How to make kids' app time educational

Published: Tuesday, March 12 2013 4:10 p.m. MDT

Jack Leishman, 7, plays an educational game on the iPad while his mother, Megan Leishman, looks on.

Trent Toone, Deseret News

Naomi Lopez is in kindergarten, but she reads and can do math at a second-grade level. She’s also bilingual.

Carlos Lopez attributes his daughter’s early academic success to educational games. In addition to a half day of regular schooling, Naomi averages an hour a day engaged in games and programs on an iPad or the computer that help her practice spelling and math.

“It’s super duper fun,” the 6-year-old said with a smile.

“I highly recommend it, as long as it is something educational,” Carlos Lopez said.

More than two hours a day spent watching television or playing computer games could put a child at greater risk for psychological problems regardless of their activity levels, according to a study by the University of Bristol.

However, in a day and age when young children spend hours on a parent’s tablet or phone, some parents and educators find that turning them on to apps, software and other technology with fun, educational content can help establish a strong foundation of core skills and accelerate academic progress. It’s a matter of parents understanding and taking advantage of their resources, said John Kelly, educational technology specialist for the Salt Lake City School District.

“If you hand a kid an iPad, it can be entertaining for a while, but there needs to be a purpose behind it,” Kelly said. “Do the research and find apps that are fun and have an educational purpose to them.”

Embrace technology

When Kathleen Peterson was a young girl, her grandmother worried about how she handled a book and what she might read. Some parents have similar fears today when it comes to new technology.

“Parents do not need to be afraid of letting their kids use technology, it’s a great resource for parents and children. It’s no more scary than a kid picking up a book 50 to 100 years ago,” said Peterson, the Title I director for the Washington County School District. “Our kids are labeled as ‘digital natives.’ They come knowing how to use technology, with no fear. They don’t need to be taught how to use it … they figure it out.”

With that in mind, Peterson encourages parents to embrace educational technology and allow their young children to develop their vocabulary, number and letter sense through fun games.

“Technology does a great job of teaching some of those concepts and skills they will need to be able to read, problem-solve and develop math computation,” Peterson said.

Once these skills are developed using games and apps, an adult should help the child relate them to real life, Peterson said.

“If a child plays a game where they solve a problem, parents need to help the children relate that game to everyday life,” she said. “They don’t always make that transfer to real life. That’s why we still need teachers and parents.”

Growing up, Peterson’s son liked the game “Oregon Trail.” The pioneer game is a classic example of a fun, eye-catching and colorful game with what she called, “gamification.”

“A game needs to have a ‘gamification’ piece built in, meaning you get to a level, solve a problem and are then rewarded,” Peterson said. “That’s what attracts and motivates children to continue using it.”

The downside

Educational technology is a booming industry right now, according to Valerie Connell, vice president of product and market strategy at the Waterford Institute, a Salt Lake City-based non-profit company that specializes in developing educational technology for young children around the world.

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