A father's lament: The real world is not a game

Learning should be fun, but that doesn't mean we should be trying to hook kids into playing computer games that just happen to teach.

There was something about the Mama Bear family tech conference a week ago that creeped me out. I am the father of a 5-year-old boy, and perhaps a third of the people at this conference were trying to build apps for him. All the apps were well-intentioned. All were, at some level, educational.

Still, all the apps felt wrong to me. I wanted my son to have nothing to do with any of them.

I've been trying to understand why these educational apps were getting under my skin to this extent. It's not like I'm anti-technology when it comes to my child. He plays Angry Birds. We watch TV (together). He's a child of technology; how could he live in my house and not be?

A psychiatrist friend, listening to me rant about how these apps are trying to wilt my son's brain, sympathized, but not completely. Yes, he said, computer games can be addictive. In fact, in his opinion, teaching kids to expect the world to work like a computer game deprives them of learning real-world life skills.

But, he said, a truly good educational app can be effective like a book, or a teacher. You can't stick everything that pops up on a kid's iPad into the "evil" category.

So where are the really good apps?

The Vinci Tab II is an Android tablet preloaded with educational software for kids up to 5 years old. Rafe Needleman/CNET

A few days ago, I handed my son a Vinci tablet to try out. This is another well-intentioned product for young children. It comes with pre-installed educational games carefully geared to kids up to about my son's age (actually he's a little old for it, but I occasionally make him earn his keep as a product reviewer).

I had the same feeling of foreboding about this product as I did about many children's apps I see. The Vinci reinforced this, unfortunately. While the game did in fact have educational payloads, the mechanics were, for the most part, dumb. How does pressing a button at exactly the right time to jump over a beach ball on-screen teach anything but how to operate a game, no matter what the game says it's supposed to be about?

The boy liked the tablet and its apps. But it's how he liked them that bothered me. The software sucked him in, and whatever lessons it tried to teach him were obstacles that seemed about as interesting as the flatly drawn beach balls. The real red flag came when I told my boy it was time to put the tablet down. He was so dialed in to the game mechanics that he panicked. He wasn't in learning mode, he was in addiction mode.

Did he retain the factoids and basic math and spelling skills he learned while playing? I think so. But I don't want him learning this way.

There is hope, though.

On the DIY app, kids snap pictures of their projects. On the Web site, shown, family and friends can award badges. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

Yesterday, I read about the launch of DIY, a site and app for kids that's supposed to be a social destination for them to share their creative projects. They upload photos of stuff they've designed, built, written, or drawn, and then their friends and family members can award them badges.

Something about this site appealed to me as a father. Why was it better than all the learning games, with their impressive educational pedigrees? I couldn't put my finger on it. So I called up DIY's CEO, Zach Klein (formerly of Vimeo). Klein isn't a father himself, but he understands the child's mind. In a few words he crystalized for me what I find distasteful about most kids' programming.

"They are gravity-fed," he says. "There's a path of least resistance to get to the next screen." The player's job is to find that path, he says. Games like this "infantilize children."

The real world doesn't work like this. There are no shortcuts in life. You don't get a big reward for each tiny action. Real rewards take real work.

DIY, he says, "gives children more responsibility than they are used to, not less." And the rewards aren't programmed. They come from peers and family. "We want kids to feel satisfaction, but we're suggesting it will take time and craft and love to earn it."

DIY is in a very early stage, and is too basic at the moment. In the interest of protecting kids, there's no personal information anywhere on the system; kids' identities are masked behind handles, and if a family member awards a kid a sticker, the kid can't see who it came from. But the thinking of DIY is right, at least to me: Encourage kids to engage with the real world. Use social-networking mechanics to reinforce it.

I loaded the DIY app on to my old iPhone 3G. I plan to let my boy use the app on this device without supervision. It's the first app I've seen that passes that test for me. I'm not sure he'll use it, but I bet he will. And I like it, because it's an accessory to his physical world, not a replacement for it.

 

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