APPy or UnAPPY kids: Should young children learn online more?

Helen Caldwell

Helen Caldwell

This week, the Department for Education (DfE) published a list of the top six educational apps for two-to five-year-olds to encourage parents to boost their children’s learning at home in speaking, writing and reading. But is more time online a good or bad thing for young children? Dr Jane Murray, Associate Professor in Education (Early Years) and Dr Helen Caldwell, Senior Lecturer in Education (ITE) from the University of Northampton argue the cases for and against.

Dr Jane Murray: “While many family homes have digital devices, young children need to understand the real world and their place in it before they are immersed in virtual worlds. When young children go online they are missing out on other experiences that are crucial for their health, early development and learning.

“For instance, babies and toddlers develop language when their parents and caregivers speak to them – engagement with digital technologies is no substitute for this.

“From three weeks old, babies distinguish human faces from objects and are hardwired to interact with humans because it is how they learn. If parents and caregivers prioritise mobile phones over interaction with their babies, their faces lack expression and they are unresponsive to their young children, with the result that infants’ and toddlers’ own attempts to interact quickly cease.

“In short, digital technology intrudes on the relationship between young children and their primary carers.

“In recent years obesity has risen exponentially among children, fuelled in part by engagement with screen technologies. Young children need physical activity to help them to remain within healthy body mass parameters but they also need physical activity to develop motor control, spatial awareness and their brains.

“The DfE’s endorsement of a few apps is no substitute for the level of investment it is currently failing to make to secure high quality early childhood education and care for all children. Young children and their families need this now to benefit us all in the future.”

Dr Helen Caldwell: “Mobile devices are part of many families’ everyday lives, but of course we need to think carefully about the content of children’s digital experiences.

“A challenge is to ensure children experience technology safely and positively. Although there are many worrying aspects there is also the potential to open-up engagement with learning when devices are used in a constructive way. We can think about how to tap into this potential as part of a balanced and rounded early years’ experience.

“Rather than a blanket ban on screen time, we should think about how technology can be harnessed to support the development of communication skills when introduced as one of a number of ways for children to find out about the world.

“Key features of the DfE’s suite of six apps are a personalised game-like environment, verbal instructions, and progress tracking. They all use animation, games and sounds to make learning fun. This enables children to progress at their own speed and get instant personal feedback. They can then progress to more complex tasks at a comfortable pace. Although they support independent learning, I suggest that children are likely to get the most out of the apps when they are interacting with an adult.

“The suite includes a library of 60 interactive stories and learning games which engage children with touching, swiping and answering questions. This is quite a substantial resource to carry around in your pocket and to be able to dip into throughout the day. Another app focuses on handwriting and uses artificial intelligence technology to monitor progress and provide real-time feedback. Several apps focus on early reading and phonics, developing children’s knowledge of letters and sounds skills through games and structured lessons. One app listens to a child reading aloud and gives instant feedback and rewards.

“Thinking about the school learning context, there are many children who have a hard time learning to read through traditional phonics activities. For some of them, a game-like environment may be more accessible. Teachers can introduce some of these apps at school and then children can carry on at home, extending learning beyond the school day.

“In addition to the expert group recommendations, I suggest that parents seek to use apps and mobile devices as a context for talking and playing together. I recommend using mobile devices in simple ways to capture young children’s exploration of the world through photos, videos and sound recordings. Children can develop communication skills as they record songs or talking slideshows, make their own i-spy books or collect examples of colours or letter sounds in the environment around them with their parents.

“Through these approaches to the use of mobile devices for the early years we can aim to make their screen time channelled, useful and expressive, boosting early speaking, writing and reading skills.”


First published at: UoN26 Feb 2020