Turn your child’s screen time into a learning experience

Reams have been written on the negatives of children having screen time. So we decided to look at the positive side. Find out how you could turn your child’s screen time into an educational experience

By Aarthi Prabhakaran  • 20 min read

Turn your child’s screen time into a learning experience

A few months ago, my younger one had a little trouble adapting to the changing weather conditions. Our doctor reassured us that the symptoms were mere reactions to allergens prevalent around us. My son was advised to stay away from dirt and sand, and if he did play outdoors, to wash his hands and feet once he got home. We came back from the doctor’s and off he goes, “My body is fighting the alien germs with the help of T-cells.” He is just 7 years old! I asked him how he knew about T-cells and his answer was, “I saw how Arnold’s body fought his cold virus with the help of T-cells. They make our body strong. For me to have healthy T-cells, I need to eat more fruits and vegetables.”

My older one, who is 12, came home from school the other day and excitedly said, “In today’s Geography class, we were learning about the different kinds of rocks (igneous, sedimentary etc.). When my teacher finished explaining the topic, she asked us if we’d all understood. When I answered yes, the whole class was astonished. Do you know how I understood it and can recollect it so well? I remember it from the characters in “Rock Cycle” episode, where Weatherman and Captain Rock-Man fight it out through various stages of rock formation. I just need to make sure that I don’t mention Weatherman and Rock-Man when I write my exam!”

For the uninitiated, what my children were referring to was ‘Magic School Bus’– a Netflix animated series that makes learning fun. Every episode focuses on some science concept. The extra spice is having a bus – the main character that can magically change forms – practically explain the concepts to the children, through experiential learning.
This is an example of how screen time is positively impacting the learning process in both my children. As modern-day parents, my husband and I are both tech savvy and use technology for our everyday activities. Grocery lists and household chore lists are managed on Cloud-hosted apps, shared and are accessible anywhere by either of us. So why should we keep our children completely away from the screen?!

Screen Time Considerations
Screen Time is defined as the viewing or use of anything with a screen, including TVs, DVDs, video games and computers. The harmful effects of exposure to screens have been well-documented. Early screen exposure is associated with attentional problems at age 7. Prolonged screen exposure has been found to adversely affect cognitive development, reading recognition and comprehension, mathematical proficiency, and short-term memory as well as language development and vocabulary. However, it is true that we cannot avoid screens in our lives today. The reality is that children will have to live with and adapt to technology. Our job as parents is to coach our children to use technology wisely. Setting limits is the right approach. However, it is not only about limiting the time spent in front of the screen but also about what children can and cannot watch. Thus, quality over quantity is an important consideration when it comes to screen time. In this vein, the concept of ‘digital nutrition’ becomes important. It likens media diets to what’s on our plates – rather than counting calories (or screen time), think about what you’re eating (or watching).

Preparing your child for a Digital Future
Our children will grow up in a world predominantly run by machines and complex Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems that are capable of mimicking human interaction. Technology today has entered our homes, classrooms and workplaces and woven itself into the very fabric of our lives. Alexa, Siri and Google Home now manage end-to-end functioning of a household. Smartboards are being used as a support tool in classroom teaching. We use social media and communication tools to connect and communicate with family, friends and teachers. So, if we completely ban screens and devices, we are preventing our children from learning the crucial skills of navigating their way through the online world and making smart decisions vis-à-vis technology.

Premalatha Varadhan, head of AI in a leading UK-based banking consultancy and a mother of a middle-schooler, asserts: “It is irrational to completely ban or even ration screen time for children in this age of digitisation and AI. As parents, it is our first responsibility to enable our children to tap into the abundant digital resources for their self-initiated learning and development, ensuring that the aspects of online-safety are also simultaneously imparted.”

Positive effects of Screen time

While an overwhelming majority of research has focused on the harmful effects of screens on children, research in the last 5-7 years has started documenting a more balanced perspective. This body of research makes a distinction between active versus passive screen time (e.g., research by Sweetser and colleagues, 2012). Active screen time means the child is cognitively or physically engaged in screen-based activities – playing a video game or doing his homework on a computer. Passive Screen Time, on the other hand, involves sedentary screen-based activities and/or passively receiving screen-based information, such as watching television, a DVD or simply a video on a mobile device.

Benefits of cognitively active screen time: Computer use during the preschool years is associated with improvements in school readiness and cognitive development (Li & Atkins, 2004) and higher levels of attention and motivation (McCarrick & Li, 2007), while the instant feedback scaffolds children’s interactions. Research has also found that computers facilitate social interaction and provide an environment for young children to use large amounts of language and improve word knowledge and verbal fluency.

Benefits of physically active screen time: Research published by American Psychologist in 2013 has demonstrated that video games can offer benefits that are cognitive (e.g., spatial and problem-solving skills and creativity), motivational (e.g., persistence and effortful engagement), emotional (e.g., the experience of flow) and social (e.g., prosocial skills).

Educational benefits: Screens can open up a plethora of educational benefits for children by offering online educational resources. Even the much-maligned television has its positives. A study led by Anderson (2012) concluded that educational television is an important asset for children’s informal learning during the preschool years and beyond. “Watching and understanding television requires the development of attention, media decoding and narrative comprehension skills. Beyond the infant and toddler years, television can become a powerful tool for education. Programmes designed with specific educational objectives and research-based curricula promote academic achievement and prosocial behaviour,” observed the study.

According to Varadarajan Sridharan, head of technology, Nettur Technical Training Foundation (NTTF), Bengaluru, “Digital learning will progressively over-ride the traditional method of education that we all were used to. The education system, associated pedagogies, and the learning models have to be revisited and adopted to meet the new age digitalisation.”

How you can facilitate screen-based learning

Like traditional learning, it is important to customise screen-based learning to suit the pace of the learner.. Children should be exposed to age-appropriate digital assets so that they become familiar with the basics and etiquette of using them. This is similar to teaching social/public etiquette to a child and is essential as technology is going to dominate their adult world.
However, it is also important to remember that all screen time is not the same. A screen that has age-appropriate, educational, goal-oriented content is more likely to be beneficial than a show that models aggressive and violent behaviour. Thus, sitting and watching television for two hours is not the same as playing a learn-to-read game on a tablet, which is not the same as killing zombies on a computer or game console.
Use screens in a way that promote interaction, connection and creativity. As far as possible, try:

  • Co-viewing: This means watching media with your child. This allows for interaction and discussion. Children learn better from media, educational shows and videos when they are co-viewed and there is parent-child interaction
  • Co-playing: This means playing video games and using apps with your child. Children learn better from media when they share the experience with an adult. This also helps parents stay connected with their children and allows them to have a better sense of how their children are spending his time

Recommended screen learning activities by age:

Infants, toddlers, and preschoolers

  • Introduce gadgets that are interactive for kindergarteners. For example, sounding of alphabets and numbers (words being checked for phonics and the child being asked to repeat it if she doesn’t get it right), a digital stencil to practice writing (again with stroke correction instructions) and a read-along-book with question answers that check the understanding of the child. You can buy integrated gadgets like LeapPad that will have varied activities. By connecting online and using a parent account, you can download additional updates/upgrades to take you through the growth years of the child till she is ready for a real tablet.
  • Introduce educational apps for reading and writing (such as Endless Alphabet, Nosy Crow eBooks, Alpha Tots, Elmo Lobes ABCs for 3 years and up; Learn with Homer, ages 3-6 years; Don’t let the Pigeon run this App! for ages 5 years and up), maths (Eddy’s number party and Gracie and friends, ages 4 years and up; Dragon Box Algebra for ages 5 years and up) and computer programming and problem-solving (Kodable, ages 5 years and up). Some apps such as Kutuki are especially tailored for Indian children below 7 years of age and include animated stories, songs, and illustrated digital books.
  • Online games are available for children above the age of 2 years at Boowa Kwala Games, PBS Kids, Happy Clicks, Owlieboo, and Fun Gooms.

Primary schoolchildren

  • Introduce concepts on Internet safety, differentiating real and useful information from misinformation and hoaxes along with the aspect of researching online on topics of their interest. Search engines are powerful tools that can be used for quick and extensive research. You also have child-friendly search engines like Kiddle and DuckDuckGo.
  • Learning-based programs: Convert passive screen time like watching videos and cartoons also into learning time by watching those videos with them and talking about real life situations that the video/cartoon emulates. For example, Magic School Bus can be introduced even at an earlier age, but children relate to such topics better when they are about 6-7 years old.
  • Watch learning-based TV programmes on National Geographic Channel, History Channel, Discovery, Discovery Kids, and Animal Planet. There are other Netflix originals (Planet Earth, Walking with the Dinosaurs, Odd Squad) and Amazon Prime programmes (Pocoyo, Thomas & Friends, PBS Kids) that offer a vibrant learning experience.
  • DIY videos and video explainers on YouTube or other platforms can be a powerful educational tool. Children can follow the instructions appearing on the screen and carry out those activities or experiments at home.
  • Simple coding and online tools: If you are a parent who knows or loves coding, then Scratch is a great example of a simple but proper coding experience introduction that allows self-exploration. CodeMonkey can also help with formal online courses in coding. If the child exhibits artistic inclinations, Tux Paint and MS Paint are simple tools to help them start their exploration of the digital art world. Roblox, a massive multiplayer online and game creation system platform, allows players to create games with their own logic and rules. These help in problem understanding and creating solutions, which is indeed a life skill.
  • Strategy and problem-solving games: Online and mobile app games like Sudoku, Cut the rope, Angry Birds, Criminal Case, and Design Home are some examples that would fit this category and help in enhancing mental flexibility.
  • Some of the educational apps that are recommended for this age range are Slice Fractions (ages 6-8 years) to learn about fractions by slicing through lava and ice as they take an animated woolly mammoth through different levels of the game; and Book Creator (ages 8 years and up) that enables the child to choose images, place text and select backgrounds for assembling her own book.
  • Creative and business applications: PowerDirector, Gacha Life, Kine Master, and ibisPaintX develop the concepts of digital art. These are all mobile apps for creating the magic of Adobe and Flash in an easy and child-friendly manner. PowerPoint and Publisher are simple to use tools to create professional presentations and pamphlets that the child can use for project presentations at school.
  • Learning foreign languages and vocabulary: Duolingo is a great app to learn a foreign language that has audio and word prompts for the learner to practice and grasp the accent too. Word Cookies, Word Connect, and Word Swipe are a few games that help build vocabulary – they use the similar concept of creating as many words as possible using the letters given on the screen.
  • Gamification/eLearning: Schools can have the gamification style of teaching concepts with apps like ClassDojo and DBPrimary where the child’s progress can be seen by both the parents and the teachers on his/her personalised login. Byju’s supplements classroom teaching with personalised learning goals and path for each child.

Pre-teens and teens

  • YouTube is a great video learning source that supplements classroom learning or self-directed learning. Additionally, your child could access specialised learning sites like Khan Academy or Byju’s.
  • Your child could enroll in any of the thousands of online courses in his subject of interest that are offered by leading universities and taught by experts from around the world. Known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) these are interactive online video courses offered by learning platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, New Skills Academy, and Google. These courses include traditional course materials and offer forums that allow students to interact with the instructor, get immediate feedback for assignments and communicate with other students.
  • Educational apps such as Move the Turtle (ages 9-11 years) introduce basic computer programming terms such as procedures, variables and conditional instructions. Motion Math: Pizza! is also an app that helps introduce maths, problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Preparation for competitive exams can be supplemented with online games on websites like Kahoot, Dragonbox and Pojo that allow children to create, share and play fun learning games or trivia questions. For more serious exams like NEET, IIT-JEE and the like, there are multiple options available on Google. Pick and choose one that suits your child’s need.
Turn your child’s screen time into a learning experience

To conclude, only black-painting screen-time does a huge disservice to the learning opportunities carefully selected screen content can offer. By regulating and monitoring screen time and choosing quality over quantity, parents can help their children make the most of screens as a powerful educational and learning asset.

In a nutshell

  • Early and excessive screen exposure is harmful to children and hence needs to be regulated and monitored
  • Quality over quantity is an important consideration in regulating screen time
  • To derive learning from screens, parents should encourage their children to engage in active (versus passive) screen time, while remembering to co-view and/or co-play
  • There are several learning-based digital assets available in the market today, covering a broad spectrum (websites and mobile apps) that you can choose from

What parents could do right away

  • Set ground rules for using gadgets and insist on their being only supplementary to the traditional learning modality
  • Be more actively involved in how to creatively use this screen time to bond with your child and make it a learning and enjoyable experience 

About the author:
Written by Aarthi Prabhakaran on 1 August 2019.
Aarthi is a freelance writer and integrative counsellor, with a decade of volunteering experience across US, UK, and France. Her passion is to create social impact by instilling mindfulness in the younger generation. 

About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 August 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.

Looking for fun ways to keep your preschooler engaged at home during the pandemic? Check out Little Learners at Home, a home learning programme specifically designed for 3 to 5 year olds by our team of experts.

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