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What to buy your child this Christmas

A recent survey of mothers, with children aged between two and five (conducted by AVG Technologies), revealed that more of the children knew how to play a computer game than swim or ride a bike. More pre-schoolers knew how to use a smartphone than tie their shoelaces.

Another piece of research (by Plymouth council), found that 72% of under-fives spend an average of 30 minutes online daily. There is a YouTube video showing a baby happily navigating an iPad, then trying to ‘swipe’ a magazine. The world and its infants are changing. A recent article in the FT was titled, ‘Companies target children’s tablet aptitude’.

The interface on the iPad is designed to be simple and intuitive and children don’t need to be taught how to touch what they are interested in, so it is not surprising toddlers find it easy to use, although Apple have not said whether they had such youngsters in mind when the tablet was being developed.

Psychologist, Jonathan Freeman, looks at how people experience digital media and he says: “If you look at the history of the development of computers, mobile phones and video games, they’re moving away from needing to be an expert. The Nintendo Wii made it possible to play games without knowing how to manipulate a game pad. With an iPad, a two-year-old or a 70-year-old, can use it pretty much instantly for some basic tasks.”

iPad owners can buy foam-rubber frames to protect their gizmo from children playing too roughly and the market for children’s apps is booming. A list of “key trends driving kids’ apps forward in 2011”, had “remote parenting” at its top.

With one app, ‘Nursery Rhymes with StoryTime’, developed in Shoreditch, by design studio, ustwo™, children can play with nursery rhyme interactive animations, while a parent, perhaps on a business trip, can read Humpty Dumpty, aloud from abroad on an iPhone. It has sold over 20,000 copies.

The app’s interactivity lets children try things that would not occur to most adults, who already know how the rhymes progress. During testing for Three Blind Mice, the children (two to four), chopped off their tails and immediately tried to put them back on. This feature was unavailable, but the developers soon ensured it became an option.

The Land of Me, is ‘an interactive world of creativity and learning’ for children under six. One of its creators, James Huggins, says there is a difference between computer games and computer toys; “Games have rules and objectives, but toys are whatever you make of them.”

Huggins says a lot of the interactive content in software aimed at children, is an “afterthought”, but The Land of Me, is intended to encourage communication, creativity and teamwork for children and adults to play together; in order to be successful, it needs to appeal to parents, as well as excite the chidren.

Michaela Wooldridge is a developmental psychologist and she recently conducted a study to see if the ways mothers interacted with their toddlers differed depending on whether they were playing with ‘traditional’ toys or the new generation of electronic ones. She says: “With the electronic ones, parents were not less affectionate, but were less responsive and did less teaching. It was like the toy was interfering; they were trying to figure out how to make it work and then how to have the child make it work.”

For today’s children, all this new stuff is taken for granted, the latest technology will just be something they encounter; Huggins says: “For them, a banana and an iPad are two things that have always been there. You can eat the banana and you can’t get more interactive than that.”

Wooldridge says: “Children under two or three, really don’t understand screen two-dimensional formats very well.” Experiments show a two-year-old watching a video of his mother explaining how to find a hidden object, will find it much harder than if she were actually with him. Huggins says: “Young children are 100% more awed by the way a paper castle builds out of nowhere in a pop-up book than by anything they see, hear or touch on a computer screen.”

Kids love pressing buttons, with bright lights and funny noises, for the same reason adults do (sensory stimuli), but also because they see adults doing it. They see their parents concentrating intently on their iThings and want to imitate their behaviour; these objects must be interesting because their parents can’t keep away from them.

Children can get interested in anything; mobile phones, remote controls or a cardboard box; if the reality (eg. iPhone) is removed, they just make it up. Wooldridge says: “As for learning to count, your child can push buttons all they want, but without your involvement, they’re not going to go beyond that.”

Software makers agree on the importance of parental involvement. John Siraj-Blatchford, of Swansea university, was an advisor to the makers of The Land of Me and he says: “A child’s computer time could be solitary and of little educational value. Or it could be educationally rich, maybe with a group of children interacting together at a computer and encouraging off-screen activities.”

It is worrying to think parents use smartphones and tablets just to keep their children distracted. A recent survey showed 75% of mothers had handed their smartphones to their children and Wooldridge says: “We used to give them our keys for the same purpose.”

Excessive computer use has been blamed for a decline in children’s physical abilities and increased childhood obesity. Using computers is sedentary, but it would be wrong nowadays to say that it is still necessarily solitary. Social media and video-calling, like Skype, means that children are incrasingly in the virtual company of other people.

If a child’s father reads a nursery rhyme to him from thousands of miles away, is technology bringing them closer together or actually driving them apart. To the father, the child appears more real than he does to his son, who is working out how to make sense of seeing things on a screen and also because Dad is impressed by the technology, while his son is not.

Freeman makes a comparison with the world of cinema. He says: “An adult is more likely to blown away by the magic of Avatar in 3D, than a kid for whom it would almost be their baseline of what cinema is.” Our expectations shift as technology changes and it is changing very fast. In the future, iPads will be as anachronistic to today’s chidren as videotape is to us.

Playing with an iPad won’t be enough to teach a three-year-old how to deal with technology when they grow up. As Wooldridge says: “You’ve got to learn how to learn first; then you can learn pretty well anything that comes along. The children that have had very rich experiences in the first three years are the ones that seem to be able to use all the things that come into their environments later on. They have to make meaning of the world arond them, in real-time, before they can understand the world through the virtual.”

This makes eminent sense and is probably why today’s adults, who grew up playing Etch A Sketch, are now so adept and reliant on their iPads.

Nigel Phillips

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