Although so-called "screen-based" entertainment — including computers, video games and cell phones — can keep young
kids occupied, technology is less effective than more traditional
toys in teaching spatial reasoning to preschoolers, the U.S.
"Skills, including early geometry and knowing the names of shapes,
help kids learn the math skills they pick up in kindergarten. And if
they already have those (before they begin school), they are ahead
of the curve," said lead author Brian Verdine, a postdoctoral fellow
at the University of Delaware in Newark.
Spatial reasoning, which is the ability to visualize and manipulate
objects as they would appear in space, is important in many math-
and science-oriented careers, including engineering, Verdine and his
coauthors write in Trends in Neuroscience and Education.
Playing with blocks, shapes and other toys does more than just get
kids used to looking at and manipulating these objects. When parents
join in, the dialogue they provide during playtime can also provide
an opportunity to learn spatial skills.
For example, comparing the size, color and position of objects
teaches children how to make comparisons.
"When a parent is directing the play and narrating, that kind of
conversation is such good learning for children. Parents should be
like sportscasters and keep a running commentary on what's going
on," said Marsha Gerdes, a psychologist at The Children's Hospital
of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who was not involved in the review.
Real-world play can also teach social skills, Verdine points out.
"One reason these old-fashioned toys provide a lot of benefits is
that they involve other play partners or adults in some way," he
"Parents provide a lot of additional language input, and they can
respond to children in ways that electronic toys really aren't able
to do at this point in time," Verdine said.
Although screen-based toys often hold great allure for families,
many experts believe they just don't help children learn as much as
real objects and interactions with other people.
"Parents see that children will watch these screens and look like
they understand, but they are not looking and perceiving in a way
that is helping them learn. Kids are not learning as much as when
they are actually looking at their parent's face and listening to
them sing a song when they are watching a pattern on a screen,"
Children who spend time in front of a screen — whether that's a
computer, a television or a tablet — also tend to have more
attention problems, lower reading scores and an inferior ability to
use spoken language compared with peers who don't spend time in
front of screens, Gerdes said.
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The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 released guidelines on
screen time, advising against any screen time for children under the
age of two years. Beyond age two, AAP recommends limiting screen
time to one-to-two hours a day.
Verdine and his coauthors reviewed prior research on the cognitive
effects of different types of play. While they found real-world toys
to be better at teaching spatial skills, a few electronic toys and
apps can offer "bonus learning experiences," they say.
"The best digital toys can adjust the difficulty level of the task
in response to the increasing skill level of a child, creating an
individualized experience for the child that can increase
engagement, reduce frustration, and optimize learning," they write.
Beyond blocks, parents looking for real-world skill-building
activities can try other options, Gerdes noted, including materials
for playing pretend, such as kitchen sets, action figures and dolls.
"The literature also has been very strong in terms of skills from
books and reading, both when kids read with adults and when they
flip the pages or read on their own," Gerdes told Reuters Health.
Verdine's group thinks building skills like spatial reasoning from
an early age may make children more likely as they grow up to
continue to pursue avenues that require a similar skill set.
"The kinds of skills these toys build are related to staying in
(science and engineering) subjects through college, and to being
successful in those careers later. So the earlier we can start on
these things, the better," Verdine said.
"If you're better at age 3, you're probably going to be better
at it later. It's a cumulative effect as you continue to build those
skills," he said.
Trends in Neuroscience and Education, online
March 14, 2014.
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