I was interested to come across the new EasyPeasy app the other day and, ever since, I have been mulling over my conflicting feelings. The app exists to encourage parents to interact with children aged from two to five, using games on their phone or tablet. Parents are supported in a number of ways, including short videos which model how they might help and play with their children.
My initial feelings were pretty negative. There are already quite a lot of concerns about the amount of screen-time young children experience, and the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents to limit this exposure [PDF]. So, perhaps it is questionable for an app to be produced which encourages parents to allow their children to spend time on their phones and tablets? Especially as the assumption of the app developers is that parents will be encouraged to use EasyPeasy by Children's Centre outreach staff and other early years practitioners.
Moreover, some of the claims made by the app developers are a little dubious. They claim, for example, that "only half of children achieve the minimum acceptable levels of development by the time they start at school". This is a pretty strange interpretation of the data from the Department for Education which show that 60% of children achieved a good level of development by the end of the EYFS, as measured by the EYFS Profile, in 2014 [PDF].
If you look closely at what is required to achieve this "good level of development", it is quickly apparent that this goes well beyond "minimum acceptable levels of development". For example, in reading: "children read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words. They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read." You can see more examples of what is expected here.
I am fairly dubious that an app can help children from two to five build their character, as claimed.
Finally, I am interested that both Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive, designers of the most desirable bits of this desirable tech, were apparently not at all keen to let their own young children have much screen time.
But perhaps it is better to look at this the other way round? Children - very young children - are already spending considerable amounts of time playing on phones and tablets. Interaction with screens cannot help children to develop their play or their key early communication skills; but interaction with screens mediated by an adult can. As the National Literacy Trust noted in an important review paper way back in 2005, whilst increased use of computers and watching of television could damage children's development, it could also be argued that: "if well managed by adults, television is not bad for children. A research review on television and language in the early years, conducted by Robin Close on behalf of the National Literacy Trust, found that for children aged two to five, good-quality educational television can have a positive impact on attention and comprehension, receptive vocabulary, some expressive language, letter-sound knowledge, and knowledge of narrative and storytelling (Close, 2004). Other studies have shown that children’s interest in television can lead to imaginative play based on favourite characters, and can motivate them to read programme-related books (Marsh, 2005)."
Those conclusions about the potential benefits of educational television might also hold true of educational apps which have been carefully designed and tested.