Feature Stories

Let the Children Play ... with Math Apps

Smart phones can help early learners bridge the achievement gap
  • Three preschoolers with smart phones sit on the grass smiling and sharing what's on screen.

Math-based apps have the potential to help level the playing field for disadvantaged preschoolers says developmental psychologist David Arnold.

Professor David Arnold isn’t talking about teenagers, preteens or even school-age children when he talks about the new generation of digital natives. The UMass Amherst developmental psychologist is talking about preschoolers, for whom smart phones are part of everyday life. “We know that kids are averaging about an hour a day playing with apps anyway. If they’re going to spend that time on a phone, we could make it constructive,” he says.

Smart phone use has grown exponentially among children across all social class levels. The “digital divide,” which historically limited low-income families’ access to technology and educational advances, has begun to disappear. Arnold’s dominant motivation is to help low-income children bridge the achievement gap through the use of technology.

“I’ve always been interested in trying to give kids from disadvantaged communities a fair chance to succeed,” Arnold says. “With so many things stacked against them, there’s an awful lot of untapped potential in low-income communities.”

So, this isn’t a cautionary tale about shorter attention spans or overexposure to the artificial light from an iPhone. In fact, according to Arnold, preschoolers can benefit from their interactions with smart phones.

During the past year as a Center for Research on Families Family Research Scholar, Arnold developed a study to measure the positive effects of math-based applications, or “apps” for short, on school-readiness and other early learning benchmarks. The goal was to help identify the apps with the most potential for enhancing math skills and to document how much of an advantage the best games created.

He and his team are collecting pilot data from four-year-olds who played math-based games on a smart phone and then responded to a series of early math questions. A control group received wholesome entertainment apps instead.

The results so far are extremely encouraging, says Arnold. The preschoolers in the experimental group “zoomed ahead of the kids in the control group,” gaining more than six months of math skills over the three months of the study. The control group only gained the expected three months of skills during the same time period.

“That’s more than double the rate of growth,” Arnold excitedly reports.

He is encouraged by these findings, especially because no one else has empirically tested the effects of these educational apps among preschoolers yet. That lack of research comes despite the surge in smart phone availability over the past five years.

Arnold is eager to promote vital interventions for underprivileged children, especially if it helps improve their access to opportunities in math and science and to “plug holes” in the STEM pipeline. “The data are pretty compelling that [disadvantaged preschoolers] need a chance to get into the pipeline in the first place, because their skills going into kindergarten are so predictive of where they’re going to end up.”

According to Arnold, math-based apps have the potential to help level the playing field for disadvantaged preschoolers in several groundbreaking ways.

First, educational apps build active learning skills in children before they start feeling helpless and fall behind when they start school. Second, mobile technology is already familiar to preschoolers from all walks of life. Arnold laughs: “We haven’t had to teach a four-year-old how to use a smart phone yet!”

A final goal of the pilot study is to help transform the way that developers build and market apps. As iPhones and Androids have become more prevalent and ubiquitous in recent years, the availability of educational apps has likewise skyrocketed. But that doesn’t mean they’re all worth downloading.

“There are plenty of [math-based] apps out there,” he says, noting that the typical family with a smart phone uses more than 25 total apps for the device each month. “But,” he continues, “not all apps have an educational component. Some are just entertainment.” The best apps, according to Arnold, have the ability to “scaffold” or adjust their difficulty based on the child’s responses. In this way, mobile apps represent a significant upgrade to more passive, one-size-fits-all educational programming traditionally aimed at preschoolers, such as television shows or physical games.

“That’s what we’re aiming for—not increasing the time children spend with apps, but making that time higher quality,” he says.

According to Arnold: “If you can demonstrate that it matters what apps kids are using, and make parents aware of what to look for, you can also create a business incentive to make better apps.”

Since 2003, CRF has offered the Family Research Scholars Program, which provides selected UMass and Five Colleges faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal to support their research.

Drew Thiemann '16