Thinking About Kids

Parents, kids, and the way we live together

Why the Real World Is Better for Kids Than an iPad

A simulated world is way too easy.

A few months ago, I wrote a piece on babies and iPads.  Since then, I've read a number of pieces in the New York Times and other venues arguing that 'today's children' should be taught to read on electronic devices and not with traditional paper books.  

E-books are, after all, WICKED COOL.  Modern.  Shiny screens.  Many books written for children where you can 'touch and say' - see a word, be unsure, touch it, and have read it out loud to you.  Funny pictures where they wiggle, you touch, and they dance or sing or move the story forward.

The argument is made that for young readers, the most important thing is that you learn to LOVE READING.  Later, you learn mechanics. And ebooks are just really engaging.

Okay, I get that.  

But then you hear quotes like this, from teacher Kourtney Denning “Old books don’t really cut it anymore,” she said. “We have to transform our learning as we know it.”

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Hmmm . . . 

People who interview me about my thoughts about young children using iPads ask me whether infants and toddlers who are 'deprived' of the experience of playing with iPads, iPhones, or other electronic devices will somehow be left behind in this 'new world'.  

And I start to wander. Why is the digital world so much better for kids than the real world?

And I know the answer: It's not. But it IS different.

Roller Coasters and Coat Hangers

My middle schooler has been  taking a ‘STEM’ class since January.  ‘STEM’ is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. (He takes science too.  This is extra.)

For the last month, that’s meant just one thing: ROLLER COASTERS. 

This is a cool project, where they’ve been learning about kinetic and potential energy by changing the height and steepness of hills on computer simulated roller coasters, calculating trajectories to figure out whether roller coaster cars will fall out of loop-the-loops, and figuring out exactly how to get the car to come to a gentle ‘bump’ at the end of that exciting ride without crashing through the barrier.

For the first few weeks, they did this with some very nice computer simulations. The kids had great fun ‘messing up’ and having their roller coaster leave the tracks and also—more to the point – balancing forces and solving the problems. You can see for yourself when your design fails, because things happen like the car rolling backwards.  You can do a dozen experiments in as many minutes.

It was a great way to learn about many different principles in physics. 

After a few weeks exploring the simulations, the kids had a new project: Building a real (but very small) roller coaster. 

  • They designed it in groups, discussing how their coaster would work, how it related to the physics, and all that good stuff.
  • They collected materials and built a 20’ roller coaster with tracks, and straws, and all sorts of weird gizmos, utlimately suspending the highest hill from the 10' ceiling.
  • They got really excited about the switchback they were going to have and the loop and . . .

You get the picture.

Learning in Real Life

What happened when they first ran it?

It crashed and burned (figuratively speaking).

Of course. 

  • The track shook too much so the car fell off.
  • They had to stabilize the tubes they used for tracks with wire to keep it from shaking and flipping.  The first wire was too soft and wouldn't hold it's shape, so they eventually stabilized it with coat hangers and duct tape.
  • They had to simplify the design so they highs weren’t so high and the lows not quite so steep
  • The loop turned into a pretty neat corkscrew.
  • They had to figure out a way to get their car to stop gently at the station, eventually settling on tape on the tracks because it was the easiest and most practical way to reset it


They had a great time—and a lot of arguments and disappointments.  They learned to coordinate and that new wire could cost a lot (and shouldn't be requested after the stores close at night.) They learned how to use pliers to take apart wire coathangers and bend it to fit their needs. And they finally got their roller coaster to run.

They learned a lot.  About REAL physics and all those other variables that the computer simulation didn’t take into account.

Babies and iPads

Which brings me back to young children and iPads. 

Since writing that blog on babies and ipads, I have begun to think hard about the advantages and disadvantages of different modes of learning. My son’s project really brought this home. 

What's great about young kids (or older one's too) playing with iPads?

According to developmental psychologist, Urie Bronfenbrnner, what children need to grow up to be healthy, happy, intelligent adults is to spend time engaged in activites with people or with things that respond differentially to their abilities and can grow with them.

Think of a baby stacking cups.  They start off making noise with them, sticking them in their mouth, and just looking at those smooth pretty things. Soon the cups transform into things that ROLL, although not as well as balls.  Then, as the child becomes more sophisticated, the baby learns they can be nested inside each other.

Watching a toddler learn to nest things is pretty cool.  First they can nest a smaller one into a bigger one. They learn small goes into big but not the other way around (watch them experiment - it is really neat).  They experiment with how close together in size cups can be and still fit inside each other.  Eventually, kids can nest all of the cups together through trial and error.  FINALLY—and this is a HUGE cognitive step forward—they can easily look at the whole set of cups and put them in order without any trouble.  Note that this requires seeing that one cup—the red one, for example—is smaller than the yellow one but bigger than the green one.  Decentering, according to Piaget.  And THAT is a major achievement.  

When they're really good, they can not only nest them, but stack them up too.

All these changes require the development of first large, then small, motor coordination.  And the developing child also learns that you can stack cups on hard floors a lot better than you can stack them on rugs or on magazines. This is what Gibson called affordances.  Affordances are essentially learning what kinds of manipulations or activities different aspects of the environment will allow.  For example, a floor affords walking in a different way than a water bed does.  

While learning what cups afford, the developing child has probably also learned that even though coffee mugs LOOK like stacking cups, they really shouldn't be stacked.

This type of experiential learning is facilitated by scaffolding, where another person—especially an adult or older child—can help them go a little further with help than they can when they're playing alone.  So a baby who can nest one cup inside another—with difficulty because little fingers have a hard time with this—can nest a sequence of cups if a helper keeps handing them the next correct size.  Or pile their stack higher if a helper steadies a wobbly pile of cups before it topples.

Vygotsky argued that development occurs in the zone of proximal development - that area where kids engage in activities with others that they can't quite manage to do on their own.  The growing edge of learning.  That's why Bronfenbrenner argued that to optimize development, kids need to engage in challenging tasks with the help of others.  He, after Leontev, called it 'the maximum of challenge and the maximum of support'.

Back to iPads

iPads are great to the extent that they let babies engage in these types of activities.  

Playing with an iPad with a child makes that much more likely to happen. Reading together, helping them do puzzles or draw with their fingers (fingerpaint without the mess!), certainly listening to music or stories . . . The iPad can be a great, creative playground.  

Many apps are also designed to make it easy for kids to continue to challenge themselves without getting too frustrated.  Good apps provide helps when the player is frustrated and they have levels of complexity to explore.  

On the down side, iPads often are used as babysitters rather than as toys to be jointly played with.  And then their limitations really come out.

iPad apps—even great ones—are just a model of reality. And all models are—by design—limited. They pose challenges, but the challenges are two dimensional.  And they give LOTS of hints so that small children playing alone don't get frustrated (this is scaffolding).  For example, if the app has cute animations that take off with the touch of a finger, then often the 'object' wiggles or glows or pings if no one touches it. When touched, it does something neat.  

This is one of the really nice things about an iPad if you're using it to help a child pass time or you're playing together with the child. They provide scaffolding when you can't.

However, just as the roller coaster simulation my son and his friends played with taught them a lot about physics, it didn't teach them much about building a real roller coaster. Why?  Because the real world is much more complex than the simple models presented. There's friction that varies with texture and increases at each junction. There's vibration. There are different types of wire that just don't stick that well to duct tape.

A pile of pots, a wooden spoon, and a radio playing in the background provides a much more sensorily rich environment for a baby—and a more challenging one—than even a really nifty iPad app.  And one of the very interesting things about children is that the more they play with a toy that can grow with them, the more they find to do with it.  Kids who play with blocks all the time do much more creative things with them than kids who have done so rarely.

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There's nothing wrong with a young child spending a bit of time with an app.  But I've seen nothing from a developmental perspective that makes me believe that the physical skills required to use it or the cognitive skills gained by manipulating it are likely to provide a richer developmental experience than the real world. If an iPad app is easy enough for a toddler to maneauver, I doubt it will take a novice 5 year old very long to master it.  

And a 5 year old who has a lot of experience in the real world may bring more to that iPad than one who has been using it since birth.

Nancy Darling, Ph.D., is a Professor at Oberlin College.

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