The dizzying number of electronic gadgets will accelerate as Black Friday approaches, and parents, eyes glazing over, need help finding toys that enrich and entertain, and that will a child's interest longer than a week. My advice is to look for these features:
1. Interactivity: The game should require participation from the child. You do not want a game or toy where the child turns it on and watches it go. Children learn best when they are actively involved so look for games and toys that solicit participation from the child. This could be verbal participation -- the game asks the player to read words or answer questions; fine motor participation -- the game requires the child to touch the screen or push a button to manipulate the action; or even gross motor participation -- the device might need to be shaken, tilted, or moved in order to play the game. Interactivity encourages engagement, the prerequisite for learning.
2. Problem solving/challenge: Look for games/toys that have various levels of difficulty and that allow the child to master skills and then try new challenges. A game that is too easy will end up under the bed -- one that rewards practice with new challenges will continue to be a favorite.
3. Creativity/Imagination: Lots of games and toys allow children to be creative and imaginative. Forget the Etch-A-Sketch, look for ones that provide a variety of tools -- brushes and pens, stickers and stamps, etc. Children can draw and "paint" on a variety of canvases. Some tools allow parents to print out the child's artwork (to send to Grandma?), while others encourage the artist to place the tablet on a larger sketch pad and draw on and around it. Some programs integrate the tablet's camera feature to allow the child to snap pictures of her family or pets to include in her drawings.
4. Real-world connection: Games for toddlers should incorporate some connection to the child's world. Children at this age are still working out the relationship between their 3D worlds and the 2D worlds of their screens. Researchers have discovered a "video deficit" in toddlers -- they don't readily make the connection between images on the screen and their real lives, but they can be taught.
This is an important connection that will enhance their readiness to learn from screens as they enter school. Games and apps for this age group should use simple language to label objects and features and encourage children to connect these to their worlds. The content should be familiar, not fantastic. Animals and people are better subjects than aliens and dinosaurs for this age. Again, the camera feature can be useful here to allow the child to bring his real life onto the screen and see the connection.
Games that encourage the child to move the tablet to make objects roll or shake help the child make the connection between her actions and the actions on the screen.
5. Multi-player: Children learn best through interaction, and human interaction is the richest experience. Choose games or apps that require the cooperation of multiple players. E-book or stories can let parents read while toddlers explore the interactive elements of the illustrations. Multi-player games or simulations can encourage children to collaborate on stories or situations.
Remember, screen time should be limited to allow children a variety of types of experiences. Children grow and develop best when they are encouraged to explore their environments and when they are provided a variety of learning experiences.
Electronic screens are one way to entertain and educate children, but kids also need experiences that are tactile, physically active, and interpersonal. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend no screen time for children under age 2, and less than two hours per day for young children. The time young children spend with screens should enrich their lives, and there are lots of good choices available today.