There is much confusion and misinformation about how to best stimulate a baby these days. A recent, disappointing New York Times blog piece (“Mobile Screens to Shake and Rattle…”) described some of the latest, suddenly critical, Baby Apps. One of the worst, Sparkabilities, was described in my previous post. A previous NYT post lauded the promise of “cat apps” to engage babies – that’s right, cat apps, designed for cats – perhaps enhanced by catnip in their cereal.
Amazingly, this is the New York Times, supposedly a thinking person’s resource, though this particular column lacks context and depth and reads like an infomercial – Car & Driver singing the praises of preteens road testing the latest models from GM. Sure, they CAN drive them, and have a great time doing it, but should they?
The core concept missed by the blogger above, and the Baby App craze in general is: children – and most especially babies – are not small grownups. Developmental stages are not upgradable in tandem with the latest iPhone, despite attempts by makers and marketers to convince us otherwise. Thus, while we grownups embrace newer, faster, and more all-encompassing technologies, our children should be encouraged to embrace old ones.
One example from the recent NYT advertorials is a simulated iPhone rattle. A quote:
“Apps can even replace a baby rattle. While it may sound crazy to give a tiny, dribbling tot a smartphone worth hundreds of dollars, you never know when you’ll need to pacify a child with no toys at hand. Try Baby Rattle Toy — Child Lock, free on Android, for a neat version. It’s got colors and tappable shapes on screen, and it reacts to shakes as it should…”
More on pacifying a child with no toys in hand later (hint: everyday objects make great toys, as do people). While this may be cool technology to us grownups it completely misses the point. Infancy and toddlerhood is about learning to process the real world and is utterly concrete, i.e. a phone is a phone, a rattle is a rattle, mom is mom, the sky is the sky. Video screens are weird, flattish, flashy things. A smartphone does not replace a rattle. If it does, it will then be treated as a rattle, freeing the child of liability for shaking or banging it when not in rattle mode. It will also be frustrating when it doesn’t rattle.
This focus on the real world is why screen time equivalents are not only confusing (though enchanting), they are counter-productive, and may put the child at risk for developmental delays. For despite our best intentions, we are burdening them with the need to figure out why flashing, 2-D screen images are blocks, faces, and rattles, yet at the same time so are real blocks, faces, and rattles. And worst of all, they can’t chew them!
It is also well-described that infants and children under 2 learn dramatically less from video screens than the real world, aka the “video deficit.” Show them blocks on TV, then hand them some blocks, and they won’t know what to do…until they experiment with the real blocks. The video message is lost, filed away in the weird, flashy, enchanting thing folder.
The work of Jean Piaget (1896-1980) helps us here.
Piaget was a French developmental psychologist, whose work lay much of the foundation for educational theory in use today. He divided childhood into a series of developmental stages, the first being the sensorimotor stage from birth-2 years, precisely the time when human/real-world interaction are critical and video screens are most problematic. It is a time for maximal use of senses and mastery of motor skills, neither fostered by screen time. Subdivisions are as follows:
- Simple reflexes – eat, sleep, cuddle.
- First habits and primary circular reactions, 1-4 mos, recognize faces
- Secondary circular reactions, 4-8 mos, more intentional movements, e.g. grasp real rattles. Press buttons and swipe at random, making parents think there’s learning going on.
- Coordination of secondary circular reactions, 8-12 mos, more intentional, e.g. tear books because they can. Press buttons and swipe at random making parents think there’s learning going on and the child is a computer genius.
- Tertiary circular reactions, 12-18 mos, novelty and curiosity – “little scientists.” Drop book/iPhone, possibly into toilet, smear paint on both because smearing is fun. Press buttons on device/toy, note light flashing, making parents think there’s learning going on and the child is a computer genius. Multi-sensorial, driven by experience.
- Object permanence develops around age 12 months, where a child begins to wonder where things go, e.g. where are my parents, why is the TV off, where is the flashy block I’m getting kind of addicted to? Thus, best to not introduce the latter 2 in the first place, so they don’t know what they’re missing.
- Internalization of schemes/symbolic thinking, 18-24 mos - more advanced “little scientists.” Start to make connections based on experimentation and real world data. Gravity, banging, fill and dump, wet and dry, including getting iPhone wet, if available.
It’s easy to see how basic reactions and experimentation with an easy-to-use, touch screen device would create the illusion of mastery or usefulness. In grownup eyes, babies are using an iPhone/iPad. From their sensorimotor perspective, it’s a strange, flashy block that doesn’t follow regular rules. This is why the most fun and useful experiments for a child in the stages above are to drop the device in a puddle of water, smear paint on them, stack them with other blocks, hide them under a box, chew them, throw them, or open/accidentally delete Mom’s/Dad’s email. Apps and other e-media are too abstract and removed from senses, physical forces, and the real world to have much value. After 2 years old, once these concepts are fully developed and internalized and the child enters more abstract stages, e-media may have a role beyond anesthesia.
From age 2-7, children enter the pre-operational stage, where pretend play, magical thinking (“The butterfly kissed me!”), and gross motor skill development are paramount. As in sensorimotor, these are best fostered in the real world, with limited value for screen-based media, though pro-social programming ideally watched with caregivers, e.g. Sesame Street, is benign.
Back to the scenario of being out with fussy child and not having a toy, seemingly requiring a cat app. Recall that apps have only been around for a few years, and we humans have managed to thrive for eons without them. They are a solution without a problem, that in a very real sense, create new problems.
Given the stages above where practically everything in the world is new, fascinating, and worthy of study (i.e. play with), the best toys are already in hand. Anything that brings grownup and child together works wonders, as humans are the ultimate toy for a baby. Others include cardboard boxes, wooden spoons, plain blocks, a board book tucked into a purse (this often saved us with each of our kids), a crumpled ball of paper, a blanket/scarf, and keys.
Did someone say keys? Keys are a perfect example of an iconic, magical developmental tool – they rattle, they make noises, they’re often shiny, they’re real, they don’t require batteries or software – and they’re free! Just make sure they’re securely on a ring, as individual ones can be a choking hazard. Thus, in closing I offer an excellent, exquisitely simple activity for a baby, as described by our friends from Productive Parenting.