Tech in Toyland: A New America Conversation

article | December 09, 2011

Let’s admit it, education policy can be a bit dry. But when the holidays roll around, discussions about what’s best for children shift to the glittering spectacle of toyland, with animated discussions about whether to actually give our tots what they’ve asked for.

Here at the New America Foundation, we’re not immune to the pondering and hand-wringing about what to buy our kids, especially when it comes to the technology-oriented toys they want so much. With my obsession for research on children’s learning and technology, and given some of our recent writings on the subject, it seemed like a good time to let our readers have a peek at the super-serious, think tank-y conversations we’re having around here about Fruit Ninja and five-year-olds.

The video above features Amanda Ripley, Schwartz Fellow and education reporter; Andres Martinez, editorial director at New America; and myself, riffing on some of the ideas from Screen Time, the paperback version of my book originally titled Into the Minds of Babes. (Screen Time is coming out next year.)

If you’re still wondering what to get your child for the holidays, I've offered some unsolicited advice below. (I also talk about screen time more specifically in a recent Q-and-A with Ed Week's Maureen Kelleher.) 

When making decisions about media and technology for young kids, the research tells us to focus on the Three C’s: content, context and the individual child.  There’s much more to say about context and the individual child – which I’ll hold for another time. But holiday shopping season is a great time to zoom in on good content. Shoppers who are looking for the perfect gadget should make sure that what their kids see on that gadget – whether it be games, books or videos – is designed to make sense for the child’s age and is likely to capture their interest.

Finding the Good Stuff

Some of my favorite sites for sorting through the marketing hype.

Because I’ve been asked: Here are some apps on my iPhone and iPad

These are not necessarily the latest and greatest. But they captured my attention for their simplicity, and so I downloaded them for my girls, ages 7 and 9. I’d love to get more suggestions – let me know what you think.

Tilt the screen to capture scoops of ice cream as they fall from the sky.

Dog Party
A matching-vocab app based on the PBS show, Martha Speaks

A new animated video everyday on everything from The Beatles to the Nobel Prize

Lights Out
Touch the screen to “turn out the lights” when someone leaves the room. A game that requires fast fingers and keen observation.

Pocket Frogs
Keep colorful frogs in the nursery and see them multiply. But beware of the in-app purchases that your kids will beg you to shell out money for.

Talking Tom
Speak into the device and Tom the tomcat will repeat after you with feline attitude.

Extras—on my husband’s iPhone:
Angry Birds

Need I describe this? Yes, even little kids can get sucked into squashing those nasty pigs.

Fruit Ninja
Slice and dice with finger swipes as papayas and coconuts cross the galaxy of your screen.

Apps to Avoid

Pat the Bunny – the ebook version
Come on, people. When my kids were babies, they wanted to feel the physical fluff and Daddy’s sandpaper beard. Don’t you? If you’re paying for ebooks, I’d avoid ones that flatten the reading experience and rely on too many bells and whistles.

Flashcard Apps
Okay, so maybe there are some SAT-taking teenagers who could use a few vocab flashcards. But younger kids will get much more out of open-ended games than drill-and-kill exercises.

ABCs, ad nauseum
Parents delight in anything that shows their children the A, B,Cs. And of course you want your kids to recognize the alphabet by the time they are in kindergarten. But most e-games for kids overdo it. Young children will get much more out of great children’s literature, games and videos that show them something of the world, or that open their eyes to fascinating stories and characters.