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What Can iLearn?

The dos and don'ts of letting kids go mobile


Published February 1, 2011 at 4:00 a.m.
Updated April 4, 2022 at 7:30 p.m.

Books are a big part of Meredith Farkas' life. The 34-year-old librarian is the head of instructional initiatives at Norwich University, and she's an adjunct faculty member at San José State University's School of Library and Information Science. The Barre resident is also an author and a frequent presenter at library conferences around the world.

Not surprisingly, her 20-month-old son, Reed, loves books, too. But lately he's been picking up vocabulary words from an unexpected source: his iPhone.

When Farkas and her husband, who owns a small software company, recently upgraded their iPhones, they decided to let their son use an old one. "It's nice to have sort of an expendable one that just has kids-type apps," Farkas says, seeming a little embarrassed — iPhones aren't cheap, after all. A new one costs upwards of $400. And that's just for the phone; there's a monthly charge for its use, too.

Reed uses apps to learn vocabulary words, and Farkas is convinced the interactive tool is helping him. "He's obsessed with the word 'X-ray' right now," she says, citing its use in his favorite flash-card app. He plays shape games, too. "He didn't know what a diamond was before," she explains, and now he's like, 'Diamond!'"

Farkas is not alone in letting her son play with a smartphone — a cellphone that connects to the Internet and runs applications. Sales of iPhones and Androids, and web-enabled mobile devices such as the iPad and iPod touch, have skyrocketed in recent years. As parents get their hands on these new toys, they're often passing them along to their kids to try.

Sarah Hanson, a 24-year-old office manager in South Royalton, lets her 2-year-old son play with her iPhone, too. "The kids want to play with the phones," she says. "They see you on the phone, they see you playing with the smartphone, and they want to play."

The amazing thing is that they can play — these touch-screen devices are ridiculously easy to use. Parents who let their toddlers tinker with an iPhone inevitably boast about how quickly their children figured out how to make it work.

Of course, because smartphones are so new, no one's really sure how smart it is to give them to kids. In this month's "Ask Dr. First", for example, pediatrician Lewis First explains that the American Academy of Pediatrics thinks kids under 2 should never use them. Older kids should have no more than two hours of screen time a day — including TV and computer use, he suggests.

Increasingly, scientists are warning that overexposure to digital devices can lead to all sorts of unhealthy consequences, including decreased attention span, lack of focus and antisocial behavior. In June, brain scientist Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, told the New York Times that technology is "rewiring our brains."

But, as parents become reliant on these devices, it's hard to argue against teaching kids how to use them responsibly, especially given the increasing importance of technology in our lives. "I want my child to be technologically literate," Farkas explains. "I want to expose him to the world around him."

Warren Buckleitner, educator and editor of Children's Technology Review, takes it a step further. A December article in the Detroit Free Press recorded his response to a parent of a 6-year-old, who asked if the child should get an iPad. "Think of devices like the iPad, and its little brother, the new, camera-equipped iPod touch, as the bicycle of the digital age," said Buckleitner. "These devices are at the center of a modern child's play. They capture and manage information."

How do you responsibly introduce mobile computing devices to young kids? And what can kids do with them? Below are some common-sense suggestions, followed by a list of tried and tested educational apps (page 17) that Vermont parents, kids and Kids VT staffers recommend.

Mobile Computing Dos and Don'ts

Do check out apps before you let kids play with them. There are more than 300,000 options in Apple's App Store, tens of thousands of which are in the "education" category. You could spend hours wading through them on your own. Better yet, ask your family and friends. Put a request on Facebook. Pick from the App Store's "Most Popular" lists or find independent recommendations online. Coolmompicks.com is a great resource, as is the Children's Technology Review. Once you've downloaded the app, try it out first, to make sure it's appropriate for your child. Then sit down and play, to see how they're using it.

Do organize your kids' apps on one page, so they can see them at a glance. It'll make Peekaboo Barn and My Underwear easier for them to find.

Do put your iPhone on "airplane" mode before you hand it over. That will keep your child from sending and receiving information on the phone. Unfortunately, it will also keep you from receiving calls and text messages — a small price to pay to keep your son or daughter from mistakenly dialing your friends or emailing your boss.

Don't give your 5-year-old your iTunes password. If your kids want an app, they need to ask first.

Do set limits. Even iPhone enthusiasts say that moderation is key. Carey Bunker, a Brandon mom of three boys, 9, 6 and 2 1/2, says she lets her youngest son play with a flashcard app when the family goes out to a restaurant to keep him from getting too fidgety. But, she adds, "You don't want to use it too much. You don't want to rely on it." If you're at home, try setting a timer for five to 10 minutes. When time's up, time's up. And make your kids earn the privilege of using these toys. If they don't behave, they don't get to play.

Do use your smartphone to make nursing easier — for yourself. The iPhone, says Farkas, is "fabulous for breast feeding. That's when I found it really useful." Way easier than reading a book or surfing on a laptop.

Don't use it as a substitute for reading actual books to your kids. Bunker and Farkas both have Dr. Seuss books on their family iPads, but neither of them raves about the interactive e-book apps. "He's much more impatient with it than he is with reading the actual book," says Bunker of her youngest son. "In some ways, it's a little bit of a distraction." Farkas agrees: "I would probably want to give up technology if he weren't excited by books."

Teens Tapping Tablets

Most primary, middle and secondary schools haven't rushed to embrace mobile computing technology. Some ban iPads or require students to turn off smartphones during the day, either because the devices are a distraction or because students are using them inappropriately. Cyberbullying and sexting have emerged as serious concerns for parents and educators in Vermont and around the country.

But students are finding ways to use these tools productively. In fact, at two schools in Franklin County, they're required to: Seventh and eighth graders in Bakersfield and sixth, seventh and eighth graders in Berkshire got their own iPads this year.

Robert Gervais, Technology coordinator for Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union, says the schools had wanted to purchase MacBooks for the students, but the laptops were too expensive. The iPad, introduced last April, was cheaper — roughly $500, compared to more than double that for a laptop. The schools bought 90 iPads using a combination of local, state and federal funds, including federal stimulus grants.

Five months into the experiment, Gervais says he is pleased with the results. He calls the iPad "a phenomenal piece of hardware" and raves about the flexibility of the available apps. "Whether it was science or math or social studies," he says, "it's a cliché, but really, there is an app for that, for just about anything." A former middle-school science teacher, Gervais particularly favors an astronomy app and the Seismometer (see sidebar below).

He adds that, so far, the tablet computers have actually improved behavior in the classroom, because the kids know that if they misbehave, they'll lose their iPad privileges. Students have to earn the right to bring the devices home. The schools also keep the iPads linked to a central iTunes account, so students can't download unapproved apps.

On the positive side, students now have access to information that allows them to research topics instantly. That connectivity is what appeals to Basundhara Mukherjee, a 14-year-old freshman at South Burlington High School. Basundhara is an über-connected kid. Her dad works for a software company, and her mom, Bibi, organized a web marketing summit in Burlington last fall.

Basundhara has an iPod touch and an iPad. "I take my iPad almost everywhere," she says. "I have it with me almost all the time when I'm reading something." Basundhara uses the iPad as a dictionary to look up a word in English, or in French, which she's studying. "I don't think I've ever used an actual dictionary at home," she confesses.

She also uses it to keep up with the news — via apps from the New York Times and CNN — and to prepare for the SAT (see sidebar below). Yes, already. She has a real computer, but she also uses her iPad's Microsoft OneNote Mobile app. "It's like a condensed version of Microsoft Office on the iPad," she explains. "It's good for having it with you while you're traveling. I like to write a lot."

Basundhara says the devices "make it easier" for her, but she also sees how she's come to depend on them to find answers. "I feel like that could almost be a bad thing," she concedes.

But being comfortable in the digital realm also gives her an advantage, Basundhara points out. Her teachers, she says, are "enthusiastic" about these devices. From where she's sitting, it looks as if they're going to become more integral to education, not less. In the future, she says, "I feel like it's going to revolve around this stuff."

Education Apps We Like

Apple allows anyone to make applications that run on its devices. Creative programmers have come up with an astounding array of options, many of which combine text, sound and video. Here are a few that we like, and that Vermont parents and kids have recommended to us. And remember — these should enhance, not replace, your child's real-world education.

Monkey Preschool Lunchbox

Cost: 99¢

Ages: Aimed at children 2-5, rated 4+

Devices: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

Preschoolers help an animated monkey pack his lunch by playing six mini-games that rotate upon completion. Kids practice counting, matching, recognizing letters and colors, spotting the difference and putting together a four-piece jigsaw puzzle. Also, they practice putting fruit in their lunches! This is my 2 1/2-year-old daughter's favorite app.

If you like this, try: Peekaboo Barn, My Underwear

Count TV

Cost: $2.99

Ages: Aimed at children 2-5, rated 4+

Devices: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

This "Sesame Street" app combines old-school TV footage with 21st-century touch-screen technology. The Count invites kids to pick a number from one to nine. Each corresponds with a retro "Sesame Street" clip. The app stops the footage mid-sequence and asks kids to touch the objects and count along with the Count. "It's awesome," says librarian Meredith Farkas. "It's the best app. I just discovered it, and my son has been obsessed with it ever since."

If you like this, try: Toddler Flashcards, Elmo's Monster Maker

Math Ninja

Cost: $1.99

Ages: Aimed at children 7 and up, rated 9+ for cartoon, fantasy violence

Devices: iPhone, iPad

Getting kids to like math doesn't have to be a battle, at least not between you and your child. In this app, players impersonate "Math Ninja" Haruku. The game instructs players to "use a combination of action, strategy, and quick wit to defend your treehouse against a hungry tomato and his robotic army!" The catch: Players have to solve a few addition, subtraction, multiplication or division problems first.

If you like this, try: PopMath Basic Math

GoSkyWatch Planetarium

Cost: $3.99

Ages: Aimed at kids old enough to read and be curious about astronomy, rated 4+

Devices: iPhone, iPad

Can't find Orion? Download this elegant app, point your iPhone or iPad at the sky, and see the names and silhouettes of the stars and constellations visible from your location. Point at the ground, and you'll see what's visible in the opposite hemisphere. The app even has a red-light mode so it won't interfere with your starwatching.

If you like this, try: NASA App HD, Seismometer

SAT Vocab Challenge Vol. 1

Cost: $4.99

Ages: Teens preparing for the SAT, rated 4+

Devices: iPhone, iPod touch, iPad

SAT prep is almost fun with this app from the Princeton Review. Four games test your knowledge of synonyms, antonyms, connotations and definitions of 250 words. Which is the best synonym for "levity" — altitude, boldness or mirth? Quick, you have 10 seconds to decide! Don't know? Shake your phone in frustration to pass and move on. SBHS freshman Basundhara Mukherjee says this app is "very simple to use, straightforward and helpful."

If you like this, try: Wolfram Algebra Course Assistant, Wolfram Calculus Course Assistant

The App Store rating system has four age-based ratings:

4+ : No objectionable material.

9+ : Some cartoon violence or more suggestive, horror-themed content.

12+ : Cartoon violence + some bad language + simulated gambling.

17+ : Adults only.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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