Parents love school holidays. We get to make-up for all that precious one-on-one time that we miss out on when our kids are at school or kinder.
Or at least that’s what I read somewhere. I think it was in one of those sickeningly smug parenting books co-written by a couple who casually mention that they don’t have a telly since their five well-adjusted children are sufficiently entertained by bird watching, practicing their Bach concertos and baking sourdough bread at home — all before breakfast.
But not to be deterred, I embraced school holidays with optimism. This year I will be prepared. It won’t matter that all my daughter’s playmates are away or that all the usual school term activities are not running. It’s going to be great.
At 7 am my daughter bounds excitedly into my room and asks my still asleep head, ‘What are we doing to do today, mummy?’
Feeling like mother of the year I drag myself out of bed and produce sticky tape, glue, toilet paper rolls, pipe cleaners and glitter pens and say triumphantly, ‘We’re going to make a space ship.’
Thirteen minutes later the spaceship is complete and she says, ‘What are we going to do now?’
My holiday optimism plummets as fast as a cardboard rocket in gravity and I calculate that it’s eleven hours and forty-seven minutes until bedtime.
At some point during the day my daughter will inevitably ask to play on the iPad and faster than you can say ‘Angry Birds Star Wars edition’, she’ll be clicking on apps and I’ll be drowning in guilt.
But is a little iBabysitting such a bad thing?
According to Dr Kate Highfield* from Macquarie University’s Institute of Early Childhood a little iDevice time won’t damage young minds.
‘It’s about having a balanced diet of tech play and other types of play,’ Dr Highfield says. ‘It’s fine for kids to have a couple of hours of tech play as long as they are also getting out and doing other types of play as well.’
However, not all applications targeted at children are created equal.
‘We do have to worry about the habits of mind children are forming. We need to be careful if the only games children are playing are the ones that reward every action.’
This applies even to some games which, on the surface, might appear to be educational.
‘There are some maths apps that say, “great job” or “well done” every time we do something right. And that constant reward is not real,’ says Dr Highfield.
Dr Highfield also advises choosing apps that encourage our kids to create rather than just consume.
‘Many of the popular apps for letters and sounds are just drill and practice apps which only require low level thinking. These are useful because there are some things we just have to learn and this is a fun way to learn it. But we should be encouraging our kids to be thinking more deeply.’
Dr Highfield recommends apps that foster creativity, building, and problem solving, as well as interaction with the real world.
‘Explain Everything allows children to import video, photos and sounds so that they can create something that explains a part of their world. It gives you an opportunity to draw pictures and add commentary. For younger children there is Draw and Tell, where you can draw using fine motor skills and also record what’s happening.’
Other recommendations include My Story, a book making app, ABC Play School Art Maker and the recently released ABC Play School Play Time staring Humpty.
Investigating and exploring the apps with children is just as important. iBabysitting isn’t really babysitting at all. It’s best done as another play activity with children.
‘The best way to work out if a game is good is to co-play’, says Dr Highfield. ‘For example Minecraft has two modes of play. In one mode you are creating a world you can engage in, you’re having to build things and be creative. In the other mode you’re killing zombies. Parents will only know that if they have engaged with the app.’
Educational apps won’t — and can’t — replace other forms of play. Nor are they superior or ‘more educational’ than other forms of play. After all, this cat can play Angry Birds, but that doesn’t mean it’s intelligent.
But apps do have their place in the world of child development – and school holiday survival.
*Dr Kate Highfield will be speaking at the Australian Conference on Children and the Media: Media, minds and neuroscience: The developing brain in a media-rich environment, in Sydney in October. Parents and educators are welcome to attend.