I have made a few September resolutions for the new school year. I’m waiting until the end of the summer holidays to break the news to my children. There will be no more ‘group homework’ sessions on Skype where my daughter and five of her thirteen year old friends ‘conference’ and do their homework. And I will no longer accept one word grunts as I attempt to talk to any of them while they are playing Minecraft, BBMing and watching TV at the same time. How did this happen? I’m the Mum who said ‘no thanks’ when the grandparents offered to buy the kids a Wii for Xmas. We had a strict no TV or computer game policy on weekdays and I am most famously known as the mother who yes, GAVE AWAY the Playstation after a month. I had the best of intentions when it came to managing technology for my kids.
The truth is that so much of the technology that our kids enjoy is amazing and we know that children are using their brains differently when they learn with different devices and the access to information they have is incredible. No complaints from me there. However, I think there is a dangerous by-product to some of the ways children use technology. And it’s not really ‘use’, I would argue it’s that they ‘inhabit’ technology. As they attempt to manage all of the information and social media, they are constantly doing too many things at once and this stops them from developing the ability to shut out other things and focus on one task. Doing anything well takes focus and single-mindedness whether that is persevering through a four step math problem, mastering a move in gymnastics or struggling through a complicated piano piece. In order to master anything we must focus and learning to focus takes practice.
For parents with younger children one thing that they can do is to think about the apps and computer games that their children play. Choosing apps that require the right kind of focus and creativity can help promote the thinking that kids will need to master things. Perhaps a classic storybook is better left as an old fashioned book. Does every character need to be pulsing so that the child feels the need to swipe and tap instead of following the story? They’re swiping and tapping because they might miss out on something (not too different from older kids worried about missing a tweet or instant message). Instead of following the storyline they are jumping around distracted instead of enjoying a great story. At iMagine Machine when we think about new apps we try to create ‘slow apps’. We want them to be fun and exciting and entertaining but at the same time we feel the excitement needs to come from the child. When the child has followed through on a series of problems, worked through a puzzle or created an amazing piece of art on the app – that’s where the reward comes. It’s then that we bring on the sound effects and virtual stickers and we design ways in which kids can share their accomplishments. The tapping and swiping is for navigating, creating and problem solving and not to create an all-singing, dancing, hyperactive experience.
So my advice to parents of younger children is to choose apps that are designed to keep kids engaged and not because the app is jam packed with overwhelming choices. Is the app engaging because it is trying to ‘hook’ them with unnecessary elements? Or is it engaging because of the amazing things your child can do with the app.