The iPhone Can Be a Vital Learning Tool for Children

Sure, it can make phone calls and check e-mail, but in the hands of a 5-year-old, the iPhone can be an important tool for storytelling too

Anyone who has seen how quickly children, even toddlers, are able to figure out games and applications on an iPhone can understand why the idea of putting kids' books on the medium was just a matter of time.

Story App for the iPhone

Their little fingers go naturally to the screen: They can touch the figures and cause them to leap about and utter sounds and they control the pace at which the story develops, making the child an active partner in what is happening. The result is a new type of experience that is a hybrid between a computer game and reading a book.

A little more than half a year ago, Apple, the manufacturer of the iPhone, joined forces with a British publishing house to create the first children's book designed for the popular phone. Since then, this market has grown and recently an Israeli firm by the name of Touchoo has joined it.

Its first children's book, "One Little Boy" is already available for download in English in the Apple software store.

The plot of "One Little Boy" follows a child who goes on a hike and is joined on the way by various animals. The story, written by Keren Ben Or and illustrated by Ido Hirshberg, encourages the toddlers to touch every one of the partners on the hike, to get them to leap and jump, to hear the cute sounds they make, and while doing so, to learn how to count to 10. This interactive book obliges the young readers to be full and active partners in the reading experience and the game.

But perhaps the term "readers" does not work here. The text does indeed appear on the screen but is narrated to the child. Parents, however, can also record themselves reading the story in their own voices.

The new iPad version of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" also illustrates the potential of the form.

A simple scanning of the original book, including illustrations, appears on the screen but twisting the device and touching different spots on the screen creates a more unique experience. Alice grows or shrinks as the instrument is twisted, the pack of cards collapses when it is moved, the queen's crown falls when the iPad is turned, and so forth.

The illustrations here are not merely to be seen; on the contrary - the readers are invited to be active, to intervene and to have an influence themselves on Carroll's fantasy world.

Hebrew on the way

The interactivity of the touch screen helps the children get around the difficulties of operating a keyboard and mouse. All that's left for Hebrew speaking kiddies is to either bone up on their English or wait for the company to release some titles in Hebrew.

Omer Ginor, the CEO of Touchoo, promises that the Hebrew version will be available in the coming months. Meanwhile the book is being tried in English-speaking kindergartens. According to Ginor, "If you give a child in kindergarten a book, it is a real miracle if he holds it for more than 20 seconds. But with a book of this type, most of the children get to the end of the story. They learn quickly how to control it."

Will the new interactive books that are meant for touch screens take the place of traditional books? A quick look at newspaper racks and bookshelves that have survived the digital onslaught suggests the answer is probably no.

"In this case, the media is the message," says Dr. Yael Dar, a Tel Aviv University expert in children's culture (and a children's book

critic for Haaretz). "This is not a book. It perhaps is based on a recognized literary form but it brings the children to the experience, thoughts and games that they are familiar with already from the computer. There is a tremendous difference between these two experiences and it is less material and more intergenerational. The young child no longer needs a parent who will tell him the story and he does all the manipulations alone. And that is what turns this experience into a completely different matter. Because when he is reading a children's book, the parent is completely in control of the experience - he is the one who fixes the pace, the interpretation, and when the reading will stop. And because of this difference, I'm not scared that it will replace books. It doesn't seem to me to be competition or a new direction that children's literature is taking."

Squeezing parents out

And yet the iPhone and iPad are pushing into parents' territory, says Dar. "Children's literature is perhaps the most mediated place - both because we, the parents, create it and because without it leaving our mouth, a book is not fully understandable, it does not come across, because the child doesn't know how to read on his own," she says. "But the new technology sidesteps this - here the device reads aloud to the child instead of the parent and can do so in a very interactive manner. Perhaps it is an indication that our control of our children's culture is getting weaker. But after all, we live in a post-modern world and it is natural that this should happen in such a world."

Ginor says his products are not meant to replace children's books. "In my eyes, this is simply another technology that is entering our lives, like cell phones," he says. "But in the same way that it is not likely you would have an important conversation about feelings and closeness from your hands-free instrument in the car while you're driving, I understand the same will happen with books. The shining screen that is lit up will never replace the printed page. At the most, it will help to make the books of bygone days more accessible."