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I wouldn’t buy the iPad for me, but I’d certainly consider buying something like it for my son. Infants acquire the ability to point around ten months of age. With touch-screen interfaces, shortly thereafter most can interact with literacy programs designed for much older children.

About this time last year, when Emile was fourteen months old, we evaluated for his use the best options then available, the touch-screen netbook and the large HP TouchSmart 600, choosing the latter for screen size and interface quality. If the iPad had been available, we’d have given it a close look.

When I last wrote about electronic reading devices, I concluded that e-reading was here to stay–but so far none of the currently available e-reading options had pushed beyond travel & leisure use. Neither Kindle-type dedicated devices nor netbook apps had demonstrated their readiness for the prime time of workday academic, business and professional reading.

The arrival of the overhyped iPad doesn’t change that. Heavier than a Kindle, more awkward to type on than a netbook, the iPad is more of a toy than a tool. It’s basically a Kindle plus–a really good device for media consumption on the go–rather than a device for professional reading and writing. Which explains what David Pogue calls the device’s uniquely polarizing effect: working techie insiders like Cory Doctorow despise it, and folks who passively consume a lot of media love it.

Since e-reading is here to stay, the likeliest future for reading on the go will be something like an iPad/netbook hybrid, with a detachable clamshell keyboard/dock, so that you can take either just the tablet or the tablet and a keyboard. Devices of this type are already on the market, and my guess is that the iPad and Kindle will converge on this design configuration. The iPad has an optional keyboard dock, but it’s for your desktop. Doubtless a later iteration or a competitor will have a detachable netbook-style keyboard.

If you are interested in how you can help your toddler or pre-schooler to learn using a touch screen, I’d suggest you take them into an Apple store and a computer store stocking the HP device and go to starfall.com for starters. Also try: jacksonpollock.org, lecielestbleu, poissonrouge, Peep ‘n Quack, and Literactive, among many others. You might be surprised by your child’s abilities in playing memory games and puzzles. The best online jigsaw puzzles for very young users are the 12-piece images at Jigzone: there’s a decent snap-to effect and the pieces remain in the correct orientation to each other (no rotation necessary). For many games you may want to set the monitor resolution lower.

I’ll write about Emile’s early learning experiences another time, and possibly in another forum: there’s just too much to say in this space. In brief, though:

Yes, it’s been a big success by several different measures.

No, we don’t endorse phonics.

No, we don’t think the computer replaces any other traditional learning or interaction.

No, we don’t leave him in front of the computer and yes, we have only gradually increased his time from 15 to 30 minutes a day.

Yes, we agree that soccer, gym, art, music, and play dates and reading aloud are more important for two- year olds.

Yes, there is a great deal of dangerous mind-numbing “educational software” out there, and it vastly outnumbers the useful stuff.

No, you cannot make your toddler smarter by having them watch any kind of video whatsoever.

Yes, you can do any and all of these learning activities without a computer, and yes, most of our reading time is with the several hundred real books he owns, including picture books. Last night, for example, we talked for an hour over his latest, Audobon’s Complete Birds and Mammals.

No, you can’t trust PBS to teach your kids online either.

Yes, it’s one of the few good things about Obama’s education policy that he supports pre-school and zero to three learning.

No, reading and literacy are not the same thing. Reading is a symptom of literacy, not the other way around.

The point is to accommodate your child’s burgeoning literacy–the already existing thirst to communicate, know, learn, and interact.

I once read of a parent bragging that they’d taught a very young child to read by reading the same book over and over again. How sad: I cannot imagine a better illustration of mistaking the sign of a thing for the thing itself. In the context of very young learners, eventually reading is the sign of a rich literacy.

Any activity that seeks to develop early reading per se–at the expense of that rich literacy–is a huge disservice to the child.

All in all, we’re ecumenical rather than evangelical on the question of early learning: it’s all too easy to do the wrong thing in this area, I suppose. But I also think that many people mistakenly deprive their children’s hungry brains of the chance to learn–and then, not knowing what else to do–plunk them in front of an “educational video.”



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