Book Enhancers: Parent or Plugin?

(this is a repost from BabyUnplugged.com – enjoy!)

Religion.  Politics. E-readers.  It’s hard to say which is the most polarizing issue these days.  Reading platform also spurs anxiety about doing the right thing: tradition or progress, water or Kool-Aid, paper or plastic.  This is in no small part due to the unprecedented magnitude of change in the media landscape, transforming before science, reason, or decorum can map promise and peril for us.

Tech hardliners/true believers evangelize devices and apps for every occasion, an ever-connected world with bustling hubs at Amazon and the iTunes store, while devout delegates/disciples of paper and pages defend their intimacy, individuality, organic feel, and treasured place in our memories and culture, each work a special friend.

You might guess where I stand.

While the Kindle, Nook, and iPad are here to stay for grownups, largely a matter of personal preference, for children the issue is more complex, a classic case of “one size does not fit all.”  Or better: “enchanting for all, useful for some.”

By the way – these are videos/video games in drag NOT e-readers:

Tell everyone.

Recall the maxim cited in earlier posts: children are not small adults.  Their brains are different.  Their bodies are different.  Their spirit is different.  Their needs are different.  And each of these changes rapidly as the child develops, along with their ability to process information and learn.  That’s why we take so many pictures of them.  That’s also why, even though they technically could, toddlers do not stay home by themselves, preschoolers do not watch horror movies, elementary school kids do not drink alcohol or drive, and tweens do not act like they’re from Jersey Shore (thought I’d throw that in).

Note the consensus on the above activities, since as a society we have had time to define risks, benefits, and readiness.

The same logic holds for electronic devices, including e-readers.  Electronic devices and the media they run all have features requiring levels of maturity.  How children handle them depends on many factors, including developmental stage, parental engagement, temperament, and other factors – not to mention the media itself.

Children under three are e-easy.  Being new to the real world, they belong in the real world.  Under threes are exclusively analog, human mammals and have no business with electronic devices or media that can’t hold them, feed them, play with them, or talk to them.  For under threes, reading is about beingwith someone who loves and cares for them, rather than acquiring information or being wowed by features.

For the olderpreschool-kindergarten crowd, dialogic reading – i.e. the opportunity to interact with another human while reading, relating the story to experience, asking questions, and so on – is key.   Though these children are learning to read, skill development is more than just hearing stories or looking at text as it flashes and bounces across the page.  It involves learning to focus and engage imagination, developing the robust multimedia device with rechargeable power pack that is their own brain.

For elementary age and teens, real books remain best, in my opinion, for reasons ranging from reduced distraction, multitasking-resistance (a major, increasing, academic problem), and development of focus.  If entertainment, email, social media, and web surfing are the goal – devices are fine.  If learning to read and and/or finish a book is the goal, do the old-school thing.

Back to younger readers, specifically the picture book crowd.  Picture books are available in 3 platforms: traditional print and paper (“t-books” – really, I’ve seen them called that), basic e-books where pictures are static, and “enhanced” e-books where a child touches objects on the screen and something happens, e.g. a word flashes and sounds, an apple falls from a tree, a funny noise.  Though e-picture books have not been embraced by the market as of yet (~ 6% at last count), publishers are aggressively rolling them out.  Being a story sharing fan, I’m always on the lookout for studies to clarify their role.

push screen and stuff happens

turn pages and stuff happens

And so, I was glad to find this one: A 2012 study from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (affiliated with The Sesame Workshop) looked at 32 child-parent pairs reading stories together.   One group read a print + regular e-book, while the other read a print + enhanced e-book.

Findings were interesting.  For this 3-6 year-old population, traditional books were best for comprehension, literacy building, and overall engagement (composite of parent-child, child-book, parent-book, and enjoyment).  They invited more content-related interaction, e.g. what’s happening in the story and why.  It is this shared dialogic discussion referenced above – relating the story to the child’s world and inviting them to share – that catalyzes most of the benefits of shared reading with young children.

Again, simple sharing.  Reciprocal, human contact.  Affection.  The mammal thing.

In the study, basic and especially enhanced e-books had far more non-content-related interactions – i.e. about the device, how to use it, what else it does – while content-related interactions dropped dramatically.  Such device-centric interaction not only distracts from the story, it detracts from the reading experience, and can cause behavior-related conflict between parent and child.  Any parent seasoned in prying an iPhone from an app-drunk preschooler’s hands knows this battle.  Consequently, children reading enhanced e-books recalled less details of the story and were more engaged with the device than the parent.

The authors suggested that device engagement offers promise for reluctant readers drawn to enhanced, screen-based platforms, but in general is far from optimal.  Such device-centric focus too often leads to the “outsourcing” of parents to electronic devices and media, where entertainment and enchantment are easy to confuse with learning and development, greasing a slippery slope into excessive use, not to mention detracting from quality time together.

Though this study was for 3-6 year-olds, the findings are readily extended to younger children, reinforcing the importance of real world engagement.  It is well-established that children under three do not process screen-based media in a constructive way – a.k.a. the “video deficit” – and distracting “enhancements” only worsen the issue.  For under threes, parents and caregivers are the enhancement.

Speaking of book – a new one from Baby Unplugged!

books bloom with people power!

Now – go enhance some t-book pages, and have fun!  Keep me posted!

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