In the JournalsPerspective

Apps show teaching potential for math, early academic skills

Shayl F. Griffith

Interactive apps show potential learning benefits for early academic skills like mathematics in children aged younger than 6 years, according to results from a systematic review published in Pediatrics.

“The results suggest that it will be important for researchers and clinicians to balance the potential positives of interactive screen media for learning with the imperative to prevent overuse,” Shayl F. Griffith, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the department of psychology at Florida International University, told Healio. “Continued research in this area will be critical to inform the debate around young children’s screen time, as clinicians and researchers try to strike a balance between taking advantage of the potential benefits of new technology while encouraging limits on screen time.”

Griffith and colleagues analyzed data from 35 studies regarding the teaching potential of interactive apps in children aged younger than 6 years. A total of 4,639 participants were included in the studies. To be included, studies had to have a nonrandomized controlled or randomized study design, an average sample age of younger than 6 years, an intervention involving children using an interactive application and a measurement of a cognitive, academic or social-emotional skill outcome.

Of the nine studies that compared math application intervention with in-person classroom instruction, seven showed significantly higher math learning gains on number writing tasks (n = 1) and early math measures (n = 8) for the groups using interactive apps. Additionally, of the four studies that compared math app intervention with control groups that used apps that did not target math or groups that did not receive an intervention, three reported better outcomes on early math measures for application intervention groups than the control group. Effects sizes ranged from 0.04 to 0.94.

“[T]his thoughtful review of educational apps reminds us that we do not yet have a gold standard like Sesame Street in the world of educational apps,” Michael Rich, MD, MPH, FAAP, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Moreover, as consumers, we have not yet demanded that these apps be based in or evaluated by rigorous research in which they are tested in the home environment, self-directed and unsupervised by educators, as they are most commonly used.”

Although learning benefits from interactive app use for academic skills was observed across all studies, no evidence was found of an intervention effect for apps aimed toward improving social communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder. This may be because social communication skills are more difficult to generalize from app gameplay to the real world than math or other preliteracy skills, according to Griffith.

Screen time recommendations often focus only on preventing overuse of screens rather than opportunities for maximizing learning,” Griffith said. “Providers working with young children and their families should pay attention not only to how much screen time children are getting but what kinds of activities they are engaging in, so as to maximize potential benefits.” – by Eamon Dreisbach

Reference:

Griffith SF, et al. Pediatrics. 2019;doi:10.1542/peds.2019-1579.

Rich M. Pediatrics. 2019;doi:10.1542/peds.2019-3503.

Disclosures: Griffith and Rich report no relevant financial disclosures.

Shayl F. Griffith

Interactive apps show potential learning benefits for early academic skills like mathematics in children aged younger than 6 years, according to results from a systematic review published in Pediatrics.

“The results suggest that it will be important for researchers and clinicians to balance the potential positives of interactive screen media for learning with the imperative to prevent overuse,” Shayl F. Griffith, PhD, a postdoctoral associate in the department of psychology at Florida International University, told Healio. “Continued research in this area will be critical to inform the debate around young children’s screen time, as clinicians and researchers try to strike a balance between taking advantage of the potential benefits of new technology while encouraging limits on screen time.”

Griffith and colleagues analyzed data from 35 studies regarding the teaching potential of interactive apps in children aged younger than 6 years. A total of 4,639 participants were included in the studies. To be included, studies had to have a nonrandomized controlled or randomized study design, an average sample age of younger than 6 years, an intervention involving children using an interactive application and a measurement of a cognitive, academic or social-emotional skill outcome.

Of the nine studies that compared math application intervention with in-person classroom instruction, seven showed significantly higher math learning gains on number writing tasks (n = 1) and early math measures (n = 8) for the groups using interactive apps. Additionally, of the four studies that compared math app intervention with control groups that used apps that did not target math or groups that did not receive an intervention, three reported better outcomes on early math measures for application intervention groups than the control group. Effects sizes ranged from 0.04 to 0.94.

“[T]his thoughtful review of educational apps reminds us that we do not yet have a gold standard like Sesame Street in the world of educational apps,” Michael Rich, MD, MPH, FAAP, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, wrote in an accompanying editorial. “Moreover, as consumers, we have not yet demanded that these apps be based in or evaluated by rigorous research in which they are tested in the home environment, self-directed and unsupervised by educators, as they are most commonly used.”

Although learning benefits from interactive app use for academic skills was observed across all studies, no evidence was found of an intervention effect for apps aimed toward improving social communication skills in children with autism spectrum disorder. This may be because social communication skills are more difficult to generalize from app gameplay to the real world than math or other preliteracy skills, according to Griffith.

Screen time recommendations often focus only on preventing overuse of screens rather than opportunities for maximizing learning,” Griffith said. “Providers working with young children and their families should pay attention not only to how much screen time children are getting but what kinds of activities they are engaging in, so as to maximize potential benefits.” – by Eamon Dreisbach

Reference:

Griffith SF, et al. Pediatrics. 2019;doi:10.1542/peds.2019-1579.

Rich M. Pediatrics. 2019;doi:10.1542/peds.2019-3503.

Disclosures: Griffith and Rich report no relevant financial disclosures.

    Perspective
    Jenny Radesky

    Jenny Radesky

    This systematic review is a much-needed look at the learning potential of apps for young children. There are tens of thousands of apps marketed as “educational” on the app stores, and it is important for clinicians to know that the vast majority of those apps have not been tested like those in this study — and therefore skepticism is still warranted.

    This study shows that 4- to 5-year-old children can learn basic academic skills such as numbers, adding, letters and vocabulary when they play apps in the educational setting. This should reassure parents that it is not detrimental for their older preschoolers and kindergarteners to be playing apps in school (with reasonable time limits) to practice academic skills.

    However, learning is about much more than letters, words and numbers. Research suggests that the “how” of building knowledge — children’s executive functioning, their processing and synthesis of information, and how they accept new challenges without getting upset — rather than the “what” of knowledge, is more important for long-term academic success. These skills are much more complex and require practice in messy, real-world contexts, and therefore have not been shown to be teachable through apps — as demonstrated by the three studies showing no benefit of social communication apps for children with autism.

     

    Future research needs to examine the apps young children are actually playing at home, many of them full of ads or data trackers, and the benefits or opportunity costs of playing those apps.

    • Jenny Radesky, MD, FAAP
    • Assistant professor pediatrics
      University of Michigan Center for Human Growth and Development

    Disclosures: Radesky reports being a paid consultant for and being on the board of directors for Melissa & Doug toys.