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?