They Still Need You: How Adults Help Young Kids Learn With Technology

[Over the years I’ve had a chance to observe and work with learners from 3 to 83. Especially for younger learners, it’s important to have a human connection. In this Mindshift article there are great examples of how working with adults improved student learning compared to just using an app. I serve on the board of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). PAEYC has partnered with the Fred Rogers Center to look at appropriate ways to use digital media. We want our children to use today’s technology, but we need to remember that learning is social. As Fred Rogers explained, “It is through relationships that we grow and learn best.”]


Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

There are more than 80,000 educational apps in Apple’s app store. It seems like a great way to encourage brain development and make your little one the smartest baby genius. But just sticking a tablet in your kid’s hands might not be as helpful.

Sure, use the app. But it’s not a babysitter — you’ve got to help them use it, too.

Several recent studies have looked at how young children learn from touchscreens. One study, published in Child Development, compared how 2- and 3-year-olds learned to build a three-piece puzzle. Some children learned how to assemble the puzzle from a “ghost demonstration” — meaning that, initially, the pieces moved by themselves on the tablet to show how it works. A lot of apps that are intended for young children often have some element of this ghost demonstration: Pieces move on their own or objects will move them.

Other children had a person sitting next to them to move the puzzle pieces on the tablet.

After they watched the demonstration, both groups of children were asked to complete the task on either a touchscreen tablet or a real puzzle that looked identical to the one they saw.

The 2- and 3-year-olds who saw the ghost demonstration had a hard time replicating the task — but did well after they saw the human hand. Researchers concluded that having a human guide — often referred to as having social scaffolding — helped these young children learn.

“Simply having someone show them how to put that puzzle together, rather than the app showing it to them, allowed them to put that puzzle together themselves” explains Rachel Barr, a professor at Georgetown and one of the authors of the study. “But taking away that person — taking away that scaffold — made their performance just look like they had never even seen it before.”

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