On “Screen Time”

I’m sure I’m not the only parent of a kid who craves “screen time” like an addict looking for a fix. It’s not a particularly nuanced desire; almost anything will do and she’ll watch the same stuff over and over as well. I’m not proud of the fact that sometimes putting my kid in front of a screen is a useful tool for getting other things done around the house. That said, if my kid is going to be interacting with the tablet we bought to entertain her on an international plane flight, I’d rather it was educational and interactive.

We first realized that the Pooka could navigate a touch screen with a simple app that I believe came pre-installed on her Kindle Fire. It played Twinkle Twinkle while little stars gently floated across the screen and could be “grabbed” and placed into star-shaped slots. Doing this enough allowed the kid to put a “sticker” on the screen, which actually just cluttered up the whole thing and made it harder. It was a good introduction to moving things around a screen, but the kid quickly mastered and grew bored with it.

These days, the kid’s interactive apps are limited to Toddler Animals, My Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Endless Reader (which is a our favorite by a substantial degree). Of these, only Endless Reader has my 100% seal of approval. Toddler Animals has some user interface problems unique to toddlers, and My Very Hungry Caterpillar seems extremely limited, and neither of them have academic objectives; not that just problem-solving, experimentation, and physical manipulation aren’t valid things for a toddler to get from an app.

Toddler Animals

I admit that I cringe a little bit when the Pooka wants to play Toddler Animals, because I know she’ll be asking for my help at some point. The premise is pretty straightforward; there’s a farm that looks like it’s made of felt and populated by felt animals. There are a bunch of animals down the right side of the screen that take the player to a series of tasks, after which they are rewarded with a virtual “sticker” that they can drop onto their own farm backdrop.

The problem is that not all the tasks are geared toward the same ability levels. So, for instance, my daughter may be able to “pick up all the chicken’s eggs and put them in the basket” but will get frustrated when tasked with tracing a line along a swirling path to “guide the chickens home.” There’s no way to bypass tasks, so the kid inevitably brings her “little screen” over to me to help her complete a series. I will just say that having “guided the chickens home” many many times, it requires a degree of fine motor skills that I myself barely possess, so it may be unreasonable for a game aimed at toddlers. I’m not complaining that the tasks are too hard, I’m complaining that the difficulty levels are all mixed together in a single module and need to be scaled better.

My biggest hang-up with the game is the UI, however. There are a couple of spots where I feel that the designers may not have been fully aware of how toddlers interact with touch-screens. For instance, my daughter will press something and keep her finger there. If it’s a button that is activated upon release, she’ll get frustrated that it isn’t doing what its supposed to because her finger is still on it. She’ll press harder and when that ultimately doesn’t work, she’ll hammer the button repeatedly. That will activate the button, but also means that she’ll activate any button in the same place on the next screen.

In the case of this particular app, she liked a number of the animal buttons, but for some reason HATED the one with the dog. She didn’t get it, it was a little too advanced for her, and it involved another one of those “trace your finger along a path” things that she needed help with. The problem was that the “home” button on all animal modules was placed exactly where the “dog” button was on the main screen. So she’d decide she didn’t want to go ask dad to help her “guide the chickens home” yet another time and would press the home button. Nothing would happen (because her finger was still on the button), so she’d hammer repeatedly, which would load the home screen and then immediately launch the dog module. She’d yell, and repeat the same thing with the home button, creating an endless loop of pressing a module she didn’t want, going home, and doing it again.

This caused her so much consternation (and involved parental intervention so many times) that I considered uninstalling the app entirely, because she hated that dog and the game was seemingly built so that she’d inevitably get stuck with the dog.

That wasn’t the only UI weirdness. There’s a task with a turkey that has had all its color washed off in the rain and the player has to apply paint colors to restore it to it’s former glory. There are a series of “paint colors” down the side of the screen and you select one and then press the area of the turkey you want to color in. The problem is that it isn’t intuitive for a kid to select a color and then select an area: the instinctive thing is to drag the color across the screen to the area. Doing so does nothing, because if it’s a single press of the screen it doesn’t even select the color, much less transfer it to the feathers of this stupid flightless bird. I wonder if there was any testing done on this app at all, and moreover if they had a child development specialist on-hand to explain to the UI designers why this is totally weird for toddlers.

My Very Hungry Caterpillar

I loved the book this game was based on when I was a kid. If you are unfamiliar, Eric Carle bucked the children’s book publishing trends back in 1969 when he used a collage visual technique to create his images. Given how “arty” it looked, it was a bit of an uphill battle for him to get it made, but it’s been astonishingly popular ever since, and is almost ubiquitous at this point.

The game allows you to move the little caterpillar around a largely empty space looking for food and things to play with. You click where you want the caterpillar to go and he/she inches across the screen to that spot. If you click on a fruit, the caterpillar will crawl over to the fruit and consume it. You can also pick up the caterpillar and move it around with a “press and drag” interface.

It’s very zen-like. There’s no obvious tasks to complete, except for experimenting with the caterpillar and its setting. That’s actually part of the problem, as well: after my daughter is done experimenting with having the caterpillar track paint across a canvas, or eat all the apples, or play with a balloon, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere else to go or anything else to do.

I may be wrong; there may be a whole other “level” full of new things to interact with. My daughter has never gotten there, however, and I haven’t either. There’s no directions and between the two of us we’ve exhausted all the obvious options. The kid still likes to go back and play with it from time to time, but it doesn’t hold her interest for long because it’s very familiar. While I get that kids like familiar stuff, they don’t like it that much.

Endless Reader

So this is the app that I’d like to gush about. It uses illustrated monsters and a “click and drag” interface to help kids discover phonemes. The kid first picks a word from a “book” of ones available (which can conveniently be expanded with additional downloadable content). The word is shown and a voice pronounces it, and then a herd of monsters stampedes across the screen and all the letters fall off their original positions to random points on the screen, leaving only a “ghost” image of the word. When a kid presses on one of the letters scattered around, it makes animates in a silly way and makes the phoneme sound as long as the finger remains on the screen.

The kid drags the wiggling letter (with its silly phoneme repeatedly sounding) across the screen to the “ghost” shape of the word and places it there, after which the letter is identified by the voice. When all the letters have been put back, the voice reads the word. The next screen is a sample sentence using that word, with three of the sight words in the sentence removed. The player moves the stray words back into place, while they also wiggle and repeat the sound of the word. After the words are all in pace, the voice reads the sentence and the illustrated monsters act it out.

I’m not going to say that my daughter has learned to read through this app or anything like that, but she has gotten much better about recognizing the letters of the alphabet and the sounds they make.

This game achieves the gold standard of educational software by being a lot of fun independently of the learning objectives. A lot of educational games come out like “chocolate-covered broccoli” because of the way they crudely graft educational content onto a substandard interface. If the game isn’t fun, the learning isn’t going to happen (if for no other reason than the kid will quickly stop playing). Endless Reader, even though the puzzle interface is repetitive, is fun for a toddler (it’s silly, it’s interactive, it’s easy to understand). The fact that each word has a different sentence and animated skit for that sentence means that there is a much higher threshold for repeat play.

The best part for me is that this game actually lends itself well to playing with my daughter. The word will come up and I’ll ask, “This word starts with the letter ‘S.’ Which one of those letters is ‘S?'” She’ll make a guess and there will be immediate feedback about whether her guess is correct. Sometimes, we’ll take turns moving the letters, or she’ll point to a letter and have me sound out the phoneme and “double check” my work by dragging the wriggling letter across the screen.

I don’t imagine that this app is ideal for every kid, but it has a nice combination of spacial learning, eye-hand coordination, and language. For my daughter, who is so verbal, it’s also a great way for her to expand her vocabulary (some of the expanded/related products by Originator move past “sight words” to more unusual words like “contraption”). She also likes the monsters, and has even asked me to tell her stories about the characters. Originator, if you are reading this, bios for each of the monsters would be helpful for parents to know who their kids are talking about.

In Conclusion

Like many parents, I’m really conflicted about my daughter using her Kindle Fire as a miniature TV. I feel a little better about her playing interactive games, but not all the apps we’ve purchased have been equally engaging or well-designed. While I would much rather my daughter learn through hands-on play with other kids and with real world manipulable objects, the “little screen” does the trick when I just need her off my back for a little while. What apps, if any, have you found to be good for kids?  




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