(Kate says: “I hugely admire the writing and illustration of Alex T Smith, a couple of whose books I had the pleasure of publishing when I was at Scholastic. We’ve remained Twitter friends, and, when he tweeted about how his younger nephew’s attention span had, he felt, increased through exposure to Nosy Crow’s iPad apps, I asked him to expand on the thought, and this guest blog post was the result. There isn’t solid evidence about the impact of iPad apps on children’s development, concentration and/or literacy. Lisa Guernsey has spoken about them in the epilogue to her book, Screen Time (which you can download from her website, and I hope that Joanna McPake and Lydia Plowman of the Universities of Strathclyde and Stirling will extend their research (which I mentioned in this blog post though the links to the Seven Myths doesn’t work any longer, I see) into this area. In the meantime, all we have is personal stories. This is a lovely, individual one. Thank you, Alex.”)
I love being an uncle. I’ve even invented a word for the times I am left in charge of my two nephews: “uncling”. I think it’s a useful word to describe all the things I do with them – playing games, building dens, drawing (everything and anything) on demand, wiping noses… and, of course, battling boredom.
When my niece was little (she’s now a very glamorous 14 year-old) she was really easy to amuse. Should boredom strike, you could just plonk a book into her hands, or arm her with a pile of card, some glue and a pot of glitter, and she would be entertained for hours.
Big Nephew (now seven) was pretty much the same. From a very young age he could be entertained with a pile of books. He spent ages looking at the pictures and finding all the details hidden in them. What’s more, he could, and still can, (Proud Uncle alert) spend ages writing and illustrating his own beautiful, stapled picture books or making up brilliantly complicated and imaginative games (often involving aliens and/or dragons depending on whether he is a space man or a knight at the time).
Then Little Nephew arrived.
Little Nephew is now three and, like his siblings, he is (if you’ll allow me another Proud Uncle moment) very bright, fantastically imaginative and hilariously funny. He is also, and I say this in the nicest way, completely and utterly bonkers. After spending time with him I find myself exhausted, not only from laughing so much, but also from trying to keep up with the way his brain works. There is apparently a gorilla who lives in the attic at my parents’ house who tap-dances crossly on the floorboards if Little Nephew has to brave the stairs alone. When his parents check in on him after his bedtime, he can often be found sprawled across his bed in a completely different set of clothes from the pyjamas he was put into a few hours earlier: he was once found wearing swimming goggles, with a well-packed rucksack, a coat stuffed up his pyjama top, and a toy sword down his pyjama trousers – prepared, it would seem, for all the possible night-time eventualities and adventures that he could imagine.
While all of this is as lovely as it is funny, he isn’t exactly easy to entertain. He simply did not seem to have any sort of concentration span. You’d show him a book… and he’d race through the pages and zip off to do something else. You’d give him some paper… and he’d draw a squiggle then hop down from the table and get started on something new elsewhere. Getting him to do anything for more than a few seconds was really difficult and tiring, and he sometimes seemed frustrated too.
Then we had a breakthrough: the iPad!
When my parents bought their iPad, I got them to download some of the Nosy Crow apps as I thought they would be interested in them as they had both been teachers and are both bookworms. They were very impressed not only with the stories and the artwork, but also with the ways the iPad enhanced the texts and allowed the child reader (or in this case my parents!) to explore the story at their own pace.
It wasn’t long before the iPad was spotted by two pairs of beady eyes: the Nephews leapt onto it like hungry beasties. Big Nephew typically found his way around in no time, but what really surprised us all was how interested Little Nephew became. He sat flicking through the ‘pages’ and using his little fingers to make the three little pigs hop about and talk. He loved the ballroom dancing sequence in Cinderella and Bizzy Bear on the Farm is, I think, one of his very favourite things.
He now sits for sustained periods of time reading and playing with the Nosy Crow apps and really enjoys himself. I could say that through the iPad and its various apps his concentration span has increased, but actually what seems to have happened is that his ability to concentrate has appeared. And his fine motor skills have really improved too!
From reading the book apps, he has gone on to spend time creating mini-masterpieces in a painting app and learned to play games on the iPad too.
But the most curious thing is that since learning to enjoy the Nosy Crow apps, he has become really interested in print books. He regularly snuggles up beside one of us with a pile of books and wants each book read to him s-l-o-w-l-y giving him plenty of time to enjoy looking at the illustrations. He has also developed a real interest in creating non-digital artwork. Whereas before the best you could hope for was a blob quickly scrawled on a piece of paper, he now likes drawing funny little blob people who have their arms and legs on sideways and can sit happily glueing and sticking for ages.
I started thinking about this today whilst listening to a discussion on Radio 4’s You and Yours programme about whether all the technology today is damaging children. I tuned in mainly because I love listening to the crazy people who phone radio stations. One woman today wanted to ban and/or uninvent both TV and the Internet because she felt they were a bad influence and unhelpful! But after laughing at that, I got properly interested in the discussion. There was a lot of talk about how playing games on their computers can actually equip children with lots of skills they will need in the future careers. There were also testimonials from proud parents saying that their square-eyed, computer-game-playing child had grown up and been able to put their skills to use, not only in the games industry, but in a wide range of jobs, many of which you wouldn’t immediately associate with playing on an xBox.
I know that there’s a lot of anxiety as to whether, with the arrival of eBooks and apps, we will see the traditional children’s book becoming a thing of the past. There’s a worry that children born today will grow up not knowing how to read properly or know what a ‘real book’ is. Personally I don’t think that will happen. In the case of Little Nephew, modern technology (and Nosy Crow’s beautiful apps) have really grabbed his interest and actually led him from the screen to the page. I think with careful parenting (and uncling!) there is room for both apps and paper books in the world and they can be used to help children who struggle initially to connect with literature to learn to love books both ‘real’ and electronic.
Now, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got a tap-dancing gorilla in the attic to deal with…