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Toddlers, ipads and story apps- how intuitive are they?

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Dylan Yamada-Rice is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. Dylan’s research interests are concerned with early childhood visual and digital literacies and wider multimodal communication practices. She is currently undertaking an IIKE-funded industry sabbatical at Dubit. Dubit Ltd is based in Leeds and undertakes research and development in relation to children's digital play. Dylan and Dubit are working together to produce a blueprint for the co-production of children in digital game design. Dylan's past research has focused on young children's interaction with and comprehension of the visual mode, children´s access to digital technologies that foregrounded the visual mode, the way in which family members support engagement with digital technologies and young children’s use of story apps. As a result new media, digital technologies, visual and multimodal research methods also connect to her work. Dylan convenes the Visual Research Group, which forms part of the Centre for the Study of Children and Youth (CSCY). This group considers the role of visual methodologies, means of analysis and the presentation of data in research with children and young people.

Tablets and apps are often described as intuitive to use. Recently I was involved in a Collaboration Sheffield Initiative project between Sheffield University and Sheffield Hallam University that allowed me to consider the accuracy of this belief. The project examined the interaction of young children, between the ages of 0 and 3-years, with iPad story apps in two early education settings. The young children were video-recorded at distance and close up interacting with a number of story apps. These included Heart in the Bottle, Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed, Peppa Pig Party Time and the Lion King. The data analysis showed that children’s engagement with ipads was brought about by the interplay between three key areas; (1) the affordances of various apps (what it is possible to do with the ipad and apps); (2) the ways in which children engage in real and virtual play interests on and off screen; and (3) the role of adults in mediating children’s interaction with story apps. This post focuses briefly on the first of these three and offers some guidelines for app designers, which might also be helpful in thinking about which apps are good for young children.

To date most research on the use of iPads has been undertaken with older children (see e.g. Simpson et al 2013). In the younger age range, Geist (2012) has considered 24 to 30-month-old’s interactions with tablets. Geist believes tablets can foster positive play and appropriate child development. Indeed, as the technology often offers an interactive and multimodal experience, incorporating sound, moving and still images, it can in fact enhance imaginative play, exploration and development. Particularly significant in Geist’s findings was the way in which the iPad’s multimedia ‘presentations’ and the fact that children could repeat these, appealed to the ‘pleasurable act and repeating novel tasks is a pattern of interaction that we would expect from toddlers’ (Geist, 2012, p.32). Given emerging interest in apps for young children how can adults ensure children have access to ones that will support their needs best? The project analysis indicated the following points that may be helpful to app designers and those making choices about which story apps to offer young children.

Screen shot 2014-06-30 at 20.10.05

Suggestions for good story apps for young children

  1. Ensure that there is an icon on each page that can take children back to the home page, otherwise they press the tablet/ iPad home button and it takes them out of the app altogether.
  1. Make sure there is sufficient margin for error in each of the interactive parts of the screen – young fingers may have trouble hitting the appropriate spots at first.
  1. For younger users, try to have some consistency across the ‘pages’ of the app storybook in terms of the finger gestures required for certain effects to take place. Predictability is good for children in terms of learning how to use apps.
  1. Ensure that interactive elements promote creativity. Some of the most appealing elements children have responded very well to include:

(i)             Being able to touch and drag characters and objects to move/ spin them.

(ii)            Being able to do actions which contribute to the story e.g. blow into the microphone slot of the iPad to blow the house down in the ‘3 Little Pigs’ (by Nosy Crow) story.

(iii)           Opportunities to create drawings, which can then be embedded into the story (e.g. Heart in the Bottle by Bold Creative for HarperCollins).

  1. Have multiple options e.g. to have story read to the child, to allow the child to read it alone.
  1. Ensure that the icon for the app is appealing as this is the first draw into the app.
  1. Ensure that as many elements as possible relate to their physical world experiences. i.e. if you want children to draw place crayons to symbolize this as in Heart in the Bottle.


Geist, E.A. (2012) A Qualitative Examination of Two Year Olds’ Interaction with Tablet Based Interactive Technology. Journal of Instructional Psychology, Vol.39, No.1, p. 26-35.

Simpson, A., Walsh, M. &Rowsell, J. (2013) The Digital Reading Path: researching modes and multidirectionality with iPads. Literacy, Vol.47, No. 3, p.123-130.


My thanks go to Karen Daniels, Jackie Marsh and Jools Page who have been involved in this project and added to the ideas shared here.



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