As your toddler’s tiny fingers swipe, tap and pinch a smartphone or tablet screen, you simultaneously fill with pride and fear. This is the modern parents’ dilemma.
On one hand you are filled with pride because want your child to be a proficient technology user. There is no doubt that they will inherit a digital world.
But on the other hand fear overwhelms you because you worry about the possible negative effects apps on their development.
Are apps simply digital baby-sitters? Can toddlers really learn from apps?
The answer to both of these questions is YES!
Yes, iPads and iPhones can be used as the digital baby-sitter*. But only if you select the wrong types of apps for toddlers. Toddlers (and young children) can actually learn from apps**.
[*I raise my hand here. Yes, as a mum and a children’s technology researcher I DO use the iPad as a digital baby-sitter every now and then. Do I do it all of the time? No, but sometimes, there are meals to prepare and work calls to be taken, without a three year old interrupting, and the iPad is my saviour.]
However, when I do hand over my iPad to my son, I am not riddled with techno-guilt. Absolutely none. Nada. Not a bit.
Why? I know that if I select the best apps for him that he can actually learn with the device. No. More. Parental. Guilt. (Well, not related to technology anyway.)
Why? Because initial research** is showing that young children, possibly even toddlers, can actually learn from touch devices like smartphones and tablets. Again, you have to select the best types of apps for young children. The design of the app is absolutely vital.
And this presents a real problem for today’s parents. At present there are over 800 000 different apps in the iTunes App Store alone. And the quality varies immensely. Busy parents and teachers do not have the time to sift through the apps to find the best apps for toddlers.
When it comes to apps for toddlers there are the good, the bad and the terrible. There is the full gamut. Trust me I have seen them all. I am just about to release an eBook titled ‘Appy Kids: A List of Recommended Apps for 2-5 Year Olds’. So I have road-tested a lot of apps.
Sadly, I have seen far too many drill-and-practice apps in the iTunes App Store designed for toddlers. These types of apps are NOT what toddlers need for optimal learning and development. I say this based on what the latest neuro- and developmental psychology sciences tell us in terms of what developing brains need.
The App Store is saturated with these rote learning apps for toddlers. Rote learn your colours. Trace letters. Count objects. There is plenty of time later on for formal academic learning.
Toddlers do NOT need digital worksheets. They do not need apps that promote the rote memorisation of skills and concepts.
Sure, your toddler’s proficiency with these rote-learning, drill-and-practice apps might impress Grandma or your friends. Let’s be honest, who isn’t impressed by a three year old who can trace letters or count a group of objects? It’s a really overt sign that they are learning. I hate to say it, but the chances are that your toddler may have also learnt these same skills from other screen-free experiences.
This early rote learning and memorisation of skills doesn’t necessarily correlate to later academic learning. And it isn’t necessarily what developing brains need for optimal, long-term development.
Am I saying that these drill-and-practice, rote learning apps are bad for toddlers? Not necessarily. They are just not ideal apps for toddlers. Using these types of apps every now and then is fine. It certainly isn’t going to have an adverse effect on your toddler. But it is not the best use of the technology.
Am I saying that we should avoid these types of apps? Again, not necessarily. We just need to use them sparingly. They shouldn’t be the only type of app that your toddler uses on a touch device.
Formal, rote learning is not what developing brains need early on in life.
I’ve spent hours reviewing and evaluating the best apps and I’ve compiled them in an eBook to save parents time searching the App Store looking for the right apps.
So What Are the Best Types of Apps for Toddlers?
I am going to wear three heats to answer this question: (i) my technology researcher hat, (ii) my brain researcher hat and (iii) my mum hat to provide you with a comprehensive, yet practical, explanation about what we know about the best apps for toddlers.
1. Apps That Promote Language Development-
Developing brains need language exposure. They need to hear and use language. And lots of language. It is essential that we expose young children (especially up to 3 years of age) to as much language as possible for optimal brain development.
Some good app examples-
Apps by Duck Duck Moose expose toddlers to popular nursery rhymes and songs (Old McDonald and Wheels on the Bus). Developing brains hanker repetition, so these apps are ideal for toddlers to hear and sing a range of popular songs and nursery rhymes. Over. And. Over. And Over. Again.
2. Apps That Encourage Toddlers to Create (not Just Consume) Content-
The best apps for toddlers require them to be actively involved (not passively consuming information on the iPad).
Some good app examples-
3. Apps That Encourage Interaction-
Today’s toddlers expect screens to be interactive. Has your toddler tried to swipe the TV or pinch magazine pages? Look for apps that encourage toddlers to interact with the screen purposefully (more than just randomly tapping on the right answer on the screen). This ensures that they are thinking when using the device (this is the essential ingredient that makes touch devices potentially more helpful for toddlers than other types of technology, such as TVs, as these are much more passive types of technology).
Some good app examples-
Touch devices should not replace hands-on time with real toys and materials. Toddlers still need to squash mud and squish paint between their chubby fingers. A painting app is no substitute for real paint. Toddlers still need to find joy in hiding in cardboard boxes.
Touch devices should not replace real face-time. Toddlers still need lots of face-to-face interaction with adults and children. The neuroscientists call this ‘serve-and-return’ interactions and it is essential for optimal brain development.
Touch devices should not replace physical play. Toddlers still need lots of time to roll, crawl, climb, jump, twist, hop and skip. Physical movement is essential for brain development too and technology should not displace this time.
Touch devices, in fact any type of technology, can detract from these essential brain building blocks. But technology can also enhance these brain essentials. It all depends on how children use the technology. And that is why your job as a parent or educator is absolutely vital.
Tell me in the comments below, what is your toddler’s favourite app? How does your toddler benefit from using apps?
If you’re interested in more apps for 2-5 year olds, check out my eBook Appy Kids: The Best Apps for 2-5 Year Olds. It’s available in the iBook Store as an iBook.
**Neumann, M. M. (2014). An examination of touch screen tablets and emergent literacy in Australian pre-school children. Australian Journal of Education.
*Kirkorian, H. L. & Pempek, T. A. (2013). Toddlers and Touch Screens: Potential for Early Learning? Zero to Three March 2013.