Can the iPad replace the book at bedtime? No. Wait... maybe. / by James Huggins

Emily (5) with Ladybird Classic Me Books

Even as someone in the business of making them I have never been 100% certain of an apps ability to cater to the kiddies bedtime story. As a proper technology fanboy I thought this was telling, and often wondered if any other parents out there were cuddling up around an iPad or some other tablet with their children at the end of the day. There's something there isn't there? A psychological or emotional blockage that makes the technology feel instinctively impure, less charming and wholesome. I worried that when faced with a tablet screen the frantic urge to touch, tap and swipe and shake would overcome little hands and render the rhythmic and measured pace of a good bedtime story impossible. There's also the small matter of engineering co-operation between children given that a family gathered around one iPad can often resemble the fragile, teetering calamity of international peace talks. You can see my quandary, right? I'd heard about friends of mine using the iPad at bedtime and always thought to myself... really?

So I decided to give it a go.

I was surprised, pleasantly surprised at how a decisive change in content meant for a markedly different experience with the kids. Clearly understanding the reference to real books, they were much less aggressive in exploring the screen with their fingers and patiently waited to hear the story and wait their turn to swipe to the next page. What's more, on a handful of occasions when we were using Me Books we'd stop and create a few different versions of character voices, just for fun, but only when a natural pause in the story allowed. The success of the experiment was such that we now alternate between using the iPad and physical books at bedtime with ease. They are slightly different experiences of course but the key here is that what really matters when enjoying stories with our kids, the core experience is preserved. It is simply our grown up experience, our psychological and emotional attachments to physical books that can unsettle us.

Something else that struck me in all this is the very obvious fact that context is everything. The setting, the behaviour of the adult and the exact nature of the content are the principal architects of the experience. It's funny then that the vast majority of discussion and commentary in this area focuses on 'tablets and children' or 'iPads for todddlers' where the device is the focus. I think this is the main reason I have an issue with the various reports that are published like the recent AAP Report on screen time for young children, making claims that screens are bad for young children. Without getting caught up in the discussion about whether this is true or not, I just think the statement is bonkers. Screens? What, blank screens? Screens with Spongebob or Sesame Street? Touch screens with Angry Birds or Me Books? Without an examination of the context, content, duration, adults or peers present etc. it's surely impossible to claim whether a screen is good or bad? You may as well say food is bad for you. Burgers, carrots, mars bars, broccoli, doesn't matter!

I think it's healthy to approach technology with sensible scepticism. Is it useful? Does it have value, or is it just batting it's eyes at me? Does it serve, or even better enrich, the core experience? So whilst I maintain that physical books will always have a place in our lives, even if it's more an emotional connection with the solid object than the content of the pages, I see tablets and screens occupying spaces we (or I at least) thought they couldn't. It's even possible our children will look back on the iPad 1 with the same sense of nostalgic fondness we do on that dusty, old, flea-bitten box of picture books in the attic. Still, it's nice to think that my children and I share the same fondness for old Ladybird books, even if I'm thinking of the paper ones and they're thinking of the app.