Talk to parents these days about kids, computers and mobile devices, and you'll get very mixed views, but many think computer games are turning their kids into dazed zombies, while avid texting promotes irritating distraction. Indeed, many of the complaints about the deleterious effects of comic books and television in previous decades apply now to computer games, and many of us only let younger kids - 4- and 5-year-olds, for example - near a screen with a guilty conscience. However recent research shows that we don't need to be so nervous.
Last November, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center released a report titled Learning: Is There an App for That? which looks at the ways in which families are using mobile devices with their kids. The study expands on a 2009 report titled Pockets of Potential, which shows that exposure to educational media - like the terrific Super Why iPhone app - through mobile devices at a young age can have a positive effect on kids and their learning as they enter school.
In the newer report, the authors, Cynthia Chiong and Carly Shuler, identify the "pass-back effect," in which young children play with iPhones and other devices with touch screens that belong to their parents. Often this is in grocery stores, at bus stops or in restaurants, and the authors highlight the potential for this activity to promote "anytime, anywhere learning," as well as its ability to impact kids who may not have access to computers, helping level the technology playing field somewhat. They highlight many drawbacks as well, but overall, champion wise use of mobiles with kids.
With this in mind, I asked a few LA-based parents who also work in some capacity with new media, what their kids use on mobile phones.
Daniel Chamberlain, Director of the Center for Digital Learning and Research at Occidental College has twin 5-year-olds. "My son swears by Angry Birds. I like to think that he is learning some physics lessons, but I think he is just into the destruction." Daniel notes his son also has played with Montessorium's Intro to Math and Intro to Letters apps. "He definitely likes the 'manipulable' approach to literacy and numeracy."
Daniel says his daughter likes the phone's camera feature best, but also uses SketchBook. "She also gets a kick out of Google Earth, where she especially likes to find Hawaii and Brazil." Both also have played with Trope, a Brian Eno music app; Virtuoso, a free piano app that helps users learn how to play the piano; and the Ocarina app, which turns the iPhone into a flute. "But they haven't really stuck," he admits.
Jonathan Wells, who is the co-founder of the creative media company Flux, says that he and his wife favor books over devices, but when his two sons do use his iPhone, they go for Rolando. "It is in my opinion one of the most well-designed and beautiful games for the iPhone," he says. "They also like art and creativity apps like Golan Levin's Yellowtail," which allows you to draw moving squiggles, "and the Record Makers app," which lets you draw surreal pictures using one finger. "Finally, with all the road trips we've been taking lately, we really enjoy using the Roadside America app to find crazy sights wherever we are."
Susana Ruiz, who created the critically acclaimed social activist game Darfur Is Dying, offered this amazing list of apps favored by her 6-year-old:
• Beatwave - really fantastic music/sound creation and sharing app.
• Robo Logic - engages and teaches simple fundamentals of programming via the act of controlling a robot.
• Charadium - a networked draw-and-guess game. We were all completely hooked on this for several weeks. I think it had an impact on my son's drawing/visual communication abilities.
• Electric Box - nicely designed puzzle-like game where you're also learning about sources, types and flows of energy/power.
• Levers - physics simulation game about balancing different objects. Nice tone and again, I think it engages as it "teaches."
• Jelly Car 2 - my son doesn't use this now, but was totally into it for a long time. It's very well designed and has a great Level Editor that allowed him to really be creative and make his own levels, which in turn, helped him conceptualize game design itself.
• Puppet Pals - allows you to put together a whole show. Choose actors, backdrops, add movement and sound and it records it for playback. Good storytelling tool.
• StopMotion Recorder - stop motion animation creation app. In one short afternoon, he was creating quite great stop motion videos, but more importantly, it taught him the concept of stop motion which led to all kinds of ideas.
Susana says that, based on the fact that she and her partner are artists and filmmakers, they try to expose their son to art-oriented games and activities. These include abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz, a kinetic alphabet artwork, Yellowtail by Golan Levin, Erik Loyer's work and Kometen by Erik Svedäng. "It's interesting to see him engage with these and usually, for the most part, he likes them - although he may not return to these the way he does to the other, more commercial stuff (commercial games tend to be designed now from the perspective of games as services rather than products, and therefore have more "hooks" and incentives to return.)
For media artist Garnet Hertz, who teaches in the Media Design Program at Art Center College of Design, the series of apps created by Scott Snibbe are winners. These include the incredibly beautiful projects titled Gravilux, Bubble Harp, Tripola, which was commissioned by the Whitney Museum, and Antograph. Snibbe is a media artist, with a great deal of experience considering forms of social and media-based interaction.
For Erik Loyer, who has contributed to innovations in app design himself, bringing new gestures and interactivity to storytelling, the apps favored by his kids include Uzu, for the iPad, with a separate iPhone version called Little Uzu, which has been described as a "math-physics-art-toy"; Magic Piano (iPad), which does amazing things to a piano keyboard and even allows you to play duets with others online; Melodica (iPhone), which is a "matrix synthesizer" that lets you mix music using light; Eliss (iPhone), a game created by designer Steph Thirion and asks users to create order by organizing planets.; and BIT.TRIP BEAT HD (for the iPad, with a separate iPhone version called BIT.TRIP BEAT), which is a game similar to Pong, but with music.
In the conclusion to Learning: Is There an App for That?, the authors note that "trends suggest that preschool- and elementary-age kids may soon be using smart mobile devices seamlessly - first at home and then perhaps in the classroom of 2015 as a normal part of growing up in a digital age." They call on developers to create smart, compelling and innovative apps that will support learning. Many of the apps noted above move in this direction, but by using drawing, design, music and more poetic approaches that spark curiosity, which in turn may contribute to learning.