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Jul
31
2013

6 ways to help your kids use technology in healthy ways

6 ways to help your kids use technology in healthy waysWe've all seen and not wanted to be the parents of the child swiping manically at an iPad at dinner while life goes on around him unnoticed.  And yet, many parents have been those parents, grateful for twenty minutes of quiet, a chance for adult talk during a busy day.

Managing children's technology use isn't easy or clear-cut. It doesn't help that the media tends to either champion the 'technology will turn your kids into zombies without an attention span' story or the 'technology will make your child a genius' story. Which is it? Is it a good idea to let young kids use digital media or not?

Well, like with many things in life and in parenting - it depends.

It's pretty clear that digital tools are in our lives to stay. Kids are increasingly going to have to know how to use them. They use computers at school. They see their parents using smartphones and laptops every day - or use them themselves, depending on how old they are. It's just not realistic to shield kids, even young kids, from digital devices completely.

On the other hand, would you even want to keep them away from digital devices? Kids' computer games, video games and apps are undergoing an evolution from entertaining digital babysitters to powerful educational tools that can help kids learn everything from scientific reasoning to collaboration skills.

As a parent, you just have to know how to distinguish the wheat from the chaff - and how to give your kids some guidance. Here are some tips to help your children use technology in healthy - and educational - ways.

1. Know your child

As you know, every child is unique. This might mean that a phonics game that is just mindless entertainment for your first child (who reads well and needs encouragement to get outdoors more) might be exactly what your second child (who is having trouble learning to read) needs.

Things to think about are:

  • Are there certain skills your child needs to beef up on, like addition or spelling skills? Look for a high-quality digital game that specifically targets that skill. A great resource for finding digital games (apps, computer games, video games) by skill is Common Sense Media's review website, where you simply click on the skills you're looking for to find appropriate games. The games are assessed according to child development guidelines and usefully categorized by age group. (See the rest of this blog article for tips on what kind of digital games support your child's healthy development).

Find the right games for your children

  • Does your child have particular interests, like animals or astronauts? One of the best ways to get your kids learning new skills and concepts is through a topic they're already excited about. Common Sense Media's website lets you search for digital games that revolve around your child's favourite topics. Since this organization is an independent non-profit, they don't push any particular cartoon characters or game companies.

  • How much technology time is right for your child? This depends on your child. Is your child an active, outdoorsy type who finds it hard to focus on reading? Then it might be a triumph for her to sit down with a digital reading game for five minutes. If on the other hand, your child adores smartphones, tablets, and the like, you'll want to make sure you're providing her with high-quality games that get her thinking, while also limiting her screen time and involving her in other activities.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends babies and toddlers under 2 years old have no screen time at all and older children have less than 1 to 2 hours of total screen time a day, which includes both digital games and television.

2. Make sure it's not replacing something important

One important reason child development experts recommend limiting screen time to less than 1 or 2 hours a day is that there are only so many hours in a day - and lots of important things kids need to do in that time (besides eating and sleeping) in order for healthy growth and development to happen. For example, the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework in the UK considers physical activity, conversation, adult attention, free play, and hands-on exploration of the environment (among other things) to be essential for healthy development. Digital media can't adequately replace these kinds of real-life experiences.

Check that your child still has plenty of physical, sensory experiences - such as drawing with real crayons rather than on a screen, getting involved in imaginary role play, or leafing through the thick, heavy pages of a family photo album (like our heirbooks at Catch Stories). When helping your kids to choose apps and video games, look for ones that encourage communication, physical exploration, and movement. (Read on for some tips about this). sensory experiences with real crayons

A helpful guideline is: Screen time should complement and support real life, not replace it.

3. Solve problems

Did you know that adults are using "serious" video games to solve real-world problems in areas such as medical research and city planning? Digital games are no longer just entertainment, and this applies to kids, too - educational kids' games are now all over the app stores. But does the label "educational" always mean they are good for kids?

What you'll notice about the sophisticated adult problem-solving games out there is that they don't just focus on drilling skills. Unfortunately, many children's learning apps do - even though kids are capable of much more than memorizing facts and skills. Although there is a place for skill drilling and memorization, it is children's problem-solving skills that will determine whether they are able to think for themselves and make good decisions.

Problem-solving games also allow kids to combine and apply other skills they have learned. For example, learning to add up numbers doesn't really mean much if you never apply it to any real situations. If you have to solve a bigger problem while using your addition skills, you understand what addition is all about.

A good digital problem-solving game involves several actions your child can choose between (rather than just the "right" or "wrong" answer), the chance to experiment, time to think, helpful feedback during the game, and often more than one right answer. Common Sense has a list of recommended problem-solving games.

4. Get active

A recent study in America found that although the majority of parents in the US don't really worry about their young children's digital media use, the main concern parents do have is that overuse of digital media will turn their kids into couch potatoes.

If that's your concern, apart from making sure your children get outdoors regularly for free play and sports, you can also help your kids get active by taking advantage of children's digital games that encourage physical activity. The Fred Rogers Center has a unique parent-child app for young kids called Out-A-Bout that hits several birds with one stone: it gets kids jumping, running and climbing, encourages parents and kids to head outside, promotes reading skills, and encourages parent-child bonding.

You can also use the digital tools you already have to encourage your kids to get active. For example, on your next family trip, let your child take photos with your phone camera (or any other camera you feel comfortable with your child using!). Set challenges for your child that encourage him to move about and notice his surroundings, like challenging him to take a picture at every sightseeing stop, or of the scenery from the top of a hill or from across a field. Back home on the computer, help your child to pick his favourite photos, type up a story about your trip to go with it (help your child to think of one sentence per photo) and get the result beautifully laid out, printed and bound (such as by us at Catch Stories) as a lasting record of your family trip.

Want to break a sweat indoors on a rainy day? Try the active whole-family games on Nintendo's Wii or on the Xbox Kinect - which incidentally does an exciting Sesame Street combined interactive game and TV programme.

5. Better together

collaborative playYour child's teacher will tell you that children develop more advanced ideas and thinking skills when they work and play together. When kids collaborate, they help each other to understand. More than that, their friends' ideas stimulate them to think of new ideas, which in turn help their friends to think of new ideas - and so on. All that chatting and giggling has an educational purpose!

Despite this, many educational digital games are one-person games. Luckily there is now a growing pool of educational game developers who understand the importance of collaboration in learning. Kindertown has a good list of fun collaborative apps you can use together as a family at home.

Apart from playing together, talking about the games afterwards helps your kids to think about what they've done, which helps them to remember what they've learned and apply it to new situations - the real test of whether they've learned something meaningful - so chat up a storm! (For more about this, see our blog post 4 Ways to Boost your Kids' Thinking Skills through Reflection).

6. Be safe

Last but not least, educate yourself about how to safely use digital media with children. The Center on Media Health has an internet safety toolkit and NBC News Technology has published a helpful article about how to use kids' apps safely. You will want to shield your children from being contacted by strangers, from sharing too much information online, from seeing things inappropriate for their age, and also from inadvertently racking up costs on your credit card...!

Apart from that, it's also good to make sure your children themselves understand something of the risks they are being exposed to and what they can do to protect themselves, since as they get older, you will not always be looking over their shoulders. Knowing how to use digital media safely, effectively and enjoyably is just a regular part of being a 21st-century modern human being.

We hope these tips help you to help your kids to have happy, healthy digital experiences. What do you find most challenging when it comes to managing your children's technology use? What do you enjoy? Please share your thoughts with us in the comments or on Facebook.


This article was written by Diana van Walsum, our outstanding education & educational technology writer and a former international school teacher. Holding a master's degree in ICT in Education from the University of Hong Kong, a Psychology degree, and an Early Childhood teaching diploma, Diana believes that active inquiry, problem solving, play and conversation help children to become independent, creative thinkers.

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