Apple Inc's iPads can provide great benefits to childhood education, but "could also be bad for children" if they're improperly applied, according to Warren Buckleitner, editor of Children's Technology Review.
With China's media-savvy parents joining the global trend of sharing their iPads with the next second generation, children are now gaining unprecedented exposure to new media.
Li Xiaomin, an English teacher with RISE, one of Beijing's bigger English tutorial centers for kids, has found iPads a constant topic among her class of eight-year-olds.
"Simon keeps talking about Fruit Ninja and Peter's favorite is Plants versus Zombies. They're all crazy about Angry Birds," Li said.
However, the top-rated games in Apple's Application (App) Store are arguably simple and of little educational value. Many games require only a single finger motion to slash a floating watermelon or sling a bird toward a pig.
"I think they only get to know a few more English words from the games," Li said. She also gathered that the first-graders are mostly using the gadgets alone. When the parents do join them, the applications on display turn purely educational to mathematics or spelling.
Buckleitner, who also writes for the New York Times' tech blog, encouraged more diverse engagement with iPads and acknowledged that the tablets trend is towards "almost certainly the future".
To him, the positively reviewed devices are magic windows that open not only onto a new field of learning, but also an e-lifestyle that demands today's generation of children to be creative since they need to experiment as much as possible in order to optimize the use of touchscreens.
However, he suggested that parents encourage experimentation under proper guidance.
He listed a few ground rules for smart iPad-parenting: Choose good quality apps that can track progress and reflect your own educational values; Present a wide range to the kids and let them pick; and monitor, but do not intervene, by "keeping your hands in your pockets".
In their 10-month exploration of the iPad, Lu Shan and her three-year-old daughter, Minie, have experimented with various approaches.
They tried monotonous audio books that Minie quickly waved off, games in which pages flipped so quickly that Lu deleted them for fear that they would harm Minie's eyesight and at least a dozen other ill-fitting apps.
For now, they appear to have found the most suitable apps for Minie.
The girl is sensitive to different sounds so Talking Tom Cat, an application that repeats what it "heard" in a funny kitty voice, was found to be appropriate for her. Minie even pitches the iPad cat against the iPhone cat and loves initiating a round of mimicking with a long-winded word. As a city-born child, applications that introduce nature and wild animals also fascinate Minie.
Lu, a researcher with Capital Normal University's College of Education in Beijing, which specializes in children's psychology and communications studies, had initially envisioned her iPad as merely another toy to make Minie laugh.
She was surprised to hear the child asking for snacks in English using phrases she learned from an application. "I didn't teach her on purpose and don't think it's wise to force any learning on the child. If she likes anything, she will dig it out," Lu said.
She offered her strongest suggestion for good media guidance: Even if the child can play on her own, don't walk away, and let her know you are always within reach. Minie and Lu spend half an hour of quality time together each day in front of the tablet.
Buckleitner applauded the approach. "We are the first generation of parents to figure out how to guide children through these powerful technologies. Watch them carefully. The best are those that really reflect your children's needs."