That's edutainment

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2012, 12:00am


One in six Hongkongers has an iPad and half want one, but how many are being used as electronic babysitters? Stuffed with games, photos, music and video, there's a worry that tablet computers and smartphones are handed over too easily to youngsters.

A survey by Nielsen last month reveals how prevalent iPad use is among children in North America. In households where at least one iPad was owned, 70 per cent of children used it, and what it's being used for is hardly surprising. The vast majority of children download games - 77 per cent - and while 43 per cent also watch TV and films, an impressive 57 per cent use educational apps, too. At least, that's what their parents say, over half of whom admit to using an iPad to pacify their children while travelling, or while eating in a restaurant.

Those of us who've been regularly handing over a touchscreen smartphone for sticky fingers to play games on will see this as nothing more than an extension of that. It may be that parents are using gadgets to pacify children - and often to literally 'swipe' away their tears - but could they actually be handing them a head start in their schooling?

'You can certainly tell the difference between children who come to school with a background of using technology at home,' says Marian Prior, principal consultant at Cambridge Education, which works with schools and regional governments to improve education in China.

'Gadgets such as a child's laptop or an iPad are fabulous for dexterity. They also help kids learn how to do things in the right order, and about decision making and taking turns. If they don't learn these skills when they're tiny, they might find it harder as they get older.'

Even if we accept that parents aren't simply pacifying their child when they hand over an iPad or smartphone, are we hurting our children with kindness? 'The only real problem with children at home using these gadgets is the solitary nature of the activity,' says Prior.

'Language skills tend to be impaired when children are just plonked in front of a gadget. Parents need to be part of the use of any technology, talking about what they're doing, why, making it part of a conversation, otherwise learning is likely to suffer generally.'

'Technology in isolation is not the solution,' says Madeleine White at Maths-Whizz (, an online maths tutoring framework aligned to national curricula across the world that encourages parent-child interaction. 'Technology, gadgets and electronics are becoming synonymous with necessity and accessibility. But we must be sure to combine this with attempts to engage the student in their individual learning process.'

Meanwhile, the momentum behind tablets as educational devices appears unstoppable. There are even 'virtual backpack' initiatives in China, South Korea and the US, which actively encourage children to use tablet computers rather than carry heavy books.

'Parents have concerns about the quality of material their children will have access to and the amount of time they will spend using devices,' says Caroline Gomm, digital licensing manager at Collins Language. Collins works on tablet/smartphone apps to help children learn English, such as Collins My First Dictionary.

This introduces animation and simple sentences designed to reflect a child's experience of the world. A Chinese-English version is due out this year. 'It is our responsibility as a publisher to continue to produce engaging edutainment experiences for children and their parents, and to work with technology companies who prioritise creating safe environments,' says Gomm.

Ownership of tablet computers is far higher in Hong Kong than on the mainland where a very formal education system has traditionally been about instruction and academic rigour to the exclusion of anything resembling play.

That's all changing thanks to the concept of suzhi - comprehensive development - that's sweeping the Chinese education system. A study of tech, toys and education in China by ReD Associates indicates that the whole education system is fast embracing suzhi.

The concept preaches that to be successful, children's mental creativity, hands-on skills and ability to think independently are just as important as exam results.

For hands-on skills, think tablets and tech, which stimulate brain activity. ReD's study reveals that Chinese parents and grandparents increasingly accept activities - such as playing video games or building with construction toys - that allow children to have fun while also serving a purpose.

'I allow my son to play an hour of games on the computer every day because he can focus and he can increase his hand-eye co-ordination,' says one mother.

The birth of this new 'play culture' - and the enthusiasm of increasingly middle-class parents to invest in products and toys to help their children's development - suggests a bright future for gadgets such as touchscreen tablets, but most are still far too expensive for Chinese families.

That's about to change. The latest iPad costs HK$3,088, but a new tablet computer called the Child Pad is about to sell for just HK$770. Developed by Archos, this seven-inch touchscreen tablet uses a Mobile Parental Filter for safe browsing on the web and ring-fences apps (though it does come with Angry Birds pre-loaded). Singapore-based Karuma's identically sized PlayBase+ has an anti-scratch and anti-bacterial silicon screen protector.

As education becomes more rounded and interactive, it's a fair prediction that iPads and their ilk will soon outnumber computers in schools. That goes double for homes, where mum and dad will have to make sure that games, TV and films don't sideline e-books and educational apps.

Tech for tots

Tommee Tippee Suresound

Working on batteries, this monitor pad (HK$999) slips under your baby's mattress and detects every breath and movement. If nothing is detected for 20 seconds it sounds an alarm and flashes a light on a handset. Also shows a digital display of your baby's temperature. Little Whale, Discovery Bay, Lantau, tel: 3007 9075.

Ewan The Dream Sheep

Designed for babies who have trouble getting to sleep, this soft toy emits a soothing pink glow and low-frequency sounds including rain, a harp, a vacuum cleaner and even a sequence designed to mimic a womb. After 20 minutes, Ewan (HK$370) himself nods off. Mother Court, 33 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay, tel: 2890 6288

Archos Child Pad

Strong parental controls and safe web browsing are assured on this 7-inch touchscreen tablet that's been specially created for young children. Using coloured icons, home screen folders full of games, learning and puzzles, the Child Pad (HK$1,230) is the perfect introduction to technology.

Itzbeen Pocket Nanny

With sleep deprivation and new routines to learn, a new baby can be a real challenge. This care timer (HK$200) has four timers and a soft nightlight for changing your baby at night. It also records feeding and sleep times.

Crayola ColorStudio & iMarker HD for the iPad

Children's favourite activity meets touchscreen tech on the Crayola ColorStudio HD (HK$260). The downloadable app has 'live' animated colouring pages, sound effects and custom-made pictures that children interact with by swiping or using a battery-powered iMarker. Expansys, tel: 2416 6700.

Mommy I'm Here Child Locator

With a keyring for the parent and a cuddly bear for the child (HK$230), one tracks the other using a radio frequency that reaches to about 50 metres. Simply press a button and a loud alarm will sound on the bear.