November 23, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Libraries Use iPads and Apps to Ramp Up Storytime, but Concerns Remain

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A young patron with an iPad at Darien (CT) Library. Photo courtesy of Gretchen Caserotti.

A recent storytime at the Watertown (MA) Free Public Library began, as usual, with a song, followed by a “stand up, sit down” exercise to help the kids settle in. Children read from Don and Audrey Wood’s iconic picture book The Little Mouse, the Red Ripe Strawberry, and the Big Hungry Bear (Child’s Play, 1990). But then came a digital twist.

Emily Miranda, Watertown’s supervisor of children’s services, passed out 15 iPads. Parents and children huddled close and opened The Three Little Pigs (Nosy Crow), an interactive, musical app, which allows children to physically participate in the story. “The characters have these fantastic British accents,” says Miranda. “It’s really fun to watch the kids blowing their houses down. Their snot’s going everywhere and it’s great!”

Watertown’s experiment with “digital storytime” is part of a larger, nationwide shift toward using apps in children’s library programs for education, entertainment, and involving parents in the learning process. Miranda says that apps such as Mo Willems’s Don’t Let the Pigeon Run This App! (Disney) offer levels of complexity that work for different age groups. They’re also very useful, she says, for “new-to-English families who need to teach their children.”

At Darien (CT) Library, early literacy iPad kits—which include a tablet with preloaded apps and a media literacy kit—are available for checkout. Getting good apps into kids’ hands is the biggest problem for parents and developers alike, says Gretchen Caserotti, Darien’s assistant director for public services, and that’s where libraries could help.

Meanwhile, Kathy Kleckner, a children’s librarian for Dakota County (MN) Libraries, is skeptical. She says that relying on apps for storytelling dilutes the key ingredient in a child’s development: human interaction. Kleckner adds that the benefits—and possible risks—of using apps are not yet well known. “My main concern is the vulnerabilities as [children’s] brains develop,” she says, citing research conducted by Dimitri Christakis, a child development expert at Seattle Children’s Hospital, on the harmful cognitive effects of screen time for kids under five years old. There is also concern about the potential misuse of information collected by the apps, says Judy Nelson, a librarian in the Pierce County Library System in Tacoma, WA.

Dakota County and Pierce County haven’t yet integrated apps into their children’s library programs, partly due to lack of parent interest, Kleckner says. “Truthfully I’ve never been asked about an app—how to use one, what are the good ones. They ask me, ‘what are the good books?’”

But advocates and dissenters alike agreed that apps are here to stay. Nelson says her library will begin curating a list of reputable and age-appropriate apps by 2013. “Whether we like it or not, that genie’s out of the bottle, so we have to manage it effectively,” she says.

Meanwhile, Darien plans to mount iPads in different sections of the children’s library, with apps that correspond to each section. A real impetus here is the Common Core standards. “This notion of informational content will spur a lot more excitement about apps such as NatGeo,” says Caserotti.

At Watertown, which has received an IMLS Science Is Everywhere grant, “the iPads can be useful for a project in which children dissect owl pellets, says Miranda. “iPads can help with finding information. I don’t how many ounces of food an owl needs!”

Hiten Samtani About Hiten Samtani

Hiten Samtani (@hitsamty) is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School covering the madcap world of real estate for The Real Deal, and a former contributing reporter on education for the New York Times.

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