Gadgets Can Help Kids Learn, But Parents Wonder When to Pull the Plug

By Nigel Chiwaya and Julie Shapiro  on September 12, 2012 7:00am

NEW YORK CITY — For many kids, back-to-school shopping means more than just new sneakers and sharpened pencils — it means new gadgets.

Whether they're using a freshly installed SmartBoard in school or tapping on their parents' new iPhone during a long subway ride, children are increasingly surrounded by technology, both inside the classroom and outside of it.

Many experts and educators say those high-tech devices can help kids learn — but it's all about balancing screen-time with face-time, and remembering that there are plenty of skills kids need to learn that don't involve a computer.

"Technology can be a real boon — it's social, it helps kids, it teaches them, it's entertaining and expands your worldview," said Caroline Knorr, parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that offers independent information about media and technology.

"But there are no studies that show that it's better than all of the other things that experts say are crucial for healthy development," Knorr continued. "Interacting with mom and dad, going outside and playing, reading with a close caregiver — those are the things that are crucial to help your kid do well in school."

For children under 9, Knorr recommends limiting technology to an hour per day.

From the playground to play groups, parents are discussing and debating the issue among themselves, some setting strict limits and others allowing their children nearly unfettered access to devices that serve as electronic babysitters.

Matt Schneider, co-founder of the NYC Dads Group, said he tries to set reasonable technology limits for his two sons, who are 4 and 7.

The boys have LeapFrog devices, which allow them to play educational games, and they are allowed to watch some TV every day, but they are generally not allowed to use their parents' iPhone or iPad.

"We like them to be playing outside," Schneider, a Battery Park City resident, said. "We like them to be with their friends. Even when they're home, we favor toys that are more open-ended, whether that's building with blocks, doing art. At this stage of the game we feel like that's how they should be spending their time, versus sitting in front of another screen."

While Schneider knows even stricter parents who do not allow their kids to watch any television, the more liberal parents sometimes rib him for the rules he sets for his sons.

"People have certainly given me a hard time, joking that I'm depriving the kids of the iPad or I'm living in a different decade by not letting the kids use the iPad," Schneider said. "Everybody has a different consideration. Everybody's trying to find a balance."

Dennis Gault, a special education teacher at P.S. 19 in the East Village, also acknowledged the need for limits, but he said he has seen new technology help his students grow in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Autistic and nonverbal children, in particular, have benefited from using the iPad's interactive interface, Gault said.

"They can learn to communicate by pointing to pictures to express their wants and needs," Gault said. "I am just blown away by progress I've seen with students and how they respond."

One challenge for schools is that they are often embracing new gadgets before their aging infrastructure has time to catch up, said Kraig DeMatteis, technical and curriculum developer at Fordham University's RETC – Center for Professional Development.

DeMatteis, who helps teachers in The Bronx and surrounding communities integrate technology into their classrooms, has seen schools that invest in iPads and laptops — but the wireless Internet is so weak the students can't go online.

DeMatteis advises schools to be wise about how they spend their money, looking into refurbished Nooks rather than brand-new iPads, or projectors and wireless keyboards rather than SmartBoards. He also teaches them about resources like Khan Academy, which hosts educational videos, and apps that teach children everything from phonics to problem-solving.

Just like a student can use a pen to doodle or to write an essay, DeMatteis said the same is true of technology.

"It's all in the way students are taught how to use it," he said.

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