriate tool for preschoolers. For instance, the act of coloring on an iPad is actually made easier than on paper since kids use their fingers and don’t have to worry about how to grip a crayon. “Kids are doing the same thing with these apps that they would be without them, only very often it is made easier by the device,” he says.

And with that in mind, Pope believes that the right apps can provide real educational value in terms of honing skills while simultaneously providing entertainment. He explains their prime educational value lies in the relatively simple “swipe-and-go” portable nature of iPhones and iPads. “Ease is key to learning, and there’s a lot of ease in an iPad.”

Of course, there is currently a digital chasm separating kids who have access to the devices and those who do not, and the debate over the educational value of apps lends itself to larger questions surrounding technological equality. While pilot projects are already putting iPads into global curriculums, the Cooney Center’s Shuler believes that a large cultural shift needs to take place before a mainstream educational one becomes possible. She says that given the affordability of many mobile devices and their 99-cent apps, now is the time to start closing—not expanding—the digital divide.

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