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.

(Credit: 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.

(Credit: 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.

by by  Rafe Needleman

Rafe reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business. Feeling lucky? Send pitches to rafe@cnet.com. And watch Rafe’s tech issues podcast, Reporters’ Roundtable.

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Cyber addicts, angry mum sets up ‘rehab’ centre for you!


KUALA LUMPUR: She was furious to find her son at a cybercafe, engrossed in his game, when he was supposed to be at rugby practice in school.

But what shocked Zaridah Abu Zarin, 39, even more was seeing children, some as young as four, completely absorbed in playing online games.

 Sunday matinee: Zaridah (left) and Wong (right) watching a movie with youths at their centre in Bandar Sri Damansara Sunday.

Moved by what she saw, Zaridah decided to set up a centre with her business partner, Michelle Wong, to help youths and children overcome their addiction to Internet games for free.

“There were also four children, squeezing in one seat, just so that they could share the computer in the cybercafe,” said the KidQ daycare centre director at Bandar Sri Damansara here.

Wong, who is also a director at KidQ, said the centre, named “U”th Community Centre, that started yesterday, would be a place for children to participate in enjoyable and productive activities.

“There’s more  meaning to life than going to the cybercafe. One of our immediate steps is to conduct an intervention for children addicted to the Internet at cybercafes.

“Since we run a daycare centre, we have the facilities to allow youths and children to conduct activities,” said the 47-year-old.

Wong said she and Zaridah would ask the children about their interests and match them with suitable activities.

“With our background in childcare,k we can also find professionals to coach them and help them with job placements in future,” she said.

Zaridah said if things went well, they would like to expand the centre to reach out to children in different areas.

By YUEN MEIKENG meikeng@thestar.com.my

Internet junkie children have parents worried


By JOSHUA FOONG
joshuafoong@thestar.com.my

PETALING JAYA: Parents and teachers have been left in a quandary as the onslaught of Internet games and social networking sites are bringing out a rebellious streak in many children.

“Why are you controlling my life?” – is the question often thrown back by children to their parents or teachers when they are confronted with their obsession with the Internet.

Teenagers playing online games at a cyber cafe in Kelana Jaya, a common scenario at almost any cyber cafe. – AZMAN GHANI/THE STAR

Norton, an Internet security company, produced a family report in 2010 which stated that Malaysian children spent an average of 64 hours online every month.

National Union of the Teaching Profession secretary general Lok Yim Pheng described the students’ obsession with the Internet as a silent killer which was “killing off” the interest of students in class.

There had been reported cases of students falling asleep in class after a whole night of playing Internet games and on-line chatting.

Lok had been ringing the alarm bells over this issue for the last five years.

She said there were also students who starved themselves during recess time because they wanted to save up for trips to cyber cafes.

“There have also been cases where stealing is involved,” she said.

Public complaints go-to man, Datuk Michael Chong said many parents had come crying to him saying they were at a loss over what to do.

“Their children spend countless hours on the Internet – with some cases involving primary school students surfing pornographic sites,” said the head of the MCA Public Service and Complaints Department.

Psychologist Dr Goh Chee Leong said the Internet was enticing because it was “very engaging and stimulating.”

“This problem is more prevalent in the middle and higher class families because they can afford to buy computers,” said the vice-president of HELP University College.

Mary (not her real name), an ex-addict, said that at the height of her obsession with online games, she only slept once every two days.

“I was 16 then. I was having teenage angst and like my peers, I needed a world where I could be in control and I could win,” said the undergraduate.

Luckily, she grew out from the phase when she was 19. Her bad grades were a nasty wake-up call, said the 21-year-old.

Father of three and marketing manager Simon Lee worries that his children will neglect their studies if they spend too much time on the computer.

But he could soon have a solution.

Software engineer Wayne Koong has invented a programme which slows down Internet programmes tremendously, to make the viewers get impatient and lose interest.

To know more about it, you have to log on and go to www.internetoveruse.com.

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