Toddlers and tech, abstraction, and literacy

We don’t have a television at home, but our iMac is old enough that it has a built-in optical drive. It didn’t take my toddler long to grasp that when you put the DVD in the side, you can watch a video. Nor did it take him long to sort out that the space bar pauses and plays.

We don’t let him watch much, but I am glad that we have something in the house that works so easily like that.

It’s easy for him to conceptualize that the different DVDs have different shows, and to pick the one he wants by the picture on the case and disc. Before he was so good at talking, he could indicate what he wanted by picking up the appropriate case off the shelf. And then we could still say no before he got anywhere near the computer.

If everything was just on the computer, he’d have to understand another level of abstraction about finding things within the computer. As it is, he’s able to use the computer for one specific task without understanding the concept of software. Or literacy.

We’ve been seeing videos for years and years of toddlers using iPads, and it’s fascinating to see how our own toddler’s ability to do things on it changes as his brain develops.

When we first let him try using the iPad, all he could do was tap the next button in Christoph Niemann’s Perting Zoo game, and watch the animations. As his dexterity has improved, so has his theory of mind, and that seems directly applicable to conceptualizing abstractions in software.

Theory of mind is what you imagine is going on in someone else’s head. The first indication that a toddler has started to grasp that you have a mind of your own is when they start lying to you. S/he’s testing whether you respond in the way they think you will, and if their guess about what goes on in your head matches up to the response.

On the computer, that extra abstraction of moving the mouse or trackpad to move the cursor is still a barrier for my son. The direct interaction with the iPad means he can try things at his current level of dexterity. He knows how to look through the video playlist of our family on my phone, find the one where he’s using the vacuum, and play it. He knows how to get to the games he can play while we trim his nails, and how to do all sorts of things within them. He can spell words to see the animations in Endless Aplhabet, and (at two years old) recognizes letters and their sounds as a result.

He can do a lot on the iPad already. On the computer he knows how to insert discs and press the space bar. I’m sure if we had CD or record players, he’d now how to play albums already. Or if we had a VCR, he’d know how to work that by now. Not that it’s wonderful to have your toddler using all kinds of tech, but it does show something about how having something that relates directly to the physical world makes it easy to grasp the abstract concept of how your thing works.

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