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Society - Written by on Wednesday, March 3, 2010 10:20 - 9 Comments

Denis Hancock
The iPhone, growing up digital, and my daughter’s education

I have a daughter that is almost two years old. As a general rule, she is not allowed to watch TV – but she is allowed to spend quite a bit of time on her Mom and Dad’s iPhones. She’s learned, over time, that she has her own page of apps she can use (which I regularly add to / change), the rest are for “daddy’s work” (fine – a bit of a lie, as more than a few of them are for “daddy’s play”), and she accepts that and does all kinds of interesting stuff on there. At least some of the people I know find this to be a rather strange combination – particularly those that let their child watch a bit of TV most days as downtime, but would never consider allowing them to touch such a device (and in many cases, don’t have one).

Given the questions I’ve received about it, that I’ve worked with Don Tapscott et al on a number of things around “growing up digital”, and just general parental concern, I’ve spent a lot of time watching (and helping) my daughter use  it, and thinking about how it might impact how she learns. In general, I think it’s an extremely positive thing – and while much of the stuff I mention below might seem rather simple and obvious (particularly to other iPhone users), I believe they are worthy of discussion – and might point towards how education itself should change in the future.

Obviously, part of the story is that she is going to grow up in a digital world – and being comfortable with technology is going to help in that regard. But that’s not the first thing I focus on. What I tend to hear from skeptics is that they don’t want their kids “playing virtual games” – they’d rather have them building their skills and imagination with real world stuff- building blocks, puzzles, etc. My response is that obviously I want my daughter doing that too – but I find that the touch-screen interface on the iPhone actually helps her in this regard.

The most obvious example of this is what she’s chosen as her favorite app – ShapeBuilder. When I downloaded it however many months ago, she was at a point where she was good at basic puzzles (i.e. put the circle in the circle, etc.), but was having trouble with the harder ones (i.e. trying to get six contoured pieces into place to create something). And of course, since each puzzle costs a fair bit of money, she had relatively limited selection. Shapebuilder has many puzzles, and cost a buck or two – but that is only part of the story here.

She took to Shapebuilder like a duck to water. On the right hand side of the screen, there is an outline of an image, “broken” up into the many pieces that compose it. On the left are the pieces. Importantly, none of them rotate – they just need to be slid into place- which makes it a tad easier than real-world equivalents. And it doesn’t appear she has to get them in exactly the right place – get them close, and they “pop” in (and stay there – also important). When all the pieces get in their proper places, the outline instantly transforms into a “real” picture of something (say, a cow), and the word for it appears (and is said). She can then go onto the next one – and there are many of them.

In turn, I see it as a middle step between the basic “real” puzzles, and the slightly harder ones – she learns important parts of puzzle building I can now see her apply to real ones, in a game she finds very entertaining, with tons of variety, that cost me next to nothing, and doesn’t require clean-up (score!).

That’s just one example, but I think it’s an important one. Here’s her other favorite “games” (and if anyone would like to recommend some new ones, I’m all ears):

First Words Deluxe. Shares some similar properties with ShapeBuilder, but for words. She picks a category, and at the top there is a word, with boxes for each letter (with the actual letter shaded in behind). The letters to make the word – i.e. ” p p y u p” for puppy are below. Each time she touches one, the game says the letter, and when she slides it close to the right spot it stays there. Once the word is formed, the game spells out the word, then says it, an there’s a bit of animation around an image associated with it. In my mind, that has to help her learn words – and to spell. Think it was $1.99, which I’m considering a good investment.

The Toddler Teasers series. I’ve just downloaded a few more of these, but she’s been playing the “shapes” one for awhile. A bunch of shapes appear on the screen, the game says (and has written down) something like “touch the star”. If she touches the wrong one, it vanishes. When she gets it right, the game cheers, the shape flies around, and you go onto the next one. Every 4 or so, she earns a “sticker”, she can put on her sticker page. Again, I think it’s fair to say this helps her learn shapes and words in a fun way (though I didn’t think so at first. After a while, she was always getting them wrong. But then I realized it wasn’t random – she was always picking the right one last. Then one day I noticed when she picks which color to use for play-doh, she does it through a process of elimination – i.e. “not blue! not green! not pink! YELLLLLOWWWW! – and she does the same on the game). $0.99 each I think.

Memory Pro (free). Very simple – classic game of memory. 12 tiles (in the small version), 6 animals, match them up. Again, hard to see how playing this many times can’t help with improving memory and matching skills – and it’s a clear case of where not having the “set-up” time helps (she’ll play this more than the equivalent using “real” matching tiles, which she’s also getting much better at… because of the game, in my opinion).

Five monkeys. One of her favorite songs (I’ve probably sang it to her 500 times by now), but on the iPhone. I find this cool because it has three variations of the song (country, rock, and pop) to help show different musical styles; she has control of it (the monkeys only fall off the bed when she touches them); and there are a variety of other ways she can interact with it (stop/ go button, making the cat run out of the room, etc.). Again, it doesn’t mean I don’t sing it to her anymore – but it seems like a nice addition to that.

Sneezies Light. So it actually took her awhile to learn to stick to her own page, and I’d downloaded this to test and she “stole it”. Less obvious educational value, but I do think there’s some there. The basic idea is there’s a bunch of little critters on the screen. Touch one, it sneezes and blows up – and if the sneeze touches another critter, it does the same, etc. Goal is to make as many disappear as possible. She loves it – and the cause and effect, coupled with learning some patience around waiting for them to get close together, seems useful.

There are more, but I’ll end it there today. In short, I’m amazed when I watch my daughter use the iPhone, and really think it’s helping her learn many important things – particularly as the touch screen interface lies somewhere between the real and “traditional” virtual worlds. In total, I think I’ve invested about $10 in all the apps for her combined – or less than almost any single toy out there. And as she grows, I see so much more potential – such as downloading stories to be read in a language I can’t personally speak, but we want her to learn. Every time I look at that device, I think of different ways it could improve her education in a variety of ways.

And of course, partially since I can’t yet be 100% confident that she won’t “accidently” hit the phone button and call some of daddy’s colleagues, I’m close to her – watching, helping, talking about what she’s doing – the entire time, which most parents would agree is what matters the most.


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Darren Murtha
Mar 3, 2010 21:24


Thanks for this great article! I agree with you…it’s amazing how for just a few dollars we can transform our iPhone/iPod into a mobile learning device! That’s why we developed Shape Builder for the iPhone :-)

Btw, have you seen our newest Preschool app that just came out?


“Preschool Connect the Dots Game” – with over 200 puzzles!

Best regards,

Darren Murtha

Mar 4, 2010 7:57

Its Very True :) The iPhone is really glowing with digital technology in this fast growing world.

Wikinomics – A Decade of Frustration Ahead?
Mar 5, 2010 6:02

[...] Denis Hancock made the case so well in his post Wednesday, on the subject of the impact of iPhone apps on his daughter’s learning. Yet, on the other hand, few school districts include the CTO at the cabinet level (in other words, [...]

Mar 7, 2010 5:41

Apple were very clever with their shop offering cheap games to buy online. How long have the consumers been telling manufacturers that they would make more money and have less piracy just making games cheaper and easier to buy? Apple listened, no one else would.

Having said that, I think the Nintendo-DS is a better portable game system than iPhone, and the best value I’ve every had was buying a single cartridge (on special) of 100 classic board games which the kids have probably played more than anything else. Now they know how to play all the normal games that everyone older than 25 knows how to play…

A decade of frustration ahead? | My Blog
Mar 14, 2010 2:47

[...] Denis Hancock made the case so well in his post Wednesday, on the subject of the impact of iPhone apps on his daughter’s learning. Yet, on the other hand, few school districts include the CTO at the cabinet level (in other words, [...]

Wikinomics – Mobile platform magic: Five things executives must know about mobility
May 12, 2010 11:30

[...] harnesses voluntary micro-tasking to help those in need and see Denis Hancock’s post, “The iPhone, growing up digital, and my daughter’s education,” on the way micro-tasking changes the way pre-schoolers [...]

Wikinomics – The Net Gen: Too plugged-in for parenting?
Jun 16, 2010 13:22

[...] some cases, there may be benefits such as using an iPhone for interactive kid’s games, or using cell phones to keep track of older children on-the-go. In other cases, the activities [...]

Sep 30, 2010 1:41

Some of the free games are still quite awesome like Air Traffic Control or my nephews favorite application Acceleroto’s Air Hockey.

The Net Gen: Too plugged-in for parenting? « Not Another Framework
Oct 12, 2010 22:20

[...] some cases, there may be benefits such as using an iPhone for interactive kid’s games, or using cell phones to keep track of older children on-the-go. In other cases, the activities [...]

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