In this month’s How To section, I write about how to configure an old iPad for a child. While I hope most readers will react positively to that story, I also expect a few will insist that exposing a child to an iPad will lead to a machine-dependent future devoid of fresh air and human interaction.

We can all agree that spending 18 hours a day glued to any one thing – a social network or an online game – is the sign of a problem. But in my daughter’s case at least, I’d argue that iOS devices have enhanced her life.

Identification

When we were on holiday in Hawaii, my daughter and I were sitting outside, looking at the clear night sky. Seeing three bright objects lined up, she asked: “What are those?”

“Probably planets, but let’s see,” I answered. I pulled out my iPhone, fired up Star Walk (itun.es/ibX2DJ), gave the app my location, and pointed the phone at the three objects. Its display mirrored what we saw before us in the night sky. Sure enough, they were Venus, Mars and Saturn. In the app, we tapped on Saturn to learn about its rings.

On the same trip, we used the iPhone to identify fish we saw while snorkelling and birds we heard while hiking. We learned about the goddess Pele and the islands’ origin while visiting a volcano.

Ask my daughter what she recalls from our trip, and it’s not sunscreen or chocolate-covered macadamia nuts. It’s the sky, the fish, the birds and the islands. She could have learned some of that without the iPhone, but having that technology with us in “teachable moments” made the lessons stick.

Exploration

Having taken piano lessons since the age of four, I wanted to give my daughter more choice about when (or if) she would begin to explore music. I showed her a few things on the piano and suggested that she try to pick out some songs. That experiment confirmed she has the knack. So we signed her up for lessons, and it seems to be going okay.

One day, I heard her picking out the familiar tune of Beethoven’s Für Elise. “Where did you learn that?” I asked. “Oh, I was playing it in Magic Piano and I sounded it out,” she replied.

Magic Piano (itun.es/ibX2JS) is a free app that lets you play tunes on a virtual keyboard. It also lets you pick selections from a songbook and learn to play them as part of a game.

From Magic Piano, my daughter was able to get the general topography of the song: its rhythm and the distance between notes. Because she has a good ear, she could then transfer what she’d learned to the piano.

Yes, a teacher could have taught her the piece. But Magic Piano taught her much of what she needed to do without ‘teaching’ her. It helped instill the confidence that she could translate what she heard from her ears to her head and then to her fingers.

I saw the same thing happen with Draw Something (itun.es/ibX2Js), which helped her sketch things that someone else could identify. Thanks to iStopMotion (itun.es/ibX2xj), we’ve tried our hands at animation.

Her monthly iTunes allowance has taught her that free is good, which has led her to download a fair number of classic books. She may not be up on The Hunger Games, but she’s read Conan Doyle and Verne.

What Hasn’t Changed

Can too much technology spoil a child? Of course. As can too many sweets, too much discipline or too little sleep.

But the answer isn’t to deny a child technology. Rather it’s to pay attention and participate. Throwing an iPad full of games at a child and leaving them to their own devices is no more helpful than planting them in front of a TV all day. Sit down with your child and use that iPad as a tool that teaches and entertains, and show some enthusiasm for what the device can teach you.

Related links

The other point of view: Why you should not buy your child an iPad
bit.ly/OURVsh

iPad & iPhone secrets for Family Life
bit.ly/MnqLtO

iPad apps to keep the kids entertained
bit.ly/KNWsH6

About the author

Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/BodyofBreen