From the Creator of Peekaboo Barn: “Get Involved”

Remember Peekaboo Barn? If you are like me, it might be one of the first apps downloaded to your iPhone. This award winning app for toddlers has been a hit since its release in 2008, is updated regularly, is downloaded from the tops of iTunes charts world-wide, and has been played over 12 MILLION TIMES. Nat Sims, creator of Peekaboo Barn and co-owner of Night & Day Studios, shares his opinions on the role apps play, and more importantly, the role WE play, by getting actively involved in the experience.

We keep asking ourselves, is it good for kids to play with apps? And that is a good question we should keep asking. But to get a good answer, we’re going to have to ask some other questions too. In what context are the children using the apps? What opportunities does the app afford for creative or free play? How does the app support the relationship between the child and their parent, their friends, their environment?

When I first came up with the idea for Peekaboo Barn, my daughter was sitting on my lap. We were reading a board book about a big barn filled with all the classic barn animals. When I pointed to each animal on the page, I would make the animal sound for my daughter. It was fun to have her guess which animal was next, and then pop! quickly turn to the next page and reveal who it was.

It seemed like a natural idea for a fun interactive toy. When I brought it to my colleagues at Night & Day Studios, they took the idea and ran with it. We realized we could also say the name of the animal and put its name on the screen. In fact, we could do it in Spanish too. We could randomize the order of animals; we could make it go on forever–it didn’t have to end like a storybook.

What is strange is that while I ended up with an app that I could play with my daughter, many other parents found an app they could use in a very different way. One of the greatest unplanned features of the Peekaboo series is that they will entertain a child sitting by herself–sometimes for hours–without any parental intervention. Many of the bestselling apps provide this, and as a parent, I really do understand how great it is to have something mildly educational and highly interesting capture my daughter’s attention while I write a quick email, have a conversation, or get caught up on housework.

However, when the question comes up again–are apps good for kids–I can’t help but think that apps are at their best when they’re part of a complete breakfast, as they used to say. They should be part of a conversation parents are having with their children. They should encourage activity in the app, for sure, but they should also encourage talk and play in the rest of the world. 

I know that I may be an unusual parent in this regard. I know this because in each of the subsequent apps I’ve designed for toddlers, I’ve included aspects that work best when a parent is involved, and some of our customers are disappointed in this expectation. They want–probably, sometimes, they even need–an app they can just hand to their child and the child will get it. That is certainly an excellent design challenge, and something I continue to respect as we refine our app designs. (The requirement that a piece of software must simply work is why video games have much better interfaces than “productivity” software.)

But the success of an app for a child and their parent comes down to what cognitive scientists refer to as “affordances.” What aspects of a given designed object can be used, mobilized, taken advantage of? A typical hammer has a flat steel part for whacking in nails, and a claw for pulling them out; the hammer “affords” you these abilities. Apps have affordances too: things they let you do, and things they don’t. Apps can let you play, freely or within the confines of directed activities. At the same time, they can provide other ways to interact beyond just using the app itself.

We are all coming to see the benefits of play for our children just as much as we see the benefits of pedagogy. Open-ended play and self-directed play are excellent ways to learn–even guided play and constructed exercises can be great for kids. But I believe the best apps allow for this play while also affording the parent and child opportunities to freely engage with other fundamental concepts: patterns, words, and numbers; nature and beauty; puzzles, surprises, and laughter. For a child, these opportunities may not be obvious. Many opportunities may indeed be lost. That’s where the parent comes in.

So, let your children play, and let them play with apps. But get involved. Have them sit on your lap the first few times they play. Pay attention to what interests them, and what new conversations–funny stories or learning moments–the app affords. Point out interesting details in the images and sounds you experience. If the app is a dead end, just delete it! But if not, talk about the app over breakfast, and if the app has a useful educational activity, recreate it in other parts of the child’s life. Integrate the app into their larger lives, and in turn you will bring the energy of their vibrant young lives to all of their learning experiences.

I know, I know: how can we make the time for all of this? But then again, when it comes to raising our children, can we really afford not to?

Let The Children Play

Our feature this week is written by Esa Helttula of iDevBooks. Esa is one of our Dads With Apps, based in Finland, who has developed a line of math apps for the iPhone. Every week one of our developers writes a feature, and Esa chose something unrelated to technology – but TOTALLY welcome here at Moms With Apps. Let The Children Play! Many people may jump to the conclusion that just because you are a parent with an iPhone, your child runs around with it constantly. Based on what I know about our group, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are focused on new conversations, meaningful learning experiences, and useful tools. But above all else, we encourage families to thrive. Thank you Esa for opening up this topic here at Moms With Apps.

American Academy of Pediatrics issued a clinical report in 2006 about the importance of play that stated that play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. The report notes that despite the benefits several factors have reduced time available for play.

Children have less free playtime than before

Free playtime is in decline in countries all over the World. Japanese photographer Keiki Haginoya decided in 1979 to document children at play on the streets of Tokyo. He intended to make it his life’s work but he had to stop after just 17 years: there were no children playing on the streets any more.

The decline in free playtime has started decades ago. Hillary Burdette and Robert Whitaker reported in a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine that free playtime in US had decreased by 25 % between 1981 and 1997. The University of Sydney Popping the Bubblewrap project reports that the trend is similar in Australia.

The National Institute of Play divides play into different patterns, some of which are body play & movement, social play, imaginative play, creative play, and storytelling. Playing in nature has been shown to be especially beneficial to mental and physical well being. With over 50 % of the World population living in cities, children in every continent have fewer opportunities to experience nature.

Children spend less time outdoors than before

In a 2008 survey the Outdoor Foundation found out that from 2006 to 2007 there was an 11 % drop in outdoor activities among children ages 6 to 17 in US. Over 30% of children did not take part in any outdoor activities during the whole year.

In her study in 2004 Rhonda Clements asked 830 mothers how their children play outdoors compared to how the mothers themselves played outdoors when they were children. Outdoor playtime had decreased dramatically. Especially time spent in made-up imaginative game and games using child-initiated rules had halved.

According to Natural England 40 % of children played in natural places in 1970 but only 10 % do so today. The Ethiopian newspaper The Daily Monitor had an article in 2007 about the need to get children out of the house and noted that many Ethiopians will have reached adulthood far removed from outdoor experiences.

Even in Finland – where 86 % of the land is forest – nursery schools have been facing a new kind of problem. Some children have problems in the forest excursions because they have always walked on a flat surface. One nursery school built an indoor forest trail where children can practice walking before going – for the first time in their lives – to a real forest.

Creativity has been declining

Last summer Newsweek published an article titled “The Creativity Crisis”, which discussed the decline of creativity among children in United States. The article references work by Kyung-Hee Kim, an assistant professor in William & Mary’s School of Education.

Last month Encyclopædia Britannica’s Britannica Blog interviewed Kim and she gave specific figures for the decline in different subscales of the Torrace Test of Creative Thinking.  All subscales have measured declining creativity for the last 20 years with the pace of decline accelerating. The most striking decline was in Elaboration (ability to develop and elaborate upon ideas and detailed and reflective thinking and motivation to be creative). Scores in Elaboration decreased by over 36 % from 1984 to 2008.

Kim is not aware of any research study specifically addressing the topic of declining creativity. One possible explanation, according to Kim, is time spent in front of televisions and computers instead of playing outside or exploring the outside world.

In the summer I was reading the book “Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul” by M.D. Stuart Brown and Christopher Vaughan. The authors tell a story about Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

In the late nineties the engineers and scientists who put men on the moon and built all other major components of manned and unmanned space missions started to retire. The managers found out that top graduates from top universities, like MIT and Stanford, were generally not as good as the older generation when it came to coping with practical difficulties in complex problems. The managers started to look for explanations.

It turned out that all of the old engineers had played with their hands and built things when they were young but only some of the new engineers. Those of the new workers who had played with their hands were better at the kind of problem solving that management sought.

Why is this important?

A Little Miss Mom With App

Nothing like this has ever happened before. The amount of play has been in decline all over the World and children spend less time in nature than ever before. How can the future generations care about nature if they have never experienced it themselves?

Even more important than connecting with nature, being creative, getting along with others, or any other benefits of play is the happiness that play provides. Children are happy when they play and playtime with friends and family provided the most lasting childhood memories for us who are parents today. We should try to provide those memories also for our children.