iPhone Serendipity: the Best Childhood Education Tool on the Market

My generation lived its youth in a time of great technological change. My twenty-five years saw innovative leaps from the invention of the personal computer all the way to the ubiquity of the smartphone. The first research papers that I wrote were with the assistance of real glue and paper books in actual brick and mortar libraries. Those that are older than me might chuckle at this banal statement, but not many of my juniors will relate to such an antiquated practice. Now I write this blog and avoid hardcopy source references because I cannot cite them as easily through hyperlinks, making them less valuable as verifiable proof for an argument. How times have changed. From card catalogs to global search engines, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this great shift in perspective manifest firsthand. While we might not yet make Tom Brokaw’s list, ours will surely prove to be one of the greatest generations, if not mostly due to circumstance.

Now a portion of generation Y (Z, Millennial, or whatever), having rode the wave of technological innovation throughout the 90’s and 00’s, is making babies. These infants enter a world saturated with social media, having parents who, for the first time in history, maintain large numbers of friends and acquaintances online through virtual networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. These parents have access to the largest information repository ever, the Internet, in their pockets or purses, wherein all answers (and falsehoods) are present. Among rational people, arguments concerning the particulars of one known fact or another are a thing of the past, made extinct by the on-hand access to information offered by devices like smartphones, which put the wealth of all recorded knowledge at finger’s reach.

I would argue that the future of handheld computing rests at the confluence of power and accessibility, a model dominated in its current paradigm by Apple’s iPhone. As it so happens, the timing of the brood born by generation Y coincides with the rapid advances in ease-of-use functionality taking place within the smartphone industry. This, coupled with its (mostly) open access to third-party application development, makes the iPhone a dominant platform for children’s educational software beginning, serendipitously, with the kids of the first generation to reap the educational windfall offered by the Internet.

Having a daughter not quite two years of age and another little one on the way, I’m actively involved in vetting kid’s electronics. Between my wife and I, we’ve tested most of the industry standards. We own a Leapfrog Tag and several Vtech readers. Like many parents, we rely on these gadgets to help our daughter actively entertain herself in an educationally beneficial way. In our experience, however, no toy was remotely as helpful as the applications we downloaded through the iPhone’s app store. From an early age, we used iTot’s digital flashcards in place of a deck of the conventional paper variety. It wasn’t long before our daughter Camille could swipe her finger horizontally across the screen to scroll through flashcards at her own pace. By the time she was sitting upright, she could comfortably hold the iPhone in one hand, and shuffle away through the program with the other, frequently stopping at various animals to practice the noises they made. It wasn’t long before the flashcard words made up the backbone of her developing vocabulary. By around sixteen months, she knew each of the several hundred words iTot had to offer. She also used the application to learn colors and shapes. Now, she easily identifies the difference between an octagon and hexagon. A separate iTot’s iPhone app concentrates on counting skills. After a little while of playing with that, she now counts to twenty, albeit occasionally skipping sixteen and eighteen.

In addition to raw educational material like flashcards, the iPhone is full of animated children’s books that read themselves. Camille really enjoys those produced by a company called Kidztory, including classics like The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Little Red Hen. After a week’s worth of watching me turn the digital pages, she had the hang of it. These days she casually reads an entire story, starts it over, and reads it again. Until recently, she would hand the phone back to me when she got bored, and ask for a different story. Now, after some additional training on my wife’s less app-littered iPhone, she backs out of the application and selects a new one entirely on her own. For those interested in teaching their children a foreign language at an early age, the iPhone also makes this easy. The iTots flashcard and counting applications as well as all of the Kidzstory books are available in a wide range including French, Spanish, and Chinese.

The iPhone’s intuitive interface makes it ideal for the introductory teaching of all sorts of disciplines. Camille draws with SketchBook, moves brilliant patterns of shapes and colors around with Galactica or Spawn Illuminati, and plays a wide array of musical instruments on ThumbJam. Last week, I found that she created four layers of looped beats playing in several different scales and instruments. Regardless of how much of that was intentional, she is still learning about musical scales while exploring a highly intuitive synthesizer before she is two years old. That’s exposure that I’d be hard pressed to find for her elsewhere.

There is also, let us not forget, abundant potential for passive education inherent in the iPhone. Boundless volumes of Sesame Street or Dora the Explorer can be either stored on the device, watched through YouTube, iTunes, Netflix, or converted live and streamed from your home computer. Using AirVideo, I maintain ready access to a library of Curious George and Elmo videos on my PC, especially useful in the event of public meltdowns and long car trips.

When allowing a toddler to play with a telecommunications device worth several hundred dollars, there are some obvious points that bear consideration. There is, of course, the issue involving the risk of the device’s destruction at the smashing hands of a rambunctious youngster, or the accidental spamming of your boss with phone calls containing nothing but sputtering and gibberish. Luckily, the iPhone comes with some pretty resilient cases that can take just about anything short of a dunk in the toilet, and it also contains configurable user restrictions to prevent unauthorized calls, text messages, or internet browsing. For the considerably paranoid, airplane mode provides a little extra piece of mind.

What has become increasingly clear to me as I see my daughter slowly master her first computer, is that she’s learning more than words, numbers, music, shapes, and colors. She is getting a half-decade head start (at least) on the majority of her peers in dealing with something that will shape the entirety of her life: technology. Not unlike the way that the Oregon Trail on the Apple 2e was the computing lead-in for so many in my generation, I feel confident the software on the iPhone will fill a similar niche with hers. Without a doubt, the folks at Apple (presumably without intention) are now leading contenders in the electronic children’s education market. While many parents would never buy their toddler a two hundred-dollar smartphone, spending a dollar to download a kid’s book that will, over the course of its life, save countless hours of boredom induced temper tantrums, is hardly unimaginable. With almost one in five smartphone owners having an iPhone, there are more than enough parents out there to justify software development specifically for this niche. The children’s electronics mainstays seem to miss this. What is Leapfrog going to do, exactly, compete with Apple at developing highly interactive yet intuitive handheld electronic hardware? It seems to me that their best bet is to slowly become a software-only shop and piggyback off of the success of hardware vendors like Apple.

It is also important to consider that the iPhone supplements, rather than replaces, outside education and entertainment. The bond formed through teaching and reading is foundational, and most of our one-on-one time with her is still spent reading hardcopies of Curious George and Olivia. I am not terribly concerned about Camille spending too much time with the iPhone though. While we limit her television to about a half-hour of Sesame Street, she spends more than an hour playing with educational software on our iPhones on any given day. I’m trying to convince my wife that we should buy Camille her own iPod Touch for her birthday, but it’s hard to rationalize the expense when both of us have the phones. If I am honest, I think I want for her to have her own out of my personal sense of nostalgia surrounding the feelings of exploration and wonder I had with my first computer. I can’t help but ponder how long it would take before she had it totally figured out.

What’s perhaps the most crazy is how far technology has moved the educational yardstick. Camille, not even two years old, is slowly mastering her first personal computer. Sure it is an iPhone and not a Windows desktop, but that’s the technological zeitgeist. While I know most parents think their kids are special, I’m convinced that the pace of Camille’s education and the quality of her life are significantly improved by her exposure to the iPhone. If I’m totally wrong and it does nothing significant to help her in the long run, it at least keeps her entertained. Sometimes that goes a long way.

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~ by Wil Finley on April 18, 2010.

3 Responses to “iPhone Serendipity: the Best Childhood Education Tool on the Market”

  1. It’s also important to consider that it is doubtful her learning to recite numbers without actually counting objects or to identify shapes she won’t use until Geometry class adds to her foundational exposure to the world (in many ways, it’s just as much a waste of time and just as effective as those ridiculous Your Baby Can Read programs), the most necessary education still flourishes through the interaction of reading with us (not the reading itself) and being outside or playing with friends. More than anything, the iPhone is teaching her to interact with technology at a young age, a skill that she will absolutely be required to exponentially increase over the course of her life.

  2. If she enjoys interacting with the iPhones that much, just think how giddy she would be if you plopped an iPad in front of her. It’s like a supersized iPhone!

  3. I am personally dumbfounded by seeing a toddler interact with smart phone technology with the ease of the hand models that stream through applications on Mac commercials. Coordination, decision making, and technical ability are only a few items on the massive list of skills that she will gain and utilize to a point far past children twice, three times her age. I already see skills in her that your average first or second grader would only be beginning to learn. I didn’t gain a true technical ability until I was far into my late teenage years, if I had been able to access and learn these things as a child, I have no doubt that I would be more advanced now.

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