It's bedtime and my 5-year-old son Gus is searching for his favorite book. Our nighttime ritual, prompted by the scores of parenting manuals I read when he was just a baby, is our favorite time of the day. I've learned from both experts and experience that developing a love of reading is an important aspect of his early education, one that will hopefully foster within him a greater capacity for imagination, curiosity, and good old pre-sleep snuggling.
But tonight, The Pirate Who Tried to Capture the Moon, a tattered hardcover we've been reading together for months, is missing. Thinking quickly, I grab the iPad; after a quick search, I locate a digital copy, and prop it in front of us. No dice.
"It's not the same," Gus wails. "The colors aren't right, and the pirate looks weird." The image is too small, he complains, the illustrations—which are bold and captivating on paper—are rendered on the screen in a way that is deeply unsatisfying to the tired little guy. "I can't turn the pages," he says, and is eventually placated by three rounds of Mars Needs Moms in print.
Tragedy (narrowly) averted.
And yet, I'm left puzzled by my son's preference for real books, when he's happy to play Plants vs. Zombies on the iPad until his eyes bleed. Is there really such a difference? According to Heidi Dodge, principal of Class Academy, the answer is a resounding, "Yes." Mrs. Dodge, as she's known to the preschoolers through 8th graders she oversees at the private Portland Academy, believes that there is a significant price to the convenience touted by eBook peddlers. "Nothing threatens a child's love for reading more than digital images that replace their capacity to imagine characters, anticipate the words or pictures on the next page, and treasure it enough to carry it with them wherever they go. What eBooks will do to reading is akin to what the keyboard will do to a child's ability and desire to pick up a pencil and write down the thoughts in their precious minds."
With the explosion of digital readers and eBook availability in the adult market, it's no surprise to see that picture books for children have followed suit in recent years. The prospect of storing hundreds of books within a single hard drive, most instantly available with the click of a button, is understandably attractive for busy parents. According to Scholastic's new Kids and Family Reading Report, the percentage of children who have read an eBook has almost doubled since 2010, jumping to 46 percent. Elementary schools are providing tablets to kindergartners, and interactive eBooks (which include video animation and "read to me" features) are more often themed to Pixar and Disney films, rather than an old-fashioned story. E-reading devices have only been around for a few years, but it's already hard to imagine life without them.
Heather McNeil, the youth services manager at the Deschutes Public Library, believes eBooks have a place in our children's literary development—but maybe not in its genesis. "One of the most crucial elements in growing a reader is interaction between the child, the book, and the caregiver," McNeil says, urging parents to avoid using digital devices as a babysitter. McNeil suggests that parents start with the real thing, which requires concentration, focus and immersion in the story. "Once a child is reading on their own, great! Use whatever grabs them." As with many new technologies that have yet to be fully researched from a cognitive and developmental standpoint, balance is key.
While eBooks for children can be a good tool for boosting elementary reading skills, and cater to our modern kids' tech-savvy learning styles, screens can't replace the unique, hands-on experience of a bound book. Rather than creating distance between the story and the child (especially when parents don't monitor what their child is doing with the device), books in print invite young readers into a nurturing, tactile relationship with the written word. Sure, your preschooler can work your iPhone and program the DVR. But nothing beats the experience of picking up a dusty, love-worn book, and getting your little one to understand what it is they're actually doing.
For more information on how to safeguard your own digital native, check out The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age by Catherine Steiner-Adair and Teresa Barker.