Recently, a controversial paper by researchers in the UK claimed that screen time did not adversely affect childhood development. It was an ambitious paper, and it’s hard to tease out all the different factors in how screen time affects growing brains. But the study did highlight one key point: kids and technology time aren’t always a bad combination. Rather than focusing simply on quantity of tech time, though, what parents should actively monitor is the type and quality of the tech their kids use.
As savvy parents know, kids can actually learn a lot from the devices that dominate our daily lives. Selective access to technology can help kids master basic skills (like addition and times tables) or stretch their thinking (e.g., learning a new language).
And by accessing age-appropriate educational technology in a structured, parentally-supervised environment, kids can get a head start on developing essential skills they’ll need for the future.
Ready to learn how to harness the natural attraction between kids and technology, for maximum benefit? Then read on!
Finding Positives in Kids And Technology
What tech is most helpful for kids’ learning? It’s tough to decode, because so many tech-related activities involve learning of one kind or another. Tech use can help children to develop skills they’ll use throughout their lives. For teens, simply navigating and getting to know social media websites can boost their job prospects and earning potential down the road. Businesses need people who are social-media-savvy to drive their online marketing campaigns.
Children also learn every time they perform a search or look for new information. The internet is a repository of data, just waiting to be explored. Wading through all the information that’s out there is a challenging process, and one that parents should not take lightly. Learning to distinguish trustworthy search results from lower-quality results is a crucial critical-thinking skill. Helping kids to tell the difference between the two should be a top priority for parents and teachers alike.
There’s plenty of other content out there too that could theoretically lead to learning. But what’s so interesting about technology is the seemingly innate fascination children have with it. For some kids, the thought of picking up a book is pure torture. But the same is not true if it’s an ebook on their tablet. Kids love their devices, and want to interact with them.
So the challenge, both for parents and teachers, is to figure out ways to harness kids’ interest in tech, and make their tech time as educational as possible. Learning happens most effectively when children want to achieve something, find something out, or gain a new skill. And because many kids want to spend time on devices, technology provides a way for kids to learn without believing it’s a chore or an inconvenience.
Harnessing Tech to Help Kids Learn
So how can technology help kids learn? Let’s take a look.
Many parents perceive video games as a time-sucking activity without educational value. Media portrayals of gamers don’t help; news outlets often portray video games as the refuge of social misfits with no life and no future. But there are plenty of games that have significant educational value for kids, if you know where to look.
One great example of the educational potential of some games is the power of storytelling. Of course, it depends on the type of game, but one thing that a video game can teach children is the value of storytelling. Storytelling is the cornerstone of so many of the things that we take for granted in life, not just in media, but in business too. Strong companies have a clear story about who they are, what they do, and what they’re trying to help their customers achieve in life.
Researchers say that technology can help children learn a range of new and vital skills. These skills include the ability to concentrate on a task and persist until it’s completed (such as trying over and over again to overcome a difficult challenge or level). Researchers also say that video games help develop kids’ ability to dig for new information and to reframe problems. If one strategy doesn’t work, a video game encourages children to find another way around the problem.
Personalized learning content offers children the opportunity to learn in a more customized way. Research suggests that between sixty and eighty percent of children learn visually. Rather than expecting them to learn new concepts from a textbook, technology makes it possible to create visual props to help the learning process.
Children can interact with moving graphics and pictures, to learn about new ideas and applications of theories they learn about in school or at home. What’s more, tasks can be adjusted to the level of the child, based on data-rich feedback. Smart visual teaching systems learn where children get stuck, and adjust difficulty accordingly.
Personalized learning is still in its infancy, but it’s a developing field that will improve in the future.
It can be hard to work as a team in traditional settings. Not only do you have to have advanced social skills, but you also need to gather around in the same place as the other people in your group to exchange ideas.
Technology, though, provides a possible way around this problem. Online collaboration tools are everywhere, from Zoom to Messenger, to Skype. Kids can connect with other people in their groups and get work done with fewer difficulties in communication. My 4th-grader is forever shooting a quick message to her classmates through their online classroom portal, to check on the details of an assignment with them. As she gets older, I fully expect that electronic collaboration on group projects will become even more a part of her curriculum.
Learning to speak to others in the online digital world is fast becoming an essential 21st-century workplace skill. But parents are an important part of this puzzle, too.
Just as with any social media, it’s useful to monitor what your children post. We’ve already witnessed a few tense situations where interactions among Kimmie’s classmates online have escalated beyond the realm of what is appropriate civil conversation. Fortunately we were able to draw it to a teacher’s attention, and the teacher had a brief chat with the students involved about appropriate vs. inappropriate interactions. The incident really drove home the importance of parents staying involved and on top of what their kids are doing online.
How Can Parents Help Maximize Learning Potential?
It’s one thing to acknowledge that there is a lot of potential for real learning with kids and technology use. But how do we as adults help to harness that potential for maximum effect?
If you know anything about childhood development and parenting best practices, the answers won’t surprise you. My teaching background is NOT in Early Childhood Education. But I read lots of parenting magazines in the girls’ early years. The best practices those years of articles described involved what I’ll call “active” parenting and learning, for the sake of simplicity.
A lot of the “active” parenting tips and examples of “active” learning activities from those magazines – consume media WITH your child and ask thought-provoking questions, use playing/games as a tool for learning, encourage children’s creativity, etc. – look awfully familiar to examples in a 2011 Education.com magazine article entitled “11 Ways Your Kids Learn Using Technology.” Among the things listed in thar article, parents can harness tech’s learning potential by
- encouraging active engagement – asking kids open-ended, thought-provoking questions about the media they’re consuming and games they’re playing;
- looking for educational apps that use play in order to teach, rather than just rote drilling or memorization;
- and encouraging kids to create and problem-solve in their tech-based activities (e.g., games that involve solving spatial puzzles, or apps where they can create art or music).
For example: If your kids are obsessed with YouTube Kids (like mine are), sit down and watch some videos with them. (I can’t tell you how many waterslide videos I’ve watched with the girls!) Just as with any television or movie your kids watch, ask them questions about what they’re watching, why they like it, what’s happening, what the characters are thinking/feeling, and what they think might happen next. The answers might surprise you. (Turns out my girls love the water/pools in waterslide videos, but are also intrigued by the engineering behind the slides themselves!)
Take full advantage of tech’s unique capabilities
Think about areas where technology has the potential to stretch your kids’ brains better than more “traditional” formats. For example, I love spatial-manipulation games like Voi, Monument Valley, and Monument Valley II (all available for purchase wherever you get your apps) for their ability to teach these skills. Other games are great for teaching problem-solving, collaboration, planning, and strategy.
Even traditional classroom learning can get a boost from online platforms and apps, like Xtramath, First In Math, and Imagine Math for mastering math skills and pre-algebraic thinking. Want to improve your child’s spelling, whether because it’s a weak area or because they want to be a Spelling Bee Champion? There’s a free app for that, called Word Club, from the folks who run the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And the ability to get feedback and hear native pronunciations in language-learning apps like Duolingo makes these platforms superior for kids trying to learn a language, compared to more traditional media like DVDs or books.
And there are other areas where certain kids may especially benefit from the unique potential of learning technologies. Is your child a tactile learner? Then certain apps, like Montessorium, may help them develop essential skills.
What have your family’s experiences been with kids and technology around using tech to help kids learn? Let us know in the comments!
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