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Closing the technology gap

By Scott Scanlon // refresh Editor

Technology can start to drive a wedge between a child and parent as early as infancy. ¶ This is what researchers have discovered at the University at Buffalo Early Childhood Research Center. ¶ Something else they have concluded: It doesn’t have to be that way. ¶ “Parents expect technology to entertain their child,” said Corrine Dabrowski, research center acting assistant director, but that’s not all it’s designed to do. ¶ Any parent who’s ever plopped little Johnny or Jenny onto the couch to watch “Dora the Explorer” or “Caillou” understands that television often becomes a diversion for tired, busy adults, not child-parent bonding time.

Research at UB suggests that many parents are heading down a similar road when it comes to putting smartphones, iPads and other computer tablets into the hands of their children.

There seems to be a lack of awareness about how electronic books, for instance, can be used effectively for educational purposes, “in this case, building on their child’s literacy the same way they help develop their child’s literacy while reading a print book,” Dabrowski said.

Parental reliance on technology seems to be starting ever earlier. Dabrowski examined parent-child ebook interactions with children as young as 5 months old.

“Even with older kids, parents expect the technology to educate,” said Kelly Ross Kantz Roy, research center director. “But for most kids, even up through middle school, it’s not designed to be a tool children use on their own. It’s designed to be interactive.”

The challenge for parents is likely only to grow. Nearly one- quarter of all books sold in the U.S. last year were ebooks and child ebook sales more than doubled, according to the Association of American Publishers.

Andrea Tochelli, a doctoral student in the center’s reading education program, has seen prospects for the technology gap to grow wider during the preschool years, as children ages 3 to 5 play with creative iPad apps in the center’s child classroom. “It’s amazing to see how quickly they grasp that touchscreen technology,” she said.

But Tochelli, Dabrowski and Kelly believe parents have a choice when it comes to how involved they can be in the technical lives of children. Here are some ways to get closer:

• Ebooks for infants and toddlers are intended to be used jointly by adult and child. Plan to play with your infant and toddler the same way you would with print books. Lead their interactions when necessary.

• Read and review the book prior to reading it with your child; learn the settings to evaluate what will work best for quality engagement with your child.

• On some occasions, turn off the narrator and read the story aloud, while still enjoying the interactive extras.

• Allow your child to make selections on the screen while talking to them throughout. Ask questions, identify new and familiar objects or characters, and extend upon the story, making connections to your child’s surroundings and life experiences.

• Children love to share what they are making, creating and doing on tablets. Ask them what they are creating and why they are making it.

• Let the children become experts at the game; have them teach you how to play. Ask, “How do you play this? Can you show me what you are doing?”

• Play as a group can alleviate concerns parents have about what children are doing with technology, and show them technology isn’t isolating.

• Children frequently choose to play applications that involve interactivity, movement and creativity. These include applications that have puzzles, matching, making objects (for example, cakes, cookies, dressing characters).

Tablets and iPads allow for movement and ease of use that computers are not as capable of, especially using a mouse for young children. These devices also are fairly easy to learn how to use and learning a few applications allows children to transfer between games.

“I’m partially refuting the idea that technology is a solitary experience,” Tochelli said of the preschoolers she works with. “Technology can be very social. I see the kids very much interested in wanting to share what they’re doing. If there’s two of them sitting near each other with two iPads on their laps, they’re frequently looking at what each other is doing. And I also see them wanting to share with adults in the area what they just have completed.”