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Trent Toone, Deseret News
Carlos Lopez, right, looks on as his daughter, 6-year-old Naomi Lopez, plays a spelling game on the iPad.
Using apps is one way to develop cognitive skills. Teaching children to sit and learn for longer than three minutes at a time is an important skill. We call it executive function — the ability to think through things and not give up the first time you face a challenge. —Valerie Connell

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.

“There is a lot of money going into Ed-Tech. A lot of venture capitalists are getting into it. You’re seeing a lot of new start-ups … and the big publishers are investing in digital education,” Connell said. “Every year there is something new coming out. It’s moving at an exponential rate whereas before it was almost glacial.”

Connell recently noticed there were more than 30,000 apps in the education section of the Apple app store. The downside to apps, she said, is they are small bites of education.

“They are disconnected from each other. There is no curriculum,” Connell said. “That’s the limitation currently in the consumer market.”

With the new national education standards, Common Core, being adopted around the United States, a curriculum will help children to learn at a natural rate, said Claudia Miner, Waterford’s vice president of development.

“It’s the difference between doing a fun app that looks great and keeps a child engaged for 10 minutes of a ride home, and actually having a curriculum that can be used in school,” Miner said.

Connell advises parents to find apps that help their child develop cognitive skills.

“One concern is a child’s inability to focus for a long period of time,” she said. “Using apps is one way to develop cognitive skills. Teaching children to sit and learn for longer than three minutes at a time is an important skill. We call it executive function — the ability to think through things and not give up the first time you face a challenge.”


Kelly's children like a variety of educational apps. There's "Zoodles," where a child can create an account and see age-appropriate educational videos.

"I can go to the website and see my 9-year-old has watched a lot of history videos, while my 6-year-old is more into reading, and you don't have to worry about the content," Kelly said.

They also like apps like Puppet Pals HD, PBS Kids, VidRhythm and Book Creator.

"There are so many they can have fun with, it's just a matter of going through and making sure they have some kind of educational value," Kelly said.

Kelly recommends more educational resources on his website, jzakimikelly.weebly.com.

Megan Leishman's 7-year-old son, Jack, a fan of Angry Birds Star Wars, also loves Waterford's reading software, www.rustyandrosy.com.

"It helps you learn while you're having fun," Jack said.

"He started reading at a young age, now he's ahead of a lot of his peers," Leishman said. "He gets some free time (with the computer), but usually, if he is going to be playing games, I like that he’s learning something at the same time."

Finally, a word of warning from parents Dave and Kiersten Owens, who have two energetic sons, Matt, 6, and Jackson, 4:

"Keep it on 'airplane mode' so they can’t buy anything," Dave Owens said.

For more recommendations on educational apps, teachthought.com recently compiled a list of the 12 best children's educational iPad apps from 2012.

Visitors are also welcome to attend the Early Education and Technology for Children (EETC) conference, April 2-4, in Salt Lake City. The EETC conference is an annual event that brings researchers, policy makers, administrators, educators, and solution providers together to explore technology used for preschool through elementary education.

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