Is pushing a button learning?

Perhaps I will be a more credible speaker at literacy workshops with this experience I am going through with my grandson Diego, who is in the throes of the Terrible Threes. How everyone in the family laughed when I threw up my arms in exasperation, saying that all my literacy beliefs were being put to a test. For Diego had just dealt me a cruel blow—rejecting my offer of a book to read, and preferring to do so on his parents’ hand-me-down iPad.

When his mother Tanya asked us, her entire family of four in Manila, to spend Christmas in their home in Dublin, East Bay, in Northern California, it was for many reasons: to be around for the arrival of second grandson Emilio Lorenzo Andres; for us to be more than just occasional “holiday” family for Diego; for me to help out with her increased responsibilities, and, at the very least, read Diego a story every day.


It has not been easy to carve out the time for that considering all the holiday distractions and adjustments that Diego is going through with the arrival of a baby brother. If this is a stressful time for adults, so must it be for him. If even my own book reading has been disrupted, shouldn’t I be more understanding? It also brings to mind what a young American mother wrote: that, yes, she knows the benefits of a book a day, but she does tire doing a readaloud every night after a long workday of household chores and an office job besides.

An Associated Press article in the Dec. 26, 2013, issue of the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Do tablets offer educational benefit?” gains more relevance. Opinions are divided on the matter. While the ease with which a toddler can use a tablet or a smartphone is noted, it is pointed out that such navigating does not demand any ability to read or type. These devices have made them today’s ideal babysitters (wasn’t that what we also called television years back?) at home and during car rides and restaurant visits. The apps these devices offer are touted to have educational value, thus making the adults who patronize them less guilty.


The all-too-familiar contrary opinions maintain that screen time takes away from activities known to nurture brain development, as interaction with nonelectronic toys and adults. There is the often repeated observation that excessive screen time has been associated with behavior problems and delayed social development in older children. There is as well the reminder that with the emergence of tablets a mere three years ago, tablet-related research is only beginning and has not made significant findings.

Dr. Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle Children’s Hospital pediatrician, is quoted in the article as asking parents “whether tablet time is replacing more important activities such as sleeping, reading, or interacting with adults…. The single most important thing for children is time with parents and caregivers….”

Susan Linn of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood who led a campaign against “Baby Einstein” videos, leading to refunds, says it best: “The best toys are the ones that just lie there until the child transforms them,” referring to blocks and stuffed toys as examples. She strongly says that pushing a button does not promote learning.

Lest I be accused of being a Luddite, I myself do most of my leisure reading on my iPad, so how can I tell little Diego to abandon his? As in the old television-vs-books issue, screen time needs to be regulated. Consider a student’s packed school day schedule, and 30 minutes seem adequate.

At the moment, I am somehow appeased by the interaction elicited from Diego by his all-time-favorite children’s music group, The Wiggles from Australia. Its newest addition to its quartet is Emma Watson, by the way. He has loved them as a toddler, has watched their live performances, dances and sings with them, and patiently teaches me to follow the routines which he knows by heart. I console myself that The Wiggles can’t be too bad for him.

It was heartening to see him the other night getting excited over Eric Carle’s 1969 classic, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” which he has memorized as his parents have read it to him many times over. It was a big help that his daycare had a Winter Gala program which presented his class singing two songs and reciting the story. Thus, that night and the subsequent evenings, the conversation focused on all that the caterpillar ate (from one apple to four strawberries to one lollipop, etc.) that gave him a stomach ache till he got to a nice, green leaf. The story does not end there, of course, as this is more than your regular counting book. It did not even attempt to go beyond the number five.

Ultimately, there is nothing like a good story to entertain, amuse, and beguile a child, or any reader for that matter. There are challenges for adults, especially teachers, in making books and learning attractive with all the glitz and fast pace of today’s technology. And I am not about to give up.


Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: Commentary, Diego, ipad, learning, Neni Sta. Romana Cruz, opinion, Reading, Technology
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