Buying a tech gift for a kid? Read this first

But it’s not enough to read the label on the box. It’s important to understand the kind of experiences children will have when interacting with the technology.

Search out technologies that engage children as producers, not consumers. That means robotic kits, apps or computer games that let them be makers, artists, coders and designers. Try to avoid prepackaged solutions that target a specific skill set and promise to help children improve their academics. Remember that technological playgrounds need to also be fun!

At the DevTech research group that I direct at Tufts University, we focus on a particular kind of technological playground: programming environments for young children between 4 and 7 years old. Our research shows that by learning how to code, children take on the role of producers and not merely consumers. They’re able to engage with all six C’s.

For example, we created the free ScratchJr coding app, in collaborationwith Mitch Resnick at the MIT Media Lab. ScratchJr is a playground in that it promotes problem-solving, imagination, cognitive challenges, social interactions, motor skills development, emotional exploration and making different choices. Crucially, we make explicit the connection between the activity of coding and the playfulness of the experience.

At the playground, children can visit the sandbox, the swing or the slide, or just run around. Similarly, you want to find tech toys that let children engage in lots of different creative and expressive activities. For example, beyond coding, an app might let them create and modify characters and record and play their own voices and sounds. A playpen, instead, might let them move up across levels only when they solve a particular problem or select the right number or letter.

Caregivers don’t exclusively take children to the playground. There are other places to visit and other skills to develop. But, when getting new technologies for young children, you’re looking for a tech playground and not a playpen.

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