Looking for a high-tech gift for a young child? Think playgrounds, not playpens

Of course, computer games, like playpens, deprive children of physical activity. But the metaphor goes further than that. Some computer games are marketed as educational because they promote academic skills and teach about shapes, colors, letters, sounds and numbers. Most software provides tasks with right and wrong answers and thus doesn’t encourage problem solving and logical thinking or exploration and creativity. Most robots provide prepackaged challenges for children to complete, and in the process, learn to code. These are all examples of high-tech playpens – they’re limited and do not tap into many important dimensions of healthy positive development in children.

Six C’s to look for

Over two decades of research, I’ve developed a theoretical framework called Positive Technological Development to guide parents, educators and researchers in distinguishing high-tech playgrounds from playpens.

This framework focuses on six positive behaviors that can be promoted through the use of technological playgrounds. These behaviors involve:

  • content creation
  • creativity
  • choices of conduct
  • communication
  • collaboration
  • community building

These six C’s can be fostered in real-world playgrounds and can also be supported by robotic platforms, virtual worlds, programming languages, apps, games and storytelling systems for children.

But it’s not enough to read the label on the box. It’s important to understand the kind of experiences children will have when interacting with the technology.

Search out technologies that engage children as producers, not consumers. That means robotic kits, apps or computer games that let them be makers, artists, coders and designers. Try to avoid prepackaged solutions that target a specific skill set and promise to help children improve their academics. Remember that technological playgrounds need to also be fun!

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