Embracing the educational iOS device

I recently offered some advice on how to configure an old iPad for a child, and while the subsequent reaction was largely positive, there were the few (and expected) replies that suggested exposing a child to an iPad would lead to a machine-dependent future, devoid of fresh air, firm muscle tone, and true human interaction.

It’s a familiar reaction—one we’ve seen linked to novels, radio, movies, TV, board games, video games, and rock ‘n’ roll. Ah, but it’s more insidious now because, seemingly, you have the opportunity to interact in a virtual environment with other people and those interactions are taking the place of shared-space exchanges—FaceTime is replacing face time in this perspective.

“But, but, but…” those people inclined to scold will tut, “it’s far worse that that. These are innocent children! How can you put such tools of distraction in their cherubic hands knowing that it leads to a life of isolation and ennui?”

It’s a reasonably simple task to let the air out of the “anything other than the way I was raised is wrong” hysteria. Many of us can testify that we’ve expanded rather than contracted our social circles by encountering people in the online world, making a personal connection with some of them, and then gone on to spend time with them in the real world. And I think we can all agree that spending 18 hours a day glued to any one thing—social network, online game, tavern, race track, or shopping channel—is a sign of a problem far bigger than technology. Excess is excess, regardless of the vehicle.

Of course when this involves children, the rhetoric gets more heated and the claims of impending destruction more dire. And rightly so, as any good parent will be concerned with his or her child’s welfare and future. But I’d like to cast a little light on this supposed bogeyman and show that—at least in my case—the experiences my daughter and I have had with technology have, in many ways, enhanced her life.

Looking it up

Growing up I had a friend whose family kept a large encyclopedia and dictionary near the dinner table. In the course of conversion, the family discussed a broad range of topics and invariably a word or subject came along that needed further explanation. Unlike in my family where my father simply held forth, Bob, my friend’s father, was the “Go look it up” guy. If you had a question, you trotted over to the encyclopedia or dictionary and searched for your answer. Your job was to then explain what you’d read. This not only helped enlighten the rest of the family, but it also ensured that you understood what you’d found.

Today, I can’t swear that there’s a bound encyclopedia within a mile of my home, but I have something better—an iPad, a web browser, and a variety of knowledge apps covering such subjects as astronomy, geology, ornithology, and marine biology. With this technology and Bob’s example, I’m the family’s “Go look it up” guy. When a question comes up, out comes the iPad and we’re all over it.

The information we glean may spark additional questions or open up hidden interests. For example, we had nectarines for dessert one night, which led to a discussion of how a nectarine was different from a peach and how it got that way. This, in turn, sparked my daughter’s interest in learning about plant hybridization. And that sent us to the local nursery the next weekend.

I can’t imagine accomplishing the same task with the old Encyclopedia Britannica I grew up with. First, the information would have been out of date. And second, I would have been bored silly by a text-only description. I can't imagine reading past the first paragraph. Thanks to the images and hyperlinked information in the iPad’s web browser, my daughter and I could easily follow a trail to more information that interested us.

Identification

An oft-used wheeze of technology chiders is that kids who use technology lack for fresh air. Because, as we know, technology can be effectively used only when underground (preferably in your parent’s basement). And I suppose that would be entirely true if it weren’t entirely false. One of terrific things about devices like the iPhone and iPad is that they can be used outdoors. Another couple of for-examples:

While on a Hawaiian vacation a couple of summers ago my daughter and I sat outside looking at the clear night sky.

“What are those?” she asked about the three bright objects lined up in the sky.

“Probably planets,” I replied, “but it’s cool that they’re in a line. Let’s see what they are.”

And with that I pulled out my iPhone, fired up Star Walk, gave the app my location, and pointed the phone at the objects. The iPhone’s display mirrored what we saw before us. Sure enough, Venus, Mars, and Saturn were marching together across the heavens. Within the app we zoomed in on Saturn and learned something of its rings and moons.

Star Walk

On that same trip we used the iPhone to help us identify the fish we observed while snorkeling. And the birds we saw and heard while hiking. And, using Google maps, checked out the terrain around us while visiting a volcano. And, with Safari, learned about Pele and the formation of the islands as we walked through that volcano.

Ask my daughter what she recalls from that trip and it’s not the kettle-cooked potato chips, the chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, or the sun screen she wore each day. It was the sky, the fish, the birds, the plants, and the islands. Could she have come away with some of that knowledge without the iPhone’s help? Certainly. But the power of this technology is that you can use it in a “teachable moment.” Pull out your iPhone, find what you need when curiosity is at its keenest, and chances are, it’s going to be more meaningful because it’s relevant to what you’re doing at that very minute.

Exploration

I’m innately musical and I recognize that ability in my daughter. However, having taken piano lessons since the age of four, I wanted to allow her greater choice in when (or if) she started exploring music. I showed her a few things on the piano and suggested that she try to pick out some tunes (while I discreetly left the room). Enough came of it to confirm that she has the knack. We eventually signed her up for lessons and it seems to be going OK.

One day I heard her picking out the part we all know from Beethoven’s Für Elise.

“Where did you learn that? It wasn’t in one of your lessons.”

“Oh, I was playing it in Magic Piano and I sounded it out.”

Playing Für Elise with Magic Piano

If you don’t know, Magic Piano is an app I quite enjoy from Smule, the same people who produced Ocarina and I Am T-Pain. In addition to letting you play tunes on a keyboard, you can also choose pieces from an in-app song book and play them as part of a game. The notes are represented by green dots that slowly drop down from the top of the screen. Higher notes appear on the right and lower notes, to the left. Your job is to tap the screen as if there was a keyboard present. Again, tap to the right for the higher notes and to the left for the lower ones. When you tap at the right time, the song sounds as it should.

From Magic Piano, my daughter was able to take away some of the topography of the song—very generally the distance relationship between the notes—and its rhythm. Because she has a good ear, she was then able to take what she learned and map it to the piano keyboard, with good results.

Yes, a teacher could have taught her the piece, or it’s possible that with repeated listening she could eventually have picked it out on her own. But Magic Piano taught her much of what she needed to do without capital-T-Teaching her. Not only did she have fun learning, but it helped instill the confidence that she needn’t be tied to a sheet of music to play. She could rely on her ear and ability to translate what she heard in her head to complementary finger movements.

And this is hardly an isolated incident. Because of Draw Something, my daughter is refining her sketching, with the idea that it’s important to draw objects that another person can actually identify. This has led her to explore other, more traditional, drawing, and painting applications.

Thanks to Boinx’s iStopMotion for iPad (and its accompanying remote iPhone camera app), The Girl and I have tried our hands at claymation. As we’ve done so we’ve had to spend time learning about lighting, composition, time, and motion.

When a child has to pay for her own books, she may opt for free.

The Epicurious app is helping her learn to cook. Google Earth shows her our world in ways impossible when I was her age. Her monthly iTunes allowance has taught her something about budgeting and clearly evaluating what is and isn’t worth her money. And as part of that financial lesson, she’s learned that free is good. This has translated into her downloading a fair number of free (read: classic literature) books via the iBooks and Kindle apps. She may not be up on Twilight, but she’s read Conan Doyle and Verne.

What hasn’t changed

After watching my daughter’s eyes light up when encountering these now-everyday miracles I think of the things she wouldn’t know (or know less about) without them, picture the stubborn “fresh air is all you need” crowd, and shake my head.

Can technology in the form of too-much-of-a-good-thing ruin a kid? Of course. Just as can too many sweets, too little sleep, and too little or much discipline.

But the answer doesn’t lie in denying a child technology because you either fear or don’t understand it. Rather—as it’s always been—the answer is in parents paying attention and participating. Throwing an iPod touch packed full of games at a child and leaving them to their own devices isn’t a whole lot more helpful than planting them in front of a TV all day. Sit down with your kid, however, use that iPod as a tool that teaches as well as entertains, show some enthusiasm for what that device can help you both learn (and know when to put it down and explore on your own), and you’ve gained a powerful ally in raising your child.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

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