The Birth of the Digital Toddler

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The current generation of toddlers is embracing digital technology at an astounding pace. According to a recent survey from BlogHer/Parenting, nearly 25% of toddlers will have used a smartphone by age 2. Not only that, nearly one-third of toddlers will have used a laptop or digital camera by the time they enter pre-school.

Thanks to their Generation Y moms, these toddlers will be the first generation that grew up completely digital. Now that the early development of our children will be increasingly measured by digital milestones (my baby’s first text message!), what does that mean for the future of K-12 education?

When toddlers are using iPads instead of children’s books to learn how to read, when pre-schoolers are using smart phones as the default way to stay in touch with their busy parents, the U.S. educational system needs to grow and evolve so that it reflects our children’s new developmental patterns. As Virginia Heffernan pointed out in a blog for the New York Times, education needs a digital-age upgrade. In the digital age, the ability to contribute to discourse on a blog or participate on a social network is just as vital as being able to read a famous work by a well-known author. These digital skills, however amorphously defined they may appear to be at a young age, are the key for our kids to anticipate the uncharted demands of the future.

What’s fascinating is how rapidly next-generation educational toys are evolving to meet these needs. Forget about Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart, it’s time to start thinking in terms of Baby Steve Jobs. Consider some of the amazing applications for pre-schoolers already available on the iPad: apps that teach kids how to draw, how to play music, how to create audio snapshots of different locations and how to create visual diaries. These are all kid-tested, parent-approved apps: the “deep-seated shame and regret” that you feel by handing over your smart phone is soon replaced by the joy and elation of seeing your toddlers demonstrate their creative talents in previously unimagined ways.

Changing the U.S. educational system for children starts with changing our perceptions of digital devices for young kids. Read any article about apps for babies or tech toys for kids, and there’s an underlying theme that perhaps parents are doing something not quite right by exposing their toddlers to digital technology at such an early age. We all know that babies shouldn’t be watching TV until they’re a few years old, doesn’t that same logic apply to small screens on our iPhones and iPads?

At a time when kids in some cities have pre-school tutors by the time they’re a few years old, is it the case that they should have “digital tutors” as well? In New York City – a city where the importance of getting into the “right” pre-school or kindergarten is matched only by the importance of getting into the “right” college – it’s easy to track what types of digital skills children expected to learn by age 4 or 5, due to stringent entrance examinations for private schools. Right now, these entrance exams do not reflect the true digital reality. Despite the fact that children are already using Khan Academy videos in pre-school and kindergarten to learn mathematical concepts, technology skills are still a “nice-to-have” rather than a “must-have” for the current generation of digital toddlers.

To get a sense of where the future holds, consider the wonderful Morris Lessmore iPad app that was released this summer by an ex-Pixar designer. The $4.99 app is a wonderfully-animated children’s book for the iPad: not only is it gorgeously illustrated, but it also takes full advantage of the iPad as a potential digital educational platform. The app – already one of the most successful iPad apps ever – is a sign of what’s to come. Children’s education will never be the same, once our digital toddlers learn how to coordinate their swipes and wrist-flicks to unlock the unlimited potential of the future.

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