Get Your Kids Using Their Devices To Learn—With An App Purge

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We know that today’s kids spend a lot of time on their devices. But how much of that time is spent using apps that are educational in nature?

Not enough, according to a just-released report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, titled “Learning at Home: Families’ Educational Media Use in America.”

Michael Levine, executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, writes about the report’s findings in a piece on the Huffington Post. In our rush to provide children with electronic devices, he notes, “we may have forgotten to ask a vital question: How much of the time kids spend on these devices is helping them prepare for their futures? Are the tablets and apps that parents are buying for them signaling a shift towards compelling educational content?”

The answer is no, writes Levine:

“We have found that although kids’ media use soars as they approach school age, the amount of time that they spend with educational media plummets . . . While screen media use increases from 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours [per day] as children get older, there is an alarming drop from 78% to 27% in the proportion devoted to educational content.”

Why is this? Levine suggests that parents may simply not know where to find good educational content: “Our survey indicates that more than half (55%) of parents say they would like more information from experts about how to find good TV shows, games, and websites to support their child’s learning.”

With that in mind, I thought I would share with you, Brilliant readers, a recent experiment I undertook in my own home that has (so far) worked out beautifully.

My two sons, eight and almost five, each have an iPad (purchased for a long, long family train ride to DC last year). Over the year since we bought the iPads, a motley collection of apps had accumulated on them, most of them decidedly not educational. This was not purposeful at all—it happened on an ad-hoc and unplanned basis. But at the beginning of this year, I decided that had to change.

First, I instituted a purge, deleting every app on their iPads—the cupcake-making app, the football app, Angry Birds. Then I went to the Common Sense Media website, did a search for learning apps appropriate for each of my kids’ ages, and made a list of every app with a rating of four or five (out of five). And then I loaded those apps onto my kids’ iPads. The apps cost a few dollars each, and I found about eight or 10 apps that were right for each kid, so in total the experiment cost me around $50.

Over the year that we’d had the iPads, my husband and I hadn’t made any hard and fast rules about how or when our kids could use them. I decided that had to change, too. Because I’m a research geek, I relied on a study in drawing up guidelines—specifically, this one:

Evidence-based guidelines for the informal use of computers by children to promote the development of academic, cognitive and social skills, by Phuoc Tran and Kaveri Subrahmanyam. Ergonomics, volume 53, number 9, pages 1349-62.

Tran and Subrahmanyam write:

“This paper reviews research on the effects of informal computer use and identifies potential pathways through which computers may impact children’s development. Based on the evidence reviewed, we present the following guidelines to arrange informal computer experiences that will promote the development of children’s academic, cognitive and social skills: (1) children should be encouraged to use computers for moderate amounts of time (2-3 days a week for an hour or two per day) and (2) children’s use of computers should (a) include non-violent action-based computer games as well as educational games, (b) not displace social activities but should instead be arranged to provide opportunities for social engagement with peers and family members and (c) involve content with pro-social and non-violent themes.”

The rules in my house thus became: The iPads can be used for up to two hours a day, on Saturday and Sundays only.

This experiment—and it’s been going on for less than a month, it’s true—has so far been a smashing success. My kids love the autonomy that they now have: they’re allowed to spend their two hours doing anything they want on their iPads, without haggling with me or my husband about what they’re permitted to do. And I love knowing that whatever they’re doing, it’s educational and not junk. My older son particularly enjoys a chess game that I put on his iPad; my younger son loves an app that has him trace letters with his finger and then rewards him with really neat graphics once he does so (the letter “R” turns into a railroad track with a train running along it, for example).

I’m sure my kids and I will have many more issues around digital devices to work out. But for now I’m pleasantly surprised that this experiment has produced many conflict-free and learning-filled hours of enjoyment.

Brilliant readers, have you found ways to handle your kids’ technology use that you would recommend to other parents? Please share your experience below.

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3 Responses to “Get Your Kids Using Their Devices To Learn—With An App Purge”

  1. Mary says:

    These are great general guidelines.

    I suppose that the screen time recommendation of 1 -2 hours includes TV viewing. Also this article doesn’t mention whether or not a dynamic interaction with an adult present during the play would enhance the learning experience for this age group (5-8). Thanks!

  2. Trisha says:

    I like that “purging the iPad” experiment, although my two kids would kill me! They want to do Temple Run (ugh) and Minecraft (not so bad) endlessly. At least Minecraft is somewhat creative. I recently discovered Balfire Labs, which is an app review service that tells you about the educational value of different apps and divides everything up according to age, interest, etc. That has helped us find things that hold their interest but are also educational, because the App Store is pretty much useless in weeding things out, I’ve found.

  3. cameron says:

    I use MS security essentials on our PCs. I created 2 log ins for each son. One for general use (games , Facebook etc) that closes at 5pm on week days. The other is their home work log in which is open all the time but blocks games and Facebook and selected sites.

    Data on phones is the next challenge – I know of only one pre-paid carrier that lets you manually turn your data on and off via your online account (of course there is no discount if you do). Some will only let you turn it on and off via a call to their their tech support. Some don’t allow it at all.
    We have a visible place in the kitchen ‘the charging station’ where phones go during homework periods and at night.
    The punishment for non-compliance is swapping their sim card into an old cheap mobile that can only text and make calls.

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