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Friday, December 10, 2010

Embracing digital tools for early development - all in 45 minutes a day.

When I grew up, it was common for parents (including mine) to assume that making your child watch TV, or play video games at an early age was not the right thing to do. Anything to do with TV or video gaming was assumed to 'corrupt young minds' and the general thought process was to ensure your child grows up on traditional things (like real physical toys, pen and paper, chalk boards and educational books).There was a valid reason for this - in old days, content in such mediums was purely for entertainment and little was done for conscious education for children. Interestingly, that notion persists very strongly even today. I have lots of friends who have brought up their children pretty much devoid of TV and digital tools. When I say devoid, I don't mean a total ban. They let them use these objects once in a while, but not in a 'let it help you grow' mode. It is treated as pure entertainment and curtailed often to just one show, played over and over again, or just one game, played over and over again.

It is impossible to state what is right and what is wrong when it comes to bringing up a child, because the final decision is yours, as a parent. All  I can say is parents who are able access such new mediums should give it a serious look as times have changed. There is a slew of fantastic learning tools available that offer a level of interactivity and immersive-ness (is that a word?) that never existed before.

In general, I am a technologist. My work, my hobby and my passion all converge to one word: technology. I am totally for adopting digital tools where necessary if I feel it improves mental or physical growth as long as I am convinced that it is not also harming my child in any significant way. So in this post, I'd like to talk about how we  leveraged technology to help in our child's growth.

As a general rule, we as parents subscribe to the rule of limiting the time our son had his hands on these tools (we typically allow a 45 minute window at most each day for this, with weekends getting a little more digital time) and ensure that he mixes his digital tools with a lot of physical activity (the usual running, playing, reading books at night, board games, etc.), but the focus of this post is how we chose to maximize those 45 minutes each day in selecting the right digital/enterta

nment tools that help his mind grow.

Scope of this post

The rest of the post will talk about several key applications that I think have contributed greatly to reading, writing, music and social skills of our son at an early age. To you, I am not going to talk about  what is right/wrong, how much TV they should or should not watch, whether it is wise to let them play games or not (of the digital kind) etc. That is your choice. Should you choose to expose your little ones to the digital era at an early age, I will simply list tools and applications that we used and felt were of  significant help.

Each attribute mentioned later in the post are attributes that I've seen grow rapidly with him by the time he turned 3 and a half, so the results are obvious to me (i.e. ability for music, reading, writing, social skills, visual and problem solving skills)

The Devices

His digital assistance tools centered around 3 primary devices:

a) An iPhone: greatly helped in his: visual skills (puzzle solving etc.),

b) A TV: Specifically, PBS and NetFlix (I'll talk about this later): Greatly helped him in his musical skills, responsibility and other soft skills

c) An iPAD: greatly helped his: all of the above for iphone PLUS reading and writing skills.

Realistically speaking, the iphone and ipad could really be grouped into one category, but the area that the iPAD stood out was how it helped his reading and writing skills.

Education as a Game

I am also a strong believer in converting education into a game-like format. I've observed that kids love it when they are playing a game. If you introduce a concept as a game and not as a formal education point, they adapt easily to it, and may appreciate it (if they like it). A Game format, or an interactive format helps them consider this as fun. Once the fundaments are set in a 'fun way' you can proceed to adopt more formal ways to enhance it, if you wish.

The Applicability of TV

There are some great TV serials, I think, that can greatly help child growth. A key criteria for my selection was they must be educational, should use good spoken English (specifically should be a clean accent) and should not have any violence in any form.

(image credit: Where not mentioned explicitly, images are those provided by Wikipedia)

a)  The Art of Music:

Little Einsteins: Little Einstein is a Disney series, that features 4 children who essentially travel the world in their spaceship ('Rocket') solving cute problems of their friends. The focus of this show, to me, is education through music. Each problem has a musical solution Example, conducting a cresendo to help Rocket jump a high mountain, or dropping down to diminuendo while tiptoeing past a sleeping giant. The music is well selected. Each episode selects music from a well known Classical music composer. I am a huge fan of classical music as I think the construction of the music lends itself immensely in building an appreciation of fine arts in a person. So in short, this show contributes to your child's ability to appreciate and understand music.

b) Reading: World World and Super Why are two excellent animated shows that help in your child's reading abilities.

(word world image:

Word World, specifically, is a fantastic concept. Basically, this world comprises of letters and words. Every object you see, be it a Pig, and Ant, a Pie, a Bed etc. are all made up of letters. When you press letters together, they bounce into the shape of the object the word spells. Example, B-A-L-L when put together forms a ball and bounces around. This show involves the characters solving problems by either creating new words (example, searching for L-I-G-H-T at night to create a NIGHTLIGHT to that it helps allay fear of the dark) and is a super interactive way to help kids understand how letters form words and how words decompose to letters.

SuperWhy is yet another reading ability animated show. It differs from World world in that I think it focusses more on the phonics part than Word World does, which is also critical for your child to understand how to decompose complex words for pronunciation. SuperWhy is a show where a group of kids face real life problems (example, Dad angry because you did something naughty) and they turn into super heroes and dive into well known story books to live the story and use word power to solve problems in in turn, realizing there is a moral to the story which helps them solve real life issues.

c) Imagination: Having a good imagination is such a wonderful thing. It helps you think out of the box, be creative and so much more. In recent months, I've been very impressed with an animated show that we found on NetFlix called 'The Backyardigans'.

I understand it is of Canadian origin and centers around 4 or 5 cute animal-kids (a hippo, a duck and some others), who, in each episode use their imagination to make believe they are in a new world, or a new place as new characters and help in solving cute problems. The episode starts with the characters playing in their backyard and then using their imagination, they transform the backyard into a "new place" and proceed to solve the problem of the day there. The score is excellent and these little darlings do an excellent dance in their imagined world. I was later told that The Backyardigans is also great for Autistic children who can learn how to more effectively use their imagination. Again, I have no first-hand knowledge on whether it is applicable or not - this is just something that a colleague told me, and I thought I'd mention.

Another series, though not as imaginative as Backyardigans, and probably more towards visual problem solving skills, but is also imaginative is "Blues Clues" (Again, on netflix)

This  is an excellent show where the main character has an animated dog called 'Blue' who leaves clues around the episode that tell you what he wants or is feeling that day, which you solve.

d) Respect,Responsibility and "Just Like Daddy": While all of the above also indirectly talk about Responsibility, another PBS show, to me, translates the merits of being responsible in practical terms in a way that a child can understand. That is Caillou.

This one is really meant for pre-schoolers. I think it is important for your child to first learn how to speak and converse to a reasonable amount before you will see the benefits of this. Caillou is a pre-schooler who is a normal kid. He misbehaves at times, throws a fit at times, etc. etc. But in each episode, the creators impress upon the child the value of 'respecting others' and being 'responsible'.  I was initially on the fence for this one. I watched a couple of them with my son, and noticed that Caillou would throw a fit, not play with his sister, speak angrily to someone (all the attributes you want your child to know is not right, eventually). I wondered if my son would mimic that. I noticed that he closely identified with the character. But interestingly, one of the key undertones of the episode is that Caillou, after making mistakes, learns they are wrong (on his own, typically) and corrects himself and I found my son to understand, via this, the meaning of key concepts like "listen to your parents", "they want your good, even if they are strict", "it pays to be nice to people" etc. Another key thing in this episode is it establishes a great bond between Caillou and his Dad. In almost each episode, Caillou works with his Dad, helps him, learns from him etc. and as he says all the time "Just like Daddy". While this serial also shows a great relationship with his mother, sister, grandmother and other folks, I don't think I'd be wrong in saying that the strongest bond is with the Dad. Naturally, this is great for me - as it just serves as just another great push into making him believe in his Dad more (Yes, this is a self-serving part for me, but practically speaking, I've seen his sense of responsibility grow tremendously)

(image from

e) Another show that our son has started enjoying a lot is PBS' "Sid the Science Kid". Its a show where basic science questions are answered and explored in a fun way by "Sid" (like why does a banana rot, what is inertia etc). I personally think its an advanced show, but for some reason my son loves watching it. Its well animated and fun.

iPhone and iPad applications

An Ode to Apple's simplicity of design

I strongly believe that an intuitive User Interface is one that you just know how to use. You don't need to read a manual, and if you make a mistake, you immediately know how to rectify it. This is the beauty of apple products. Admittedly, toddlers are surprisingly smart. In the early days of his growth (its odd to say this since he is only 3.7 yrs old, but in context of this post means when he was 2 or so), he would often want to sit in front of our home computer, but being able to navigate the mouse, differentiate between right and left click and general tool usage was hard for him. He has now mastered our home computer as well, but, the point is, that I would see that he would spend more time getting the mechanics (how to use it) right rather than spending time on the intent (what to use and learn). When I exposed him to the iOS products (Iphone first, as the iPad was released much later), it was amazing how intuitive it was. In a matter of minutes, this little child figured out the natural finger swipes and its effects. He also quickly figured out the "Home Button". If anything goes wrong in an app, hit "Home". (Infact, hilariously, when he first started talking and something went wrong in anything, he would say "Daddy, can you please press the Home button?"). Simply put, the iphone took out the complexity of usage and let him to fully focus on the intent (the app). It was amazing to me, looking at such a little guy navigate this little device with so much ease. Naturally, therefore, when the iPAD was released, I bought it on day one. I absolutely knew its larger form factor would only be better for him learning several other things. On an unrelated note, I was also amazed at how our parents used the iPAD. Both my wife's parents and my parents are completely computer illiterate. To a point, that when my mom wants to send an email, she asks someone else to send it, and even check if they have new emails. When she visited us, in just a matter of days, she embraced the iPAD and being a prolific reader, thoroughly enjoyed researching random stuff on wikipedia (she never knew it existed). No confusion. Amazing - these devices are truly revolutionary - in the simple fact that they, I think have bridged the gap between technology and usability. Any way, I digress. Let's get back, now to the applications.

The iOS devices have a good selection of educational games that you can download, some free, some for a fee that help enhancing various aspects of a child's education. The problem with the appstore is that there is no 'try before you buy'. Even though many apps are cheap ($0.99 or $1.99) you will find that children's education apps are always more costly than other apps (I guess people know parents will spend for their children) and I've often found bogus reviews. I've downloaded and paid for several apps, deleted many in minutes and have even paid $15 for an app that only displays static flash-cards but had great reviews (what a waste). Anyway, here are my list of the apps that I'd consider my top few:


(All images from the iTunes catalog)
a) iWriteWords: I've tried many apps that help you write, but I think iWrite words is simply the best. It converts writing into a fun game and puts in a bit of fun in between as well to keep your child busy.
b) ShapeBuilder: Simply the best puzzle solver for small kids. Clean graphics, intuitive and helped immensely with his visual problem solving skills. In this category, I also found ConnectDots to be a very nice app that in addition to being a good visual/cognitive app also helps you learn letters and numbers.
c) Learn To Talk: When my son was learning to talk, I downloaded many apps to help him from flash cards, to other mechanisms. I landed up deleting most, but this one still exists in my iphone. Its a nice flash card based game that lets you select world complexity (one word, two words,  high impact etc).
d) Matching Zoo: In the category of Memory Builders, you will find many apps that help your child in building his memory. Matching Zoo is one of them - its the traditional memory game that requires you to remember the position of various objects in a 2x2 grid and try to match a pair. There are many like this. My son outgrew it pretty soon, but I do think it helped.
e) Word Cub and Build a Word are two good apps that my son enjoyed a lot in helping him with an understanding of phonics. I'd give more points to word cub. There are many other cute phonics apps, one being ABC Phonics. I downloaded the free version and my son quite liked it - phonics in a pop the balloon game fashion.
f) On Reading Skills, I think the iPad stands head and shoulders above the iphone. Due to its form factor, it is just so much more immersive and my son actually treats it as a book. There are a lot of good e-book apps for children, but when it comes to super interactivity and graphics I thought Jack and the BeanStalk and Toy Story read along were great. But when it came to a  good variety of books, MeeGenius is excellent. All these apps let your child follow a book by highlighting and pronouncing each world clearly.
g) Doodle Buddy is a simple, drawing app for the iPhone/iPad. It presents a blank screen. You can draw by touching on the screen and change colors and brush sizes. I found my son using this a lot, learning how to draw, how to differentiate between colors and also refine his fine motor skills (of his, umm fingers). Frankly, there may be better apps out there - just that I had this one (FYI, Brushes is too complex for a toddler)
h) Once he understood numbers and began counting, I found Math Series to be a nice app that brought forward concepts such as number series and other number related simple concepts forward.
i) When it comes to music playing skills, the iPad outshines the iPhone. There are many free piano apps. I happened to use Virtuoso. My son was fascinated that he could play tunes here (well, he would just bang, but try to make music). Interestingly, after I saw his interest in this digital app, I actually bought a piano for him (which he uses a LOT these days). In a way, it was an easy investment before buying a real piano.
j) Finally, in the early days of the appstore, I downloaded a game called 'Adam's Game' which was a cute flashcard game, but not with a good voice though (accent was hard to understand), but it was pretty nice - it asked you to identify objects, basically (flash-cards). This was one of the first games my son liked and actually played it often in the first few months.

There are others that many talk about like LunchBox, PreSchool, Adventure, preschoolTap etc. They are all nice too - they mix some sort of creativity with fun. But I don't think they were an essential part of what I saw in my specific instance.

There you have it. My thoughts on digital tools focussed on children.


  1. thats a nice informative blog.. thanks arjun

  2. Very well written and quite true indeed !!

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