Ja­pan preschools us­ing tablets to prep tots for dig­i­tal age

The Malta Business Weekly - - NEWS -

It's draw­ing time at this sub­ur­ban nurs­ery school in Ja­pan, but in­stead of crayons, tiny fin­gers are tap­ping on colours on iPad screens and tak­ing self­ies. Dig­i­tal school­ing has ar­rived in this na­tion long known for its zeal­ous com­mit­ment to "three R's" ed­u­ca­tion.

Coby Preschool, in a small town north­east of Tokyo, is among nearly 400 kinder­gartens and nurs­ery schools in Ja­pan that are us­ing smart­phone soft­ware applications de­signed es­pe­cially for preschool­ers called KitS.

That's only about 1 per­cent of this na­tion's kinder­gartens and nurs­ery schools. But it's a start. Coby is help­ing lead a na­tional ini­tia­tive in "dig­i­tal play."

Par­ents ev­ery­where worry their chil­dren might fall be­hind, and Ja­pan is no ex­cep­tion.

The gov­ern­ment has re­cently made strength­en­ing tech­nol­ogy ed­u­ca­tion na­tional pol­icy even as it strug­gles to meet its goal of sup­ply­ing one dig­i­tal de­vice — com­puter or tablet — for ev­ery three chil­dren.

Dig­i­tal play

With KitS, de­vel­oped by Toky­obased startup SmartE­d­u­ca­tion, chil­dren color birds and flow­ers that ap­pear to come alive as three­di­men­sional com­puter graph­ics. Chil­dren also draw var­i­ous crea­tures that, when cap­tured as com­puter im­ages, swim or float around in vir­tual land­scapes.

In a re­cent ses­sion, chil­dren got a tri­an­gle im­age on their iPads and were asked to draw on it with dig­i­tal col­ors, store that im­age, and draw an­other one to cre­ate a two­screen story.

The usu­ally shy chil­dren burst into an up­roar, brain­storm­ing hap­pily about what the tri­an­gle might rep­re­sent: a sand­wich, a rice ball, a dol­phin, a roof, a moun­tain.

The chil­dren were then en­cour­aged to come to the front of the class and ex­plain what they had drawn as the im­ages were shown on a large screen.

"There is no right or wrong an­swer," said Ak­i­hito Min­abe, the preschool prin­ci­pal lead­ing the ses­sion.

The point is to nur­ture cre­ativ­ity, fo­cus and lead­er­ship skills.

"They think on their own, they learn it's OK to think freely, and it's fun to come up with ideas," said Min­abe.

That's sim­i­lar to Ja­pan, where each adult has an av­er­age of more than one smart­phone and about half of preschool­ers have ac­cess to a mo­bile de­vice, ac­cord­ing to Ja­panese gov­ern­ment data.

In many US, Asian and Euro­pean preschools and ele­men­tary schools, teach­ers use tech­nol­ogy to present sto­ries, mu­sic and other in­for­ma­tion. Ed­u­ca­tors are also study­ing chil­dren's so­cial de­vel­op­ment through how they learn to share dig­i­tal de­vices.

Get­ting smarter?

Much of what's driv­ing the adop­tion of tablets in US preschools is a be­lief, founded or not, that an early start will make kids smarter at tech­nol­ogy, said Pa­tri­cia Can­tor, a pro­fes­sor of early child­hood ed­u­ca­tion at Ply­mouth State Uni­ver­sity in New Hamp­shire.

How­ever, early re­search into how tablets and apps af­fect learn­ing for kids ages 2 to 5 is in­con­clu­sive.

"Touch­screen stuff is pretty in­tu­itive. They don't need train­ing," Can­tor said.

Some stud­ies show pos­i­tive out­comes among young chil­dren us­ing mo­bile de­vices to im­prove their lit­er­acy, sci­ence or math skills, but there's lit­tle re­search com­par­ing tablet-as­sisted learn­ing to more con­ven­tional teach­ing ap­proaches, ac­cord­ing to a re­view of 19 stud­ies by Chris­tothea Herodotou, a lec­turer at The Open Uni­ver­sity in the United King­dom.

Herodotou said it's un­clear which fea­tures might help or hin­der learn­ing. De­vices and apps can also be mis­used — for in­stance, to keep chil­dren oc­cu­pied so teach­ers can do other things.

"Even if it's de­signed to en­cour­age learn­ing or ex­plo­ration or cu­rios­ity, it may not be used in that way," said Can­tor. "There's so much junk out there."

Still, the tar­get age for "dig­i­tal play" is get­ting ever younger.

Ex­perts have known for years that play­ing is how chil­dren learn, says Ken Seiter, Ex­ec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent at The Toy As­so­ci­a­tion, a non­profit, which rep­re­sents busi­nesses that de­sign, pro­duce, li­cense and de­liver youth-en­ter­tain­ment prod­ucts.

Toys can teach tod­dlers sim­ple pro­gram­ming or use aug­mented re­al­ity to bring story char­ac­ters dig­i­tally alive, said Seiter, whose or­ga­ni­za­tion spear­heads The Ge­nius of Play, a US-based pro­gram that re­searches ed­u­ca­tion and play.

Ja­pan’s take

Ja­pan's class­rooms tend to be more struc­tured than in the West, with stu­dents often act­ing in uni­son as they line up, bow and chant to­gether. Chil­dren tend to be pas­sive, and the em­pha­sis is on the group rather than in­di­vid­u­als. Young­sters, even some preschool­ers, at­tend ex­tracur­ric­u­lar cram schools.

KitS' de­sign­ers have sought to make ac­tiv­i­ties fun. One aim ap­pears to be nur­tur­ing out­spo­ken­ness.

Yuhei Ya­mauchi, a pro­fes­sor of in­for­ma­tion stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of Tokyo and KitS ad­viser, sees prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits.

By the time to­day's 5-year-olds start work, most jobs will re­quire com­puter skills. Given Ja­pan's shrink­ing pop­u­la­tion, peo­ple may work into their 80s, shift­ing jobs sev­eral times. Dig­i­tal skills are more crit­i­cal than ever, he said.

Dig­i­tal tools de­liver the equiv­a­lents of li­braries and mu­se­ums at a child's fin­ger­tips, said Ron Shum­sky, a child psy­chol­o­gist who works in Ja­pan. That can be ad­dic­tive, he cau­tions, and stu­dents must be taught safe and re­spon­si­ble "Dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship," he said.

It's so com­pelling it pulls you in," he said. "It keeps you want­ing more."

Ex­perts warn that star­ing for too long at screens can dam­age eye­sight and de­ter cre­ative think­ing. It's a com­plex prob­lem, since chil­dren may see their par­ents im­mersed in de­vices them­selves.

KitS lim­its each ses­sion on the iPad to 15 min­utes. Classes are held just 30 times a year.

Fam­ily di­a­logue

At the preschool in Yoshikawa, a sleepy Tokyo bed town ringed by lush rice pad­dies, the chil­dren have mas­tered time-lapse pho­tog­ra­phy us­ing their iPads.

Ja­panese preschools like Coby are sub­si­dized by lo­cal gov­ern­ments. Fees, in­clud­ing meals, are on a slid­ing scale based on in­come with the poor­est fam­i­lies pay­ing noth­ing.

Each preschool pays SmartE­d­u­ca­tion an ini­tial 500,000 yen ($4,400), not in­clud­ing the cost of the iPads, and 30,000 yen ($265) more a month for main­te­nance. The cost for train­ing teach­ers is in­cluded.

Stu­dents use the iPad mes­sage func­tion to send their par­ents pho­tos of them­selves in ac­tion and share trail­ers of their up­com­ing per­for­mances.

The kids are keen to talk about it, and par­ents say the en­deav­our en­cour­ages com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­yond the usual daily stream of com­mands: Eat din­ner, take a bath, go to bed.

"I re­al­ized I tend not to wait for what the chil­dren have to say," said hos­pi­tal worker Masami Uno, whose son, 5-year-old Ayumu, and 2-year-old daugh­ter at­tend Coby. "It made me stop and think about that."

The kids AP spoke with fa­vored the usual sorts of ca­reer goals, say­ing they wanted to be bal­leri­nas and soc­cer play­ers. None said they wanted to be a com­puter pro­gram­mer when they grow up.

But they like the KitS.

"It's fun," said Yume Miyasaka, 6. She noted with a lit­tle pride that her fa­ther uses an iPad for work. But, re­fer­ring to her iPad cre­ation, she said, "He usu­ally doesn't draw shaved ice."

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