Finding the Balance Between Traditional and Digital Play
Adrianna Ruggiero is the lead researcher at Sago Mini and has a PhD in developmental psychology. Throughout her degree, Adrianna studied the intersectionality between ‘traditional’ play and ‘digital’ play, and examined how media and technology can enhance children’s play experiences if executed properly. Adrianna has 7+ years of extensive research experience both in academia and in the children’s media industry. She has consulted on a number of preschool television shows as an educational consultant and continues to push for the creation of quality kids content that is inclusive and authentic. She is also a strong believer in amplifying children’s voices by listening to their ideas and translating them back to content creators in order to create positive, safe, engaging, and playful content for children.
Charlotte Wright is a Senior Research Associate at Temple University’s Infant and Child Laboratory working under the mentorship of Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek. Her research explores how parents and teachers can use the characteristics of playful learning to support development of the “6 Cs” skills. Charlotte recently published a white paper, Playful Learning and Joyful Parenting, for the LEGO Foundation aimed at supporting parents and parent-facing programs to understand the science behind playful learning and ultimately, bring more joy to parenting. Charlotte also supports research at Sago Mini and acts as the Director of Operations for the Children Media Association’s Bay Area chapter. As a former early childhood educator, Charlotte remains a passionate advocate for policies, curricula, and media that reflect how young children learn best.
- Active – Allows for both hands-on and ‘minds-on’ learning.
- Engaging – Inspires children to get into the "flow" and stay focused.
- Meaningful – Connects experiences to prior knowledge and/or the child's interests.
- Socially Interactive – Offers opportunities to collaborate and learn with other people.
- Iterative – Encourages children to test and try out ideas and build on them along the way.
- Joyful – Brings both fun and a sense of achievement.
Source: Zosh et al., 2018
In a world where many children's play and learning experiences are moving onto computers, tablets, and phones, what’s a parent to do? With the increasing presence of screens, how can parents both preserve more ‘traditional’ playtime for their children, but also know what to look for when selecting digital products for their children that encourage similar benefits?
Research has identified six characteristics of play that have been shown to support children’s learning and development in several ways (see Zosh et al., 2018; Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2020). First, play should be active in that it allows children to move their bodies, manipulate materials, and keep their “minds on.” It should also be engaging, drawing them in without distractions and keeping them focused. Children also benefit when playful learning experiences are meaningful. When play experiences connect children’s interests to what they already know it can lead to deeper, more long-lasting learning. Research has also found that when play activities are socially interactive (versus solo) children can not only develop a deeper understanding of what they are learning, but they can also build their socio-emotional skills. Play experiences should also give children many opportunities to test and try out their ideas, to build on their ideas, and improve their approach along the way. In other words, activities should be iterative, rather than static. And lastly, at the heart of play is joy, all play experiences should be joyful for children.
We see these characteristics in action when children build a city out of blocks modeled after their own city, create elaborate scenarios with their dolls and figurines, hunt for “treasure” in the school yard, and collaborate on science experiments or art projects. Creating these types of opportunities for play is crucial to children's development and well-being. However, as app culture floods into the play and education space, it's important to ask: can these six characteristics be present in digital play experiences? We often think of children engaging in media and technology as a mindless, sedentary activity, and indeed, many apps do solely offer children mindless entertainment and distraction, rather than meaningful learning opportunities (see Hirsh-Pasek et al., 2015 & Meyer et al., 2020). However, quality apps built with research and children in mind do exist – it's just a matter of knowing what to look for!
With the vast number of apps in the app store, we recognize it can be quite overwhelming for parents to select apps that provide their children with rich learning opportunities. With that, we want you to feel empowered when selecting apps for your children and so we’ve put together a list of questions that can guide you to select apps that implement the six characteristics of playful learning.
- Active: Does the app inspire your child to be “minds-on”, meaning do they have to actively think about what they are doing and plan what to do next? Does it encourage intentional interactivity, or does the app mostly require mindless swiping and tapping?
- Engaging: Does the app hold your child’s attention towards a meaningful goal or is it filled with extra “bells and whistles” (e.g., advertisements, feedback unrelated to the goal) that just distract them? Does it allow them to explore and use their imagination while also providing them with some moments of guidance?
- Socially Interactive: Does the app have elements of social interaction such that the child can play alongside friends or family or collaborate with characters?
- Meaningful: Does the app or digital experience relate to what your child is interested in? Does it give your child opportunities to connect what they already know to what they engage in on the app? Does it allow them to discover new interests? Does the app progress with your child and allow them space to grow?
- Iterative: Does it allow your child to test and try out different ideas and build on their ideas to help them get closer to solving a problem?
- Joyful: Does the app have elements of fun and surprise? Does it make your child laugh?
What do these characteristics look like in action? Take the Sago Mini School app, for example. It is designed to be active; all on-screen interactivity requires purposeful movement and intentional thinking as it relates to meaningful goals in each of the activities. It is also designed to be engaging and meaningful; all the activities in the app draw children in by being centered around topics that both inspire a child's natural curiosity and relate to their everyday lives (e.g., grocery store, bugs, trains, playgrounds). Designers and researchers at Sago Mini collaborate with children and families to ensure Sago’s activities reflect children’s interests and incorporate children’s ideas into the designs of the activities. The app is also designed to be iterative; there are no rewards or consequences for right or wrong answers, no drilling of facts, and children are free to test and try out different ideas and learn from trial and error. Sago Mini also intentionally created a cast of characters for children to relate to and interact with while they play. Lastly, the Sago Mini team makes sure that there are many opportunities for joy while children learn by adding in fun surprises and moments of humor.
With the inevitable increase of technology use in education, we must make sure ‘traditional’ play, that allows children to move their bodies, be free and create together in the physical world, remains the cornerstone of childhood. However, we must also learn how to navigate a world where screens will take up more and more of our lives. Keeping these characteristics in mind can help parents navigate the endless stream of new “educational” apps and know what to look for.
BONUS TIP: Check out Zero-to-Three’s E-AIMS model for a diagram that can guide you through some of these questions!
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hadani, H., Blinkoff, E., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2020). A new path to education reform: Playful learning promotes 21st century skills in school and beyond. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/bigideas/a-new-path-to-education-reform-plaful-learning-promotes-21st-century-skills-in-schools-and-beyond/
Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting Education in “Educational” Apps: Lessons From the Science of Learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3–34. https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100615569721
Meyer, M., Zosh, J. M., McLaren, C., Robb, M., McCaffery, H., Golinkoff, R. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Radesky, J. (2021). How educational are “educational” apps for young children? App store content analysis using the Four Pillars of Learning framework. Journal of Children and Media, 15(4), 526–548. https://doi.org/10.1080/17482798.2021.1882516
Zosh, J. M., Hirsh-Pasek, K., Hopkins, E. J., Jensen, H., Liu, C., Neale, D., Solis, S. L., & Whitebread, D. (2018). Accessing the inaccessible: Redefining play as a spectrum. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1124. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01124