WASHINGTON - Ever since texting was invented, most parents have known to ask a teenager for help in figuring out how to operate a phone.
Experts on iPad and tablet computers develop even younger, says Patti Wollman Summers, co-author of Toddlers on Technology: A Parents' Guide.
Summers says young children with the ubiquitous mobile devices - she calls them digitods - are learning faster and better than any generation that has come before them.
"Most toddlers have them in their strollers; this goes through all socio-economic levels," says Summers. "They're either playing with an iPad or an iPhone or something like that."
Summers, who has been a preschool educator and administrator for 30 years, says she has noticed a dramatic change since Steve Jobs introduced iPad in 2010.
The change? "A very strong enthusiasm for learning," says Summers.
Long before children speak, Summers says toddlers enjoy playing and learning on tablets and phones.
"They're not being pressured by their parents - 'What's this letter? What's this number?' - the way parents do. They were learning from a machine that didn't care if they got the right answer the first time or the seventh time," says Summers.
Mobile devices never tire of giving positive reinforcement to toddlers, according to Summers.
"Whenever they did get the right answer, the machine gets hysterically happy," says Summers. "These children are learning at an earlier age, with a lot of fun and no pressure from parents."
How do toddlers do it?
While toddlers seem to have been born with the ability to manipulate devices, Summers says it's actually a combination of learned behavior and good design.
"By the time a child is one, he has all the necessary skills to work the iPad," says Summers.
"He can point, he can swipe, and because he has a pincer grip - like to pick up a Cheerio - he can pinch and zoom," says Summers. "As a result, it's easy to manipulate and that's why it's so easy for them to learn."
Summers says she doesn't approve of unlimited device use for toddlers: "No one should spend hours in front of a screen, even us."
Ideally, Summers suggests developing a daily routine to include mobile devices and integrating what children do online with real world play.
"If you're looking at an app like The Wheels on the Bus, then go out and look for buses, or build a bus out of a whole bunch of chairs," says Summers.
Summers says at this point it's unclear whether the quality of education is any different if a child learns from a machine or a human, since longitudinal studies haven't been done in relation to iPads.
While a child is able to learn letters and numbers on a device, a key communication tool doesn't translate to online learning, says Summers.
"You can't learn language from a screen," Summers says.
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