April 26, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Are Learning Apps Good for Babies?

By Rachel G. Payne

Early learning programs at Brooklyn Public Library.
All photos ©Philip Greenberg/Courtesy of Brooklyn Public Library.

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. 


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  1. The trouble I have with this article and with portions of the CCFC’s complaint is that they dismiss all apps (apps are a form, like books are–many apps are worthless, just as many books are–and some are great!) in a way they would never dismiss books because they assume that a parent is exploring a book with a child but absent (physically or mentally) when the child is interacting with an app.

    The mistake is thinking of an app in the first place as “a little screen time distraction so mom can squeeze in a shower.” A baby given the best alphabet board book and left alone to interact with it isn’t going to learn her ABCs from the book any more than she might from an app.

    Rather than easily condemning them, we need to educate parents and caregivers (and librarians!) on how to choose great, age-appropriate apps as well as on how to explore them together with their children. Why? Because one of the answers to the question this article poses when it asks “Why are parents getting apps for babies?” is convenience. Just as an iPad (or other tablet, or phone) loaded with 40 ebooks is easier to carry than 40 books, an iPad containing a good selection of apps for kids is something you are always likely to have on hand.

    And yes! Of course I’d always recommend carrying some analog books and other things for children to interact with–I’m not suggesting that apps on a tablet can replace these things. But I don’t believe the below to be true of all apps, any more than I believe that all board books, just because they happen to be board books, are age-appropriate for babies (many have far too much text, or too busy illustrations, etc):

    “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.”

    It’s true that there aren’t currently many high-quality apps for babies, and that the three Fisher-Price apps I’ve tried out are junk. I do know of a few good apps for babies (2?), and will comment again here with their names once I get my hands on my iPad (I’m at work without it). I’ve focused mainly on apps for slightly older kids (pre-readers) and am preparing a presentation for parents and caregivers at the public library where I work that addresses the importance of exploring apps *with* your child, gives tips on what to avoid in an app as well as what to look for, explains how many apps are easily customized and shows how to do that, ties a generous handful of free iPad apps *directly* to the ECRR2 framework–in fact, I’ll be talking as much about ECRR2 as I will about apps!–and suggests ways to extend the apps into your “non-app” life with your child. The presentation slides are online. Please do take a look. We need to know how to do more than broadly dismiss something as ubiquitous as apps: http://www.slideshare.net/elloyd74/ipad-apps-your-prereader-a-session-for-parents-and-caregivers

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Emily. I think it is great librarians are having a lively debate about this topic. I tried to be balanced and not dismiss apps out of hand, since I do think they have entertainment value and they can be a lifesaver when you need to distract a baby on a plane or other such situation. I don’t think much of the apps specifically designed for babies, so I would love to see the ones you think work well. I think you are right to point out the convenience aspect of it all, too. And we both agree that parents using apps should talk with their child about what is going on on the screen. What I am concerned about (as is the CCFC) s the overblown educational claims of companies producing apps. The research just doesn’t support it. I do think books are qualitatively different than apps and video. It is much easier to step back and let the app do the interaction for you. I see that myself when I use the ipad with my son versus when we read a book together The bottom line is we need more research on the effects of screens, interactive and otherwise, on babies. Until we have more conclusive evidence, I think some of us are going to be more conservative about our approach to apps for babies. For kids two years and up, I think there are some fabulous apps out there and I think what you are doing to model best practices is great!

  2. Hi, Rachel–

    thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully. I’ve just uploaded a slide deck–the form I feel most comfortable “blogging” in–to SlideShare responding to this week’s news and this post. It includes screen grabs, links to, and descriptions of several apps that I do think “take into account how babies learn.” If interested, you can find it here: http://www.slideshare.net/elloyd74/apps-and-babies

    Thanks again! I think this is a good conversation for us all to be having.

    • Rachel Payne says:

      Hi Emily,
      Thanks for sharing the apps you think work well for babies. You’re right to point out that apps are a format, but is this an ideal format for babies? I still feel there are too many unanswered questions for me about how babies interact with screens to feel comfortable recommending apps for learning purposes. The better apps do seem to tap into a baby’s interest in cause-and-effect and repetition, but the tactile experience is relatively the same (finger or hand on screen). Touch screens don’t have the a wide range of sensory give and take when you use your whole hand to grasp a ball, rub blanket on your face, or grasp a touch and feel board book. And you can’t put the iphone in your mouth without mom or dad getting annoyed. I have other questions, but I will start with those.

      I do agree that passive TV watching and interactive app use is different, but I do think parent-child book reading and parent-child digital device use is also different. The research I find troubling is that when parents look at ebooks with children, the conversation is usually about the technology (“don’t touch that, swipe here” etc.), but when parents read the same book in print the talk is about the content of the story. (You can review the research in this overview of lots of other research here: http://bit.ly/15U74Rj ). I see this too with apps. Parents seem to interact less when they give their child a digital device with an app, because the app is doing the work for them and the conversation around the device is where to touch and not touch. As professionals, you are right that we can encourage parents to change this behavior and engage with the child on these devices, but we can also encourage parents to turn off the devices and play with real world objects together, too.

      As you note, some parents are loading content for babies on their phones and tablets for convenience sake, but I don’t think that is the only reason parents do it. It concerns me that some parents buy baby learning apps and think they are giving their child the best learning experience, when letting a baby play with pots and pans in the kitchen might have greater educational value (not to mention being free!).
      Thanks for the lively back and forth and for giving us food for thought!

  3. Apps should still be used while the parent is interacting with the child in order to learn for the most part but sometimes its should be ok to let them use the apps for entertainment.

  4. What I’m curious about is if it hurts any to let a child play with an interactive screen? It seems like many places are saying that it isn’t beneficial for children under the age of two, and obviously it is better to interact with the child, but giving them an app to play with on a long car ride to keep them distracted doesn’t seem to actually cause harm. Sure, that ABC app isn’t teaching them how to spell, but, to use your words, it “is not going to melt baby’s brain.” Although I totally agree that the word “Educational” should be reserved for apps/books/music/DVDs that actually are teaching the child something (just like you can’t slap the label “organic” on anything without proving it first), I do think that parents shouldn’t feel bad because they are using yet another format of distraction to maintain their sanity. As a librarian who uses apps in story time, the parents I talk to are looking for a distraction that is better than Angry Birds or another game – at least some of these have a chance of being educational.

    The Emily Post Institute posted the following quote on Facebook today, which I think is applicable here:
    “iPads instead of crayons at the restaurant, DVDs instead of games like I Spy in the car, and smartphone apps instead of a book in the waiting area are all fine. Don’t feel guilty about allowing your kids these distractions. Just set a time limit, make sure the content is age-appropriate, and participate with them when you can.” -Manners in a Digital World, p. 129

    • Rachel Payne says:

      Thanks for your comments, Lizz! I don’t think it hurts a baby to play with an interactive screen, but can babies learn from an app? Since the technology is so new, the research hasn’t been done or is in process. Another question is do extended sessions on these devices take away from other important hands-on experiences? My take is that too much of any kind of stimulation is not good for a kid. A baby who is forced to listen to books for too a long time, is going to be one cranky baby indeed! A moderate amount of screen time and app use in a childhood filled with play, reading, singing, and interaction is likely not going to hurt anyone. Thanks for the quote from Emily Post! It is a good common sense approach to all of this, but I would add that kids also need time to play “I Spy,” use crayons, and interact with a book, too.

  5. I think that librarians have a number of choices in response to the growing use of mobile media and apps. It seems to me that our first consideration is appreciating what we know about the children we serve and we know that most children we serve spend far more time with screens than the AAP advises. Many too are viewing adult-directed content. Many too live in environments with a great deal of background television. These conditions stand to harm child development and in my state it seems to be showing in kindergarten readiness assessments (only 60% are “ready”). How do we respond to this reality? According to what children and families need, libraries can help by offering screen-free environments, encouraging a variety of activities that are healthy options to screen use that help provide balance to screen use and also educate parents on screen use in a way that does not promote it or add to it. Libraries have the opportunity to be more relevant and more appreciated than ever in the current environment. I am afraid though, we could fail children if we succumb to the hope and the hype surrounding app use. This is a mistake we can easily avoid if we simply follow the research.

  6. Thanks for your article, Rachel, and for having the courage to buck the trend I see becoming too prevalent in our profession–the rush to embrace all the ‘latest’ technology as the best invention since sliced bread . .until a fancier loaf comes along. There is no evidence to support that electronic stimulation is in any way beneficial for developing brains, and is more likely detrimental. I believe the precipitous rise in the occurrence of autism spectrum disorders among children is directly attributable to our electronically oversaturated world. I’m no Luddite, but where young children are concerned, I think librarians and teachers have a responsibility to promote books and hands-on learning experiences first. The time-tested ways of helping children acquire language and other skills are time-tested for a reason: they work. A screen-free environment for little ones is, as KathyK suggests above, desirable, a refuge of sanity in our increasingly harried and electronically bombarded world. Giving a toddler an app to play with in the car is very different than presenting an app as a core piece of an early education curriculum in our libraries and schools.