From the fingers of babes and sucklings

There are some very cute videos available of very young children interacting with iPads. This is one such, referred to on a talk list today.

A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work (by UserExperiencesWorks)

Does this prove that an iPad is inherently a better environment for learning or a preferred medium of communication than a magazine?

No – they are just different! If the magazine was useless, why did mum buy it?

I’m no expert in infant psychology, but I understand that babies like to investigate their environment. They learn cause and effect by “doing”; if something doesn’t respond they will soon get bored with it. The fact that the infant in the video found that pinch-to-zoom did not work on paper taught the child a lesson – it’s not that she didn’t learn, but she found that different objects in the environment that may look the same behave differently. If she had seen a photo of play bricks and found that she could not pick them up, this would have taught her that pictures are not the same as three-dimensional objects. This does not make either valueless – they just serve different purposes.

As far as I can see, the child in the video has no direct understanding of anything that is shown on the iPad’s screen, but she has learned something about how to interact with the wider world. It may be a more complex interaction, but is it any different to learning to push the power button on the TV remote, or pressing the toy bear’s tummy to make it say it is hungry?

The touch screen may well be a better form of interaction with a consumer gadget but, at its heart, it is still a computer. There are some things that can be done better on screen than using a text book – almost always when the screen is used as more than an electronic book or video player – but each still has its place. Computer games can – and do – promote positive behaviours and deeper conceptual understanding when used well. But this is no argument for replacing all types of learning with computer games. Given a stark choice, I’d rather see this little girl (when she is a little bit older) playing imaginative games with her teddy bear and a few friends than pushing a representation of the same around the screen by herself. However, I would rather not drive us down that route of false polarisation.

Steve Jobs may be coding part of this girl’s operating system, but I hope it does not too often lead to the situation where she plays with the iPad because her mother is too busy elsewhere. Otherwise, this will code a part of her social operating system to make do without other people – and that will also stay with her for life.

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