Don’t Fear for the Digital Natives: Play in the Digital Age

Don’t Fear for the Digital Natives: Play in the Digital Age
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This post was written with two of our amazing postdoctoral fellows, Brenna Hassinger-Das and Emily Hopkins.

On Tuesday, LEGO announced that it will cut 8% of its workforce by the end of 2017, due in part to flagging sales. Is this the death knell for traditional toys? We don’t think so. Actually, many traditional toys and games are already adapting to changes in the play landscape brought on by digital technologies. Case in point: LEGO has revamped its business model over the last 20 years with forays into video games and digital toys. The LEGO Dimensions line combines physical LEGO figurines and sets with video games, and the LEGO Mindstorms sets let children build physical robot figures that they can then program and control from their computer or smartphone.

LEGO’s ability to carve out its niche in the digital landscape reflects a broader trend for traditional play activities. The writing's on the wall that digital games and toys are here to stay--a 2013 survey by Common Sense Media found that 75% of all U.S. children under 8 years of age have regular access to a smartphone or tablet. Of those children, 63% used the device for playing games while 50% used other types of apps. The amount of time children spent on mobile devices per day tripled from 2011-2013.

Yet the pendulum may actually be starting to swing back toward the middle with the rise of hybrid digital/traditional toys, such as Osmo and ROX. These toy companies are attempting to tap into that sweet spot that combines physical with digital play. Osmo is a camera accessory that attaches to an iPhone or iPad and integrates children’s physical actions with blocks, toys, or drawings into a digital game. In one instance, Osmo takes a tangram puzzle, invented in China hundreds of years ago, and reinvents it for a tech-savvy audience.

But do children learn as much from digital or hybrid toys as they do from more traditional play? Fortunately for parents and educators, research provides cause for hope. Recent research from our labs at Temple University and the University of Delaware, in collaboration with colleagues at Vanderbilt University, showed that children can learn vocabulary from an interactive story app. Other studies have supported the use of digital apps for exploring math. The Building Blocks curriculum designed by Dr. Douglas Clements and Dr. Julie Sarama includes almost 300 digital activities for Pre-K to 8th grade children. These games and activities are highly adaptive--they provide immediate feedback to players regarding their performance and tailor the game to the players’ needs. Children from under-resourced backgrounds who completed this curriculum improved their mathematics knowledge more than a group taking part in the standard mathematics curriculum.

Why might these types of digital play be effective? According to Drs. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Jennifer Zosh, Roberta Golinkoff, and colleagues’ 2015 piece for Psychological Science in the Public Interest, research in the science of learning suggests that the best play activities--be they digital or traditional--encourage children to be active and engaged, avoid unnecessary distractions, connect meaningfully to children’s lives, and foster social interaction. Any toy or game that contains this combination of features has the potential to help children learn in a playful way.

Active learning means that children cannot be passive players. Watching a video or pressing buttons when prompted won’t cut it. Children learn best when they have to make decisions to move a game forward. Children must also be engaged and not distracted by extraneous features. This is one area where many digital toys and games often fail. They add “bells and whistles” that are exciting, but do not contribute to the learning goal.

In a 2015 study, Dr. Zosh and colleagues found that when parents and children played together with a digital shape-sorting toy, they spent less time talking about shapes and more time talking about the electronic features of the toy compared to when they played with a traditional shape-sorting toy. Research on e-books has found similar results: A 2013 study by Dr. Julia Parish-Morris and colleagues in Mind, Brain, and Education found that children who read e-books had poorer understanding of the story compared to children who read traditional storybooks. When sound effects, animations, or other features do not relate directly to the story content, they distract rather than enhance.

It can also be difficult to make meaningful connections to children’s lives with digital toys and games. Digital materials can’t link up to children’s experiences as effectively as parent or teacher comments can. So, when Brenna is reading with her son, she’ll often connect the story to something in his own life. When they read Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, she said to him, “Look! Do you remember when we were in Bear Country at the zoo?” These kinds of connections help make learning stick.

Finally, children learn a tremendous amount from social interaction. In fact, research on educational videos and apps has shown that children learn more when parents participate in these activities with them. A 2014 study by Dr. Alexis Lauricella and colleagues published in the International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction demonstrated that the amount of parent-child engagement during book reading was the strongest predictor of children’s story comprehension; it did not matter if the book was digital or traditional.

When a digital toy or game combines these four features, it has the potential to serve as a powerful learning tool. Ms. Talia Berkowitz and colleagues designed an app to teach math that parents and children played together before bedtime. The app was kept simple with minimal sounds or animations to increase engagement and avoid distraction and the math content was presented in engaging stories to keep it meaningful to children. Their results (in a 2015 paper in Science) showed that among the families who played the game the most (2-4 times per week over the course of the school year), children gained 3 extra months of math achievement compared to peers. That is an astonishing improvement!

The message here is that parents don’t necessarily need to fear for the digital natives. While the toys are changing, the magic of play is not. The challenge to parents and educators is to use any toy--digital or traditional--to support learning via active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive elements.

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