Educational apps are great, but even better when you take an active role in the learning process.

I will be the first to admit guilt when it comes to unsupervised screen time with my child. Having loaded highly-rated educational apps on my son’s tablet, I’ve let him learn the ins and outs by himself, assuming that he was building skills by navigating on his own.

But according to the research, I should be playing alongside him. 

Unsupervised screen time in young children, specifically when dealing with educational apps, is not ideal, and not just because there could be content you don’t want your child being exposed to. In fact, most parents vet the apps we allow our toddlers and preschoolers to play, so we know that inappropriate content is not an issue.

The pace and the extent of learning is greatly reduced when young children play apps without someone at their side guiding them, a new study from the Society for Research in Child Development contends.

We already know that parental guidance is crucial for early literacy emergence in our children. Our involvement is the cornerstone to developing social, emotional and cognitive skills, so why do we behave differently when it comes to technology?

My own answer to that is: I assume when my son is working through a digital app, technology will guide him throughout his experience.


Help Your Child Learn

Researchers Laura Zimmerman and Rachel Barr found that when toddlers were left to navigate apps on their own, context and synthesis – two foundational aspects of knowledge – were often absent.

In essence, the skills young children acquire from playing an app on a screen are not always transferred to real world scenarios.

Zimmerman and Barr worked with a puzzle app, requiring children to drag the pieces on the screen, dropping them into the correct positions; the same task was then completed with a physical, 3D puzzle. One set of children received a ghost demonstration of the task, wherein the app demonstrates by moving the pieces into the correct positions, while the other set of children had an adult demonstrate how to assemble the digital puzzle.

Those children who received a physical demonstration performed at a greater level than those who received a virtual demonstration.

The results illustrate that children perform better, or achieve a higher level of learning when a person physically demonstrates the task beforehand.   


What This Means for Parents

This is obviously a compelling argument for accompanying your child’s in-app play, but it’s also a concrete example of how socialization and one-on-one instruction are crucial to cognitive development.

More importantly, these findings should push you to find out more about the ways in which technology is being used in your child’s classroom. For those classrooms featuring computer workstations, ask if applications are first being demonstrated by a teacher or an aide.

Zimmerman and Barr point out that so many parents see their toddlers picking up a tablet and intuitively knowing what to do with the technology. But, what parents often overlook is the hundreds, even thousands, of hours they’ve spent honing their own skills with computers.

Remember: Our kiddos still need guidance in using tools such as tablets – despite having been surrounded by technology since birth.

About Lauren B. Stevens

Lauren B. Stevens is a writer, editor & digital parent, whose pieces have been published across the internet and featured in several print anthologies. Lauren lives in the Baltimore area with her husband and son, and enjoys spending her family time hiking and traveling.

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