Inappropriate Touch Screen: Kids Edition

Of all the beefs we all have about ubiquitous and always connected screens, the one that worries me most is the effects on young children. The list of unintended bad effects are long and scary, from slow development of language through destruction of family live to loss of empathy. (see, perhaps Senseis Lanier, Greenfield and Turkle).

Knowing this, I have to think that it would be wise to be cautious about having children spend more time with mobile apps, or to assume that this time is entirely good for them.

But, of course, today’s “innovators” live immersed in digital life, and are imbued with the idea that tiny screens are not only inescapable, but they are good for you. I don’t mind this ignorance when they are designing yet another silly app for college students, but it borders on criminal negligence when inflicted on children without evidence of safety or even thought about the welfare of the users.

This long preamble is leading up to an extremely grumpy comment on the allegedly educational toy, “Marbotic Smart Letters” (and related products), shown at CES. Basically this is a bunch of alphabet blocks—which have worked great for generations—“augmented” by an iPad app.

The set-up is simple; place wooden blocks shaped like letters (or, in a previous iteration, numbers) on an iPad, which will receive it like a sheet of paper might a stamp.

Other apps in the suite include various point-and-click animations on the theme of alphabets and numerals.

OK, these are kind of fun, in a Sesame Street kind of way. I might worry whether the interactive responsiveness of the screen may be teaching kids some dubious expectations about how reading and writing work (outside of games, they are not generally reinforced by fancy graphical effects) but kids like to play, and why not play with letters and numbers.

But is this actually “educational” in the sense of actually helping kids learn important stuff, such as numbers and letters or reading and writing and arithmatic? This is a reasonable question, and one that has been tested for thousands of pieces of educational software. One would hope that any company proposing to sell “educational” software would be aware of such research, and would demonstrate that their product is safe and effective. We are talking about tots here, not idle twenty somethings.

So I was not particularly happy with some of the ignorant BS on the website:

Have you noticed that kids love to play with tablets? We have! So we designed an awesome educative tool that combines apps and wooden toys to help them prepare to learn to read and write. Our wooden alphabet comes with 3 beautiful and easy to use apps.

It’s probably not worth the trouble to critique this in detail, but here I go anyway.

Have you noticed that kids love to play with tablets?” Well yes. But we’ve also noticed that this isn’t necessarily good for them. If this is an argument that computer games make kids happy, that’s fine. Maybe game time should be a reward for completing work. But that’s not in any way a reason that they should be used in teaching—at least without any other evidence that it does anything but distract them.

This is “an awesome educative tool that …. to help them prepare to learn to read and write”. Here they make a generic claim that this is “educative” (whatever that means), and a somewhat specific claim that it “helps them prepare to learn to read and write”. I don’t know exactly what they mean by “help to prepare to learn”, but I do know that they should show me evidence that this toy has a positive effect on reading and writing. Or perhaps show me that it has an “awesome” effect on reading and writing.

Marbotic founder Marie Merouze is quoted in to claim that the system teaches with both brain and body:

It’s well known that the interaction with tablets stimulates kids’ brains a lot, but learning doesn’t just happen in the brain,” she says. “The mind, body, and emotions are all involved.”

Setting aside the hazy terms “mind, body, and emotions”, where is the evidence that this blocks+iPad concept “involves” anything at all?

Look, when in comes to the welfare of children and claims about alleged “educative” effects, you can’t just say anything you want. You have to have evidence, and you have to know that it really works and does no harm.

The toy “combines apps and wooden toys”, they say. This is certainly not a stupid idea. (E.g.,  LineForm , Sticky Actuators). Digital screens and tangible wooden toys have their own affordances, each is potentially valuable for the development of kids. That doesn’t mean, however, that simply adding blocks to a touchscreen interface is a particularly good idea, or clapping a touchscreen onto blocks is anything other than inappropriate.

Personally, I’d say that these apps clearly put the digital screen first, and the tangible blocks second, which is probably the wrong emphasis. For one thing, the implicit message is “blocks don’t work without your iPad”, which is inaccurate and probably a bad thing to teach.  Worse, alphabets, numerals, and literacy appear to reside in the all knowing device, not in the child an other people. Is this really what we mean to teach?

In the end, I see this as basically slapping an Inappropriate Touch Screen onto alphabet blocks, which, best case, is useless, and worst case “breaks” the blocks.


Add this to the Inappropriate Touchscreen File.

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