By Rachel G. Payne
How can we make smarter babies? These days there seem to be brain building claims on almost every baby product. While many of these claims have been validated by research, what does the research say about educational apps for babies? Earlier this week, the Campaign for a Commercial Free-Childhood (CCFC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission stating that there is no rigorous research to support Fisher-Price’s claim that their “Laugh & Learn,” apps support language development and conceptual learning in babies. Is this Jean Piaget’s “American Question” for the 21st Century?
When Piaget, the renowned Swiss child psychologist, spoke to American audiences, he was often asked the same question: “What can we do to make children develop faster?” Piaget’s answer: “Why would you want to do that?” He didn’t think that pushing kids to reach milestones before they were ready was possible or desirable. But this inquiry, often called the “American Question,” seems to continue to haunt the shelves of the baby aisle.
Back in 2000, when I first started working with a special early childhood collection at a public library, parents often requested the Your Baby Can Read kit. They seemed to be very excited about these flashcards, DVDs, and books that could “teach their babies to read” and get their child ahead. I was always tempted to respond with Piaget’s reply, but I held my judgment in check and encouraged them to read to their babies instead. The product has since been publicly discredited by the CCFC, but you can still find the kit online.
Fast forward to 2013. In Brooklyn, parents participating in an Every Child Ready to Read workshop asked the librarian leading it for some early literacy app recommendations. Apps for babies abound, such as “Baby Learning Card” or the aforementioned Fisher-Price “Laugh & Learn” apps (with 2.8 million downloads). Interestingly enough, the same watch-dog group that helped discredit the claims of the “Baby Einstein” DVDs and the Your Baby Can Read kit—the CCFC—is now questioning the educational claims of these very popular apps.
Are parents getting apps for their babies because they want their child to get ahead, learn letters, colors, shapes, and numbers? As a parent of a young child, I get it. There is always the feeling that you’re not doing enough as parent. Is my son getting enough breast milk? Do I read to him enough? Do I play and talk with him enough? Parents use apps to keep track of feeding times and get baby care advice, why not get the hottest new tool to help baby learn? But is this the road we should be taking? Are learning apps right for babies?
Many, particularly the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), would say no. It recommends avoiding screens before the age of two years. The AAP made this suggestion based on the troubling results of research on passive television viewing and background television. While more research needs to be done on interactive screens, there’s no hard evidence that young children can learn much from a screen before the age of two.
I’ve heard parents say they would never let their baby look at TV or use an app. Some parents even baby-proof the house by getting rid of the TV. Avoiding screens completely is not very realistic in our screen-saturated world. If a baby is getting a rich diet of language and play with parents and caregivers, a little screen time distraction so mom can squeeze in a shower is not going to melt a baby’s brain.
Educational apps, videos, and flashcards, however well-meaning, do not take into account how babies learn. Babies learn through interaction, touching, feeling, grabbing, moving, and doing the same thing over and over again. A baby may drop a spoon out of the high chair repeatedly. However annoying this is to mom, he is learning how gravity works, what sound metal makes when it hits the floor, and may even be conducting a social science experiment (is mom going to pick it up again?). Babies learn through interactions with loving and trusted caregivers. When a baby points to a balloon and says “bah!” and dad gets excited because she has said a new word, she is going to repeat this trick again and again to please dad. Very young minds need a thoughtful, feeling person to help them make connections, encourage exploration, and adapt to their needs. These are all things apps and screens just can’t do.
So what is the librarian’s response when parents ask for “Baby Einstein” DVDs or app recommendations for babies? Should we quote the APA guidelines and give parents the librarian evil eye for putting their little ones in front of screens? My first suggestion is don’t judge. Apps and videos have their place. I know one family that uses YouTube videos of trains to get their son through his nebulizer asthma treatments with fewer tears. Also, I would make sure parents are informed. Let them know that babies learn through play. Encourage them to come to library programs that model fun activities they can try at home. Show them where the board books are located. I think it is fine to recommend a few quality apps or videos, maybe even ones based on picture books, and encourage parents to play with apps and view videos with their babies and talk together about what is on the screen.
It looks like the “American Question” will always be with us, but librarians can be part of the answer. Our programs help parents connect the dots between learning and play. We model simple and free activities that stimulate early literacy development. Learning is a process and it happens for everyone at its own pace. Babies, with the help of parents, caregivers, educators, and librarians, are building learning one block, one book, one word, and one song at a time.
Highly interactive board books that are more fun than apps
- Bizzy Bear: Fire Rescue! illustrated by Benji Davies. Candlewick/Nosy Crow. 2013.
- The Finger Circus Game by Hervé Tullet. illustrated by author. Phaidon Pr. 2013.
- Peekaboo! by Taro Gomi. Chronicle. 2013.
- Who’s Hiding? by Sebastien Braun. Candlewick. 2013.
- You Are My Baby: Safari by Lorena Siminovich. Chronicle. 2013.
Rachel G. Payne is the coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. She is a co-author of Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos (Sourcebooks, 2013). She has reviewed children’s books for SLJ and Kirkus, served on the Caldecott Award Committee, and presented on early literacy at conferences nationwide.