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Conor Murphy‘s recent post on dogs and cats that love iPads got me thinking about babies:  how they play, what they play, how they learn to play, and how their digital play affects their developing view of the world.  These early life forays into digital worlds are more than just examples of funny play by babies.  It’s a window into their cognitive development, and also a great opportunity to observe small humans so we can make better interactive toys and games for them (and us!) in the future.

How growing up digital changes the reality paradigm

If you’re interested in learning about how a digitally wired brain works, I recommend Don Tapscott’s Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. What I find really amazing is how readily babies are able to navigate user interfaces, even without being able to read.

Here’s a nine-month old who knows exactly how to navigate to her favorite apps, and she learns that she can lift the device to change the screen orientation.

Beyond the nuances of interfaces, kids also learn how the system works.  My kid used to explain to me that something was ‘buffering’ when we had to wait for a show to load.

The importance of engagement and motivation in learning

This video of a baby crawling to an iPad is quite important.  It aptly demonstrates the role of motivation and delight in learning.


The importance of responsive talking to linguistic development

It’s amazing how babies learn any language they are exposed to so readily.  Not to take the place of human interaction, but technology devices can patiently ‘talk’ to a young child and allow them to experience the benefits of repetition and trial and error as they develop speech.


Using devices to assist communication pre-talking

There is a huge amount of work being done in the autism research space to help create applications that assist mute patients with communication.  It has been found that autistic children are facile and comfortable with technology.  This allows them to be more expressive and develop tangible skills to help them deal with their challenges.  Communicating via a device can  assist all children in early years.  A lot of two-year old tantrums are related to frustrations in communication and toddlers can benefit from feeling more in control of communication through assistive technologies.

Worried about screen time?

Do videos like this make you wince?  The child is watching a video and using a tablet simultaneously.

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages any media consumption by children younger than two, citing immature brains and a lack of other (more important) interaction from caregivers as the reason.  But the truth is that all human brains adapt to their environments (this is called ‘neuroplasticity’), and technological stimulation is definitely an important input.  It’s important to know that most studies in this arena are highly correlational:  they might measure children who watch or interact with media and notice ‘attentional’ issues.  But it could also just be that cognitively agile children enjoy exploring other worlds and interacting in novel ways.  Honestly, a lot of the ‘good’, traditional media is pretty boring for a lot of kids.  We might regret this fact, but it is a truth we must reconcile.

My take on this conundrum is to approach screen time in moderation.  In an increasingly digital world, denying kids the opportunities to become fluent in digital capabilities could handicap them later in life.  But do they also need ‘normal’ interaction?  Sure they do.  Just watch this great video of a baby ripping up paper to see how non-tech options can sometimes achieve just as much as the glitziest tech out there.

A bit of historical perspective: we worry about every new medium or technology that comes along.  Even books sparked a huge backlash from people who worried about the brains of children who were regularly escaping into fantasy worlds:

In 1835, the American Annals of Education declared that the “perpetual reading” of novels “inevitably operates to exclude thought, and in the youthful mind to stint the opening mental faculties, by favoring unequal development. No one can have time for reflection, who reads at this rapid rate.”

There is some great advice out there about putting away the phone and being more present for your kids.  I confess to being a bit shocked when I went to a nice restaurant one evening and saw a family of four waiting for their meal, each looking downward to a different device.  But I also think that technology can bring people closer together.  My kid and I have spent many an hour enjoying digital games together, and it’s great fun to find and download new apps for her.  The key is keeping it all in balance, not declaring technology to be a demon of any sort.

What they’re learning

So many parents feel guilty every time they drag out the ‘digital babysitter’, but is it really so bad?

Just take a look at this funny video of a toddler trying to use a magazine like an iPad.  She uses gestures that she has come to understand from other devices, and waits for the magazine to respond.

Humans learn through trial and error.  Devices that respond to attempts at interaction teach young minds that the world senses and responds to them.

When my daughter was about three, I was stunned one day to see her walk up to the TV and press something on a commercial that vaguely looked like a button.  She was looking for ‘more’, as in her paradigm, images and text often have information lurking behind them.  She has a deeply intuitive understanding of the idea of a hyperlink, and this perspective widens her world exponentially.

The future of tech and babies

This might be disturbing to some, but we are not far from the days when households will be outfitted with domestic helpers, and caregiving (of adults and children) is one of the major reasons a lot of research is occurring in this area.

Apps/games for babies and toddlers

Baby Sign Language
I taught my daughter a bit of sign language and it was very useful in her pre-verbal stage.

Learn to Talk
This is a flashcard app that uses sight and sound to teach babies and toddlers basic vocabulary and early language skills.

Peekaboo Barn
This fun app names barn animals in both English and Spanish and mimics the sounds they make.

An excellent app for teaching babies about interaction and feedback.

The Little Red Hen
I love interactive books, and think they are great for pre-literate kids.

Paint Sparkles Draw
Includes coloring pages and fun effects like ‘shake to paint’.

Fish School
This musical game has lots of different activities, including help learning colors, letters and numbers.

 What do you think about babies and technology use?  Let us know!

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