As a technologist and toddler parent, I struggle at times with just how much tech our kids should consume/be exposed to in their daily life.
While becoming digitally competent is one of the most important goals for our children in our parenting, at the same time, I see how things like the universally afflicting Nintendo DS-addiction (any parent of 6-10 year olds know exactly what I mean by this term) has some major drawbacks – including social impacts for how kids relate (or lack there of) to each other.
So I set-out to find some answers from an expert on kids, the web and parenting in today’s world. I was able to interview Graham Scharf, a founder of Tumblon.com which is one of the most unique parenting sites I’ve come across recently. There are tons of sites targeting parents, but this one integrates many features that are out there in this space as well as some new ones that just seem to make sense — and are completely practical and personalized to your own family’s life stage.
I asked Graham questions that are helping wrap my head around just how much exposure I should be allowing for my 4yr old. As well as specific questions about top recommended sites for the kids as well as us – the parents. . . Here goes. . .
Q: Graham, your experience teaching in the classroom must have provided tons of opportunities to observe when the learning is actually “happening”. How does technology help or hinder children get to those learning moments faster?
A. Technology makes many things possible – and it also makes many things more difficult.
What does it make possible? It can speed learning by providing a fun, interactive learning environment. A great example is Starfall, a literacy site where kids learn to read by playing and listening. Technology can also make record-keeping easier for teachers and parents so that they can focus on the the areas of need, and capitalize on strengths. Best of all, technology provides opportunities that otherwise would not be accessible. For example, through the Discovery Channel, children can learn about distant parts of the world they might never be able visit, or hear a symphony played by the New York Philharmonic on a CD that they would never attend in person. Through portals like National Geographic for Kids children can learn about the world in exciting new ways. Technology can be a wonderful tool in spurring curiosity, creativity and love of learning.
The other side of the coin is that every technology, while making some things more possible, makes others more difficult. The most obvious difficulty is developing the ability to focus. With so many exciting stimuli through screens and speakers, it is very easy to be distracted. Yet the ability to focus is absolutely essential to learning. To solve a problem, write clearly, or create something beautiful, you must direct your attention. In many ways technology contends for children’s attention, that makes this critical skill more difficult to develop than in previous times.
Q: You read in the press about studies showing that parents today start sticking TV’s in front of babies as soon as 3-month after birth. And 90% of 2 year olds are couch potatoes on a regular basis. The Amer. Acad. of Pediatrics recommends absolutely no TV before 2 yrs old because it could be harmful for child development. Now, 3 month olds can’t control a mouse (except perhaps try to eat it), but how young/old do you think is a good age to start introducing interactive websites to children – based on the types/quality of websites available today for toddlers?
A. My daughter learned to use a mouse when she was about 24 months, mostly because of imitation. I worked from home, and so she saw me sitting at the computer and wanted to “do email like Daddy.” However I wouldn’t recommend going any younger than that (and I’m not sure that I’ll introduce the mouse to my next one that young).
The AAP has good reason for their TV recommendations: children need interaction with people, not time in front of a screen.
It relates again to the critical ability to play, and to sustain focus on a task. At 2 years that task might be stacking blocks, nesting cups or scribbling with crayons. These are the kinds of interaction that I would recomend for developing fine-motor and cognitive skills. At 3 years old websites like Starfall are ideal because the promote the letter name and sound learning that is natural at that stage.
The old aphorism is true, “In all things moderation.” If you choose to introduce your child to the computer young, keep the sessions short, and focus on toys that don’t require batteries or a cord.
Q. What are some of the areas for education/development that today’s websites are good at regarding the toddler set?
A. The strength of the web right now is for parents, not toddlers. Web 2.0 technology means that you don’t need to go looking for child development information; you can have it delivered to you at the right time so that you can spend more time playing with and enjoying your kids. Although there area burgeoning number of websites for toddlers out there, I would recommend choosing tried and true open-ended toys (things like Duplos, dolls or wooden blocks) rather than parking your kid in front of a screen.
Q. What opportunities does the web offer to foster learning for young children?
A. Among abundant contenders, these three websites are the cream of the crop:
(1) Starfall.com is a flash-based interactive literacy development site for young children.
Designed for kindergartners and English language learners (but suitable for age 3+), children who cannot yet read use visual cues to navigate the games as they learn letter, names, sounds and patterns.
Starfall is ad-free, non-merchandized, so you don’t have to worry about the marketing messaging to your kids.
(2) Sheppard Software offers a host of interactive learning games for kids, but what sets them apart is their geography games.
Children learn the names of continents, oceans, nations, states and cities by clicking on an interactive map that then speaks the name of the place.
As children advance, they can play games that ask them to locate a particular place. Excellent for ages 3+.
(3) PBS Kids has a host of games, activities and videos for kids of diverse quality.
One Curious George game stands out as best-in-class for remembering a sequence of numbers.
Children listen to a number sequence (beginning with 3 digits) and then enter those digits, in order, into an on-screen keypad in order to see a short George video clip. As kids master it, the sequences get more and more difficult!
Q. What about sites for parents about parenting? What are some of the areas that current sites are addressing and areas that are missing from the sites available today?
A. The number of parenting sites is bewildering, and they vary in quality and focus.
A good example of a vision-driven site is Ask Dr. Sears. The site is a very helpful resource for attachment parenting. Many sites don’t have the same purpose as Ask Dr. Sears. Instead, they exist to connect parents to one another like Totspot, and advertisers to parents, like Baby Center, or to preserve memories, like Kidmondo.
In my estimation, what has been missing is public-health oriented business that emphasize rich children’s literature, and enable parents to record their child’s developmental history.
Three recommendations for website regarding parenting:
1. American Academy of Pediatrics. The AAP has set the gold standard in terms of quality information. The site’s user-interface leaves a lot to be desired, but you can bank on excellent information.
2. Early Intervention Support has a much better user-interface than the AAP and similar information. It has two major strengths: (1) You can ask a therapist your question online if you’re concerned about your child. (2) You can easily find early intervention services in your state.
3. Your public library site! The toddler years are the time to begin exploring great children’s literature. Even if you don’t live in Brooklyn, NY, the Brooklyn Public Library site is an excellent place to find literature recommendations, nursery rhymes, and tips for reading with young children.
Q. As one of the co-founders of tumblon.com, could you tell us what are some of the features you’ve built into the site which addresses these needs of parents in today’s world?
A. The big gap that we filled was interactive developmental milestones. The AAP and Early Intervention were providing high quality information, but not web 2.0. Baby Center, What to Expect and iVillage had saturated the market with weekly emails on child development. All three (and a host of smaller contenders) were expanding into the social media space. However, I would grade them (if I may) as web 1.5, because they had customized the information, and connected people but none let parents record their kids’ developmental milestones.
In response to this need, www.Tumblon.com has partnered with a public health research initiative and a literacy non-profit to provide top-quality, interactive developmental and literacy milestones. We believe that parents play the most important role in society by cultivating the character, competence, creativity and health of the next generation. So we partnered with the grandmother of children’s literature, author Gladys Hunt, to recommend the best of children’s literature for each stage of development.
We built age-appropriate activity and toy recommendations into our design so that in less than 5 minutes parents could know
(1) the six most important currently developing milestones, and
(2) specific books, activities and toys to engage and enjoy the child.
The “magic” of the site is that by interacting with a child’s developmental milestones, parents are populating a secure multi-media family blog with all of their children’s milestones and memories.
Parents face two major challenges: time is always tight, and their kids are always changing. We help parents by providing simple, reliable, customized, interactive developmental information so that they can celebrate and preserve their children’s milestones and memories – and spend more time together enjoying great age-appropriate books, activities, games and toys together.
Graham Scharf is a father, educator and co-founder of Tumblon, the only online service that allows parents of young children to track their children’s developmental milestones. He blogs at Essential Questions, and hosts a podcast for parents. Tumblon recommends age-appropriate resources (children’s literature, activities, toys, etc.) for each child and includes an integrated multi-media family blog.
This subject is obviously an area that will undoubtedly gain more traction as the web continues to unfold and our culture becomes more and more web-enabled going forward.
What are your thoughts about this topic? Do you have any specific recommendations for websites you can share with me and the readers? Please leave a comment below.