Concrete and abstract reasoning. These are two key terms that contextualize the use of technology among children. Concrete reasoning has to do with what is in front of you, while abstract reasoning “is the ability to think about objects, principles, and ideas that are not physically present. It is related to symbolic thinking, which uses the substitution of a symbol for an object or idea.” Building blocks are tools used to engage concrete reasoning. Apps on tablets or smart devices are tools that engage abstract reasoning, something most psychologists agree does not develop until a child is anywhere between 11 and 16 years old.
Why then, you might ask, would someone think it is a good idea to put a tablet in the hands of a 2-year-old? After all, according to the latest research, if you want a preschool-aged child to operate an app successfully, he needs human instruction. Researchers at the University of Delaware term this “social scaffolding” and have concluded that it is the optimal way for children to learn from screens.
Typically, having another person present during these interactions with touch screens or while viewing television is really beneficial. The parent or teacher can take into consideration what their child knows and build on that — something that’s too complex for an app to be able to do. So rather than children interacting with a touch screen on their own, parents can provide support, to then boost their learning or help them transfer what they learned to the real world. They could also connect that information to something else that they have in their home.
Children need an adult to instruct them on the use of the app, which is a type of concrete reasoning: Touch here, swipe there, get a response. They also need an adult to relate what they’ve been exposed to in the app to the real world: “Yes, that’s a picture of a chicken, and now we’ll go to a real farm where real chickens are.” In case you haven’t noticed, we’re still in concrete reasoning mode. Which means that all of the abstract thinking that goes along with technology is being done by the adult, not the child.
Referring to parent-child interaction as the “gold standard,” one researcher was careful not to pressure parents who already feel overwhelmed. If parent interaction isn’t possible, she suggests:
Maybe a special sound or other haptic feedback — which is a form of touch information, such as vibration. This addition is something that would allow kids to learn, “Oh I’m doing something right, or I’m doing something wrong,” to help them achieve some type of goal.
If you think that sounds a bit Pavlovian, you’re right. It also doesn’t help your child to absorb abstract lessons. Tommy may understand that when he hits the blue circle his tablet will vibrate, but if you ask him to identify the blue circular block in the room, chances are he won’t be able to respond. Unless, of course, an adult has filled in the blanks.