Toddlers On The iPad: What Works And What Doesn’t For One 22-Month-Old

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Are Mobile Devices Key To This Kid's Future? Photo by: Oxtopus/Flickr
Are Mobile Devices Key To Our Kids' Futures? Photo by: Oxtopus/Flickr

I’m a reluctant iPad parent who gave my toddler my gadget to play with once. Ever since that one experience, it has become impossible to use it when she’s around without her wanting to monopolize it.

She’s a true addict. She even looks at me weirdly if I put it down somewhere within her vicinity without handing it over to her.

The rest of my family automatically assumes that the iPad is a wonderful learning device, but I flutter between happiness and delight at seeing my daughter so excited, and worry that she’s going to develop attention deficit disorder. So I limit her time on the device, and play along with her when she’s on it.

Given all of this, I read this Editorial Observer piece about children’s e-books on the iPad by New York Times Editorial Board Member Lawrence Downes with a lot of interest.

In it, he wonders:

But does digital interactivity engender mental passivity? As fingers flick and flit, making pixels work harder, what do brain cells do? What, I wonder, does interactivity do for the imagination, as reading a book gets closer and closer to watching television?

He cites various reports, and comes to the conclusion:

In the old death struggle between reading a book and watching the tube, here comes the e-book as a powerful new ally of the written word, a glorious new way to lure children back through the looking glass.

I have found that is not true for my 22-month-old daughter. She’s a complete bookworm, and could look at all her picture books and enjoy being read to all day, if it were an option. She’s bored by e-books.

She’s not really interested in any of the Cat In The Hat e-books, but she does love the old-school versions.

Rather, I’ve noticed that she enjoys things that are truly novel, interactive and make the best use of the iPad’s attributes.

One of her favorite apps is “Animal Fun,” a free app by Brian Pfeil, which presents large photographs of animals, says the name of the animal, and has buttons that allow her to hear the sound that the animal makes. One of the buttons, when pressed, spells the word. One difference between this app and a traditional book is that she gets to choose which animal to look at, and the indexed pictures don’t have to flow in any particular sequence.

Another favorite is “Alphabet,” by Piikea Street, which involves a lot of music, sound, and interactive illustrations. It’s just a beautiful and cool app.

123 Ants by Curious Puppy, Itsy Bitsy Spider and Fish HD, by Duck Duck Moose Design are other favorites. All of them feature a lot of background music.

There are two big differences that distinguish these apps from the e-books.

One is the way the apps use sound, and how they get the toddler to interact with the sound.

The apps I mentioned solicit active engagement with sound from toddlers. In contrast, the e-books offer the option of narrated text, but features the voice of a faceless stranger.

The second is that e-books, in my view, are often just a ported-over medium that don’t make the best use of the iPad’s attributes, and thus there can be a passive television-like quality to them. They’re one-dimensional.

Hard copy books offer more interactivity, in my mind. The toddler can hold the book, turn the pages, and in some cases lift the flaps — in addition to cuddling with and discussing it with the parent.

One of the things that really makes my daughter laugh, but which creeps me out is the cover of the April edition Parent’s magazine. It comes alive when you touch it: The photo of the baby turns into a movie, and starts laughing and giggling. For some reason, I find it spooky. (I found the rest of the debut iPad edition to be excellent, however.)