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Should I let my child use "Learning Chinese Apps"? The nagging doubt about screen time

by: Dr Chung Tzemin, Education Scientist,
CommonTown Pte Ltd
14 February 2019
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Worried that your children spend too much time staring at their iPads? Should you even have given them their own devices at all? It seems impractical to take them away altogether, and yet, that nagging doubt about whether you’re giving them way too much screen time persists.

There’s no denying the potential that digital devices have when it comes to helping your child learn. But is there, and should there be a limit to letting our children use “learn Chinese apps” or other such digital media?

As educators, we won’t be discussing the restriction of a child’s device usage for health reasons. Instead, we invite you to join us as we take a look at the psychological and educational issues involved in determining screen time for our children.

Passive vs Active Screen Time 

One way in which we, as parents, can approach this issue is to consider whether our children's screen time is "passive" or "active". 

Passive screen time is when your child passively absorbs information from digital media—mostly, all he has to do is watch, and the information flows from the screen and into his brain.

Other examples of passive digital activities including scrolling through a social media feed, watching YouTude videos (especially with autoplay on) or binge-watching TV shows. And even if playing repetitive video games involves some level of interaction, this counts as a passive activity, too. 

This is because what makes passive screen time, "passive" is that your child doesn't really need to think, be creative or interact on a meaningful level.

On the other hand, Active screen time involves both cognitive and physical engagement while using a device. This means actively processing any information that comes in, and interacting with the device in the process. 

Examples of active digital activities include making YouTube videos, editing photos or using online Chinese apps for children. These activities require your child to reply, draw a picture, to create something or to move with a specific goal in mind. More importantly, such activities develop language and social skills. 

So any app, software, online platform or even video game that involves some effort from your child does come with educational or learning benefits. If using an app gives your child a chance to practise letters, numbers and spelling, that counts as active screen time that contributes to your child’s development. 

Even a video game that’s usually played in a passive way could be considered active, depending on how it’s played. In the same way, an app that’s primarily educational could be considered passive if a child just watches and doesn’t interact with it. 

Thanks to developments in technology, many forms of screen time are now both active and passive. Because of this, the debate over how much screen time we should allow our children continues to heat up.

When does learning take place?

1. Learning takes place when a child is stimulated to process ideas, to note similarities and differences between the life experience he already has and any new information that comes in The process comes full circle when the child is able to incorporate this new information into his overall understanding. 

Take, for example, an app designed to teach “Chinese made easy for children”. This app provides a new experience in the form of Chinese vocabulary words such as 老师 (Lǎoshī) (teacher) or 同学 (Tóngxué) (classmate) which children can relate to in their everyday lives. That’s one way of knowing that this app provides guided exploration towards a learning goal. 

As another example, one of the storybooks on Dudu , teaches your child about animal names, some of which he or she may already know. In addition, your child will also learn about the importance and joy of being punctual, which is an important trait for children to cultivate. 

In other books, you will also be able to teach your child how to deal with social situations such as cheering up an ill friend or guiding someone who is behaving mischievously. Your child may have experienced these situations but did not know how to deal with them, so they have life experiences for us to build upon. 

Other social situations our books can teach your child about are the importance of persistence and expressing love. Children may be able to relate to experiences of having seen people giving up, for instance, or other children who loved their parents but did not know how to express it. 

2. Learning takes place when the content is meaningful . While children readily learn anything—such as the names of animals or the differences between mammals and reptiles—this learning has to occur within a context that logically connects to their everyday lives. 

When your child sees a triangle on a screen, for instance, he has to be able to not only recognise and name that shape, but to relate that shape to a slice of pizza. The deeper your child is able to process—such as making further connections between the triangle and a pyramid, a party hat or an ice cream cone—the more your child is able to learn. 

Dudu books, in particular, allow your child to learn about shapes and what these shapes can be creatively turned into objects that can help us in time of need. 

This should guide you in choosing apps for your child. An app should be able to help your child learn outside of it and even beyond the screen. 

3. Learning takes place when a child is engaged and not distracted . While technological developments have done much to improve the learning experience, they also, ironically, do much to distract both children and app developers. 

Thinking that “more is better”, many developers working on educational apps bombard children with “special effects” which children might enjoy or find entertaining, but ultimately distract them from their learning goals.

Young children may be particularly susceptible to distraction. This means that when choosing apps and other learning platforms, be aware of multimedia “extras” such as music, sound effects or animation that might actually do more harm than good.  

Carefully crafted to avoid distractions, the storybooks you find on Dudu make it easier for children to focus on reading and the narration.

How can we make the most out of screen-time learning?

Learning is maximised when children experience social interaction, and apps such as those for learning Chinese for children in Singapore should support, rather than replace this experience. Because of this, more app developers are creating off-screen or hybrid experiences where children either play on an app with each other or with their parents.

Designed with social interaction in mind, Dudu storybooks encourage parents to guide their children as they read, as well as to discuss what they’ve read together and build their children’s vocabulary. For some beginner’s books, the questions are already provided on the screen to minimise the load on the parents. (Check out our previous blog posts, here.) 

The best way to make the most out of active screen time is to guide your child as he explores and discovers new information. This way, you give your child an active role in his own learning process, while you, as the more advanced or informed guide, support his learning. 

When reading Dudu storybooks, children have a chance to see how well they understood what they’ve read by trying to answer the questions at the end of each story.  

These questions are based on Bloom’s Taxonomy, which assesses children’s comprehension skills by asking increasingly demanding questions that require them to remember, understand, apply, analyse, evaluate, and create 

All in all, how much screen time we allow our children depends on the kind of screen time they have, and what our objectives are in allowing them to have it. If our objectives are to enhance our children’s learning through the use of apps and devices, then giving them a reasonable amount of active screen-time that doesn’t interfere with homework and other activities should be acceptable. 

Put your screen time doubts to rest with Dudu and help your child learn to read Chinese with ease. Sign up for Dudu , today.