Q: There is a discussion among children’s librarians about including tablets and apps in story times at the library for children ages 2-5 or even younger. The assumption is that apps can and should be one more type of material that supports early literacy development (vocabulary, narrative skills, letter knowledge, phonological awareness, etc.). Some think that the AAP standards are not applicable because tablet technology is “interactive”. I am unable to find research that shows that using apps can help children acquire literacy skills or other learning outside of the classroom. Do you recommend app use for children age 0-5? What can you tell me about all this?
~ Apprehensive about apps, Rosemont, MN
A: Because apps and other interactive technologies are so new, there still isn’t a lot of research on how using them can affect children. But research has shown that not all screens are equal and that interacting with a screen is different than passively or even actively watching a screen. Apps and software that require active user participation (like matching the ‘moo’ sound to a picture of a cow) allow the user to drive her own experience, rather than having her experience be driven by the creators of a TV show or movie. And that may help encourage creativity.
When deciding whether to use apps, remember that all media devices—and the software on them—are tools. If those tools perform functions that are developmentally and educationally helpful for the child, there is no problem with using them. Choose apps just as you would choose a book: based on the child’s interests, personality, and age.
Do consider, though, the large developmental differences across the age group of 0-5. Research with television has shown that children under the age of 30 months do not have the brain development to learn effectively from watching screens, but we don’t know yet whether that’s true when screen media are interactive. We also know that, unlike babies, preschool age children can benefit from moderate amounts of educational TV programming, but again, there’s little research on the effects of apps.
Given the lack of research in this area and the research we have on other technologies, my recommendation is for you to couple your librarian skills for choosing developmentally appropriate books with your knowledge of particular apps. If there is something that a tablet or app will add to story time, it should be fine to use it. But use them to supplement the paper books you use, not to replace them—the experience of being read to, seeing that words can be decoded, and learning to imagine the worlds, characters, and stories that words capture is an important experience all on its own.
Enjoy your media and use them wisely,