As speech-language pathologists (SLPs) and early intervention (EI) specialists, our focus is on building a child’s development to its maximum potential. Since young children learn in the context of the relationship and interaction with their caregivers, we know the benefit of empowering family members to be the child’s main teachers. To demonstrate this, we model how to turn all available materials into opportunities for language stimulation and social connection, focusing on how the object itself acts as a conduit for the interaction, but remains secondary to the interactive learning process.
This approach has become more important with the overwhelming interest in mobile technology and the ubiquitous nature of Apple’s iDevices (i.e., iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad). As young children are hardwired to model adult behavior and are naturally fascinated with all things electronic, their interaction with mobile devices appears inherent and intuitive. This provides the parent and the SLP with the valuable opportunity, and professional responsibility, of demonstrating that it is neither the tools nor the technology, per se, but rather the techniques with which they are employed that become the foundation for meaningful and memorable learning.
Toddlers as Natural Techies
Young children can successfully navigate a mobile device, such as the iPad, because of their natural gross and fine motor skills that serve as the prerequisites. These common motor movements map on to how young children already think and interact with the world. The specific movements that allow them to access stimulating activities include:
- pressing a button to turn it on (as they already do with traditional toys);
- isolating a finger for pointing or tapping (as they do to choose a toy, a food, or a person they want);
- swiping a finger across the screen to remove an unwanted scene or seek a different choice (as they do to toss something unwanted off a table or out of their reach);
- rotating, tilting, and shaking to create various effects (as they do naturally to explore toys).
The typical child development of a preschooler includes knowledge of using symbols to represent objects, to personify objects, and to think about things and events that aren’t immediately present. This relates to children’s natural understanding of the following:
- the icons that represents the app (just as children can see the cover of a book or DVD and know which story inside);
- the symbols that represents the app’s settings (just as children understand that a large red “M” represents “McDonalds” or and a green light means “go”).
It’s the Technique, Not the Tool
As with all activities, parents and professionals must be in tune to when the tool has inadvertently become the key focal point. Young children do not automatically recognize the iPad as a potentially interactive tool, especially if they have been accustomed to using it alone with few guidelines or rules for use. Adults can teach and model the potential interactive modality of the device by demonstrating turn-taking, pausing to check if the child understands what the app is teaching, and extending the activity using related toys across different environments and with multiple communication partners.
To appreciate the tech tools as an interactive learning experience we apply the following principle: Connect Direct Reflect. This encourages the adult to initiate the social connection, followed by the adult covertly directing the interaction, and concluding with both the adult and child reflecting on what they learned. By using this principle with the iPad, it will become clear that it is not the device that serves as the driving force behind the interaction, but rather the process that helps the child achieve specific educational or therapeutic goals.
For example, when playing with young children you can begin with a toy that the child is interested in, such as a robot or fire truck. After connecting with the child by joining him in playing creatively with the toy, you can then introduce a related app, such as “Talking Roby” (the robot) by Outfit7 or “Firefighter Hero’s” [sic] by Kids Place. You can direct the interaction by holding the iPad screen away from the child while activating the app so the child becomes interested in the music or character’s words alone. By removing the visual distraction, you build anticipation and allow the child to reference your facial expressions and focus on the shared excitement. Then you can hold the app up in front of you, facing the child while you start interacting with the app’s robot who repeats your words, or listening to the narrator who tells a story about the firefighter. While maintaining control of the iPad, you take turns making the robot dance or the firefighter work, making sure to pause intermittently to comment or ask a question or respond with a facial expression. When the app is finished, or the time playing the app together comes to a natural close, you can turn off the app or the iPad to reflect and retell what happened. This lends itself to be a natural segue into playing with the robot toy or firefighter truck again to extend what you learned from the app to real-life experiences.
Whether at home, or in an educational or clinical setting, “The 7 P’s of Using Mobile Technology in Therapy” can coach families and professionals on how to maximize using a device with young children:
- Preparation: What is the rationale behind using an app versus using actual books, building blocks, or engaging in pretend-play schemas? How can an app be used that renders it an appropriate tool compared to a traditional toy?
- Participants: What is the child’s age, developmental level, attention level, special needs and interests? Will this be used individually or in a group with his peers or siblings?
- Parameters: What is the appropriate amount of time for the child to spend on the mobile device? Which environments may interfere with communication? The American Pediatrics Association recommends that children under the age of 5 engage in a maximum of 1-2 hours of total daily screen time (Glassy & Romano, 2007).
- Purpose: What is the advertised purpose of the app? With that in mind, how can this app meet a child’s educational or therapeutic goal?
- Positioning: What are the effects of sitting side-by-side with the child versus in front of the child allowing face-to-face interaction? Will you alternate between table time, couch time, and floor time taking advantage of the devices’ portability?
- Playtime: How will you experience shared enjoyment with the app? What type of play does the child prefer to guide the interaction.
- Potential: How will you extend and expand the learning gained from using an app to real-life experiences? Where can you anchor the knowledge gained from the app to what the child already knows? How will you demonstrate the carry-over of information for future learning?
As the excitement and availability of interesting apps increase daily, both parents and professionals will benefit from collaboration that focuses on developmentally appropriate activities and effective teaching techniques. To achieve this, the adult must apply the fundamental aspects of development in the areas of communication, cognition, motor, social-emotional, and adaptive self-help skills as they relate to each child. Since using apps as a teaching and therapy tool is a relatively new experience, with no current research to support their validity, or clear-cut boundaries for their use, it allows for collaborative learning, co-teaching, and joint exploration. The family and child can enjoy the shared experience of navigating this technological journey while an SLP or teacher can utilize evidence-based research about how young children learn for choosing and demonstrating how to use apps to address educational and therapeutic goals.
However, with all new and exciting mobile tech tools that serve as a novelty for the child, it also fosters the habit of surrendering these devices to children for independent learning (or virtual babysitting), as seen in grocery stores, restaurants, waiting rooms, and even while at the playground. This can be balanced with social and interactive time with these devices as well, particularly to deter burnout, a natural by-product of children over-using any new toy. Regardless of whether you’re currently a fan of utilizing mobile technology with young children, or feeling resistant to replacing the touch and feel of blocks, or the sound of turning pages in a book, with a virtual toy, the focus needs to remain on tried-and-true principles for teaching children regardless of tool chosen.
With schools in California already using the iPads in preschool classrooms and high schools experimenting with using iPads in the classroom instead of text books, there’s a high chance your child will be exposed to this technology sooner rather than later. Let us use our critical thinking skills and knowledge of development, combined with fundamental pedagogical principles, to set the stage for matching the child’s interests and developmental stages with specific effective techniques.
Luna DeCurtis & Dawn Ferrer have extensive experience as SLPs teaching children and their families effective communication techniques. They are partners in Morning2Moon Productions and have collaborated on numerous presentations and articles. They own individual private practices serving the Bay Area and specialize in early intervention and social pragmatic disorders.
Image provided by Melissa Miller & Vinnie Fernandez, PAMP’s Lead Photographers and co-owners of C’est Jolie Photography