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Studying the role of play in the digital age

Menkes was recently awarded an in-kind donation of resources for her dissertation from Mattel, Inc. to research whether different technological platforms—televisions, computers, and tablets (like iPads)—influence children’s comprehension of story content.

Because these platforms develop and proliferate so quickly, it is important to understand the practical implications of their use, especially among children. Ultimately, Menkes aims to help companies understand what they need to take into account when creating different content and products for kids. And further, establish which technological platforms are best suited for children at different developmental stages.

She is examining aspects of play in four- and six-year-olds, and studying their experiences on these three separate platforms. “Hand-held devices are up-and-coming, and children are interacting with them. You want to know how this is influencing their cognitive and educational development,” said Menkes.

In order to fully understand how children are comprehending, Menkes is studying aspects of executive functioning abilities. That is, cognitive abilities that guide behavior in a purposeful, goal-directed manner. In her research, Menkes focuses on three aspects of executive functioning abilities: attentional control, the ability to maintain focus on specific content and inhibit a previous response tendency; cognitive flexibility, the ability to shift attention between responses and process multiple sources of information simultaneously; and information processing, the ability to encode, store, and retrieve information in working memory.

The resources Mattel, Inc. provided include the use of Mattel’s Imagination Center (a state-of-the-art facility designed for toy testing and focus groups) access to over 4,000 children in their database, and incentives for both the parents and children who participate.

The children Menkes surveyed came to the Imagination Center for two separate interviews. The first interview included questions about the different media platforms, such as their interest in the platform and how difficult it is to learn from each. Then, children viewed (or interacted with) a cartoon and were questioned about its content. When the interview was complete, children got to choose a toy for their participation from Mattel Inc.’s toy closet.

During the second round of interviews, Menkes played “games” with the children to measure the aspects of executive functioning abilities. Over the course of the study Menkes interviewed 132 children, two times each. “My favorite aspect of the research was these interviews. As repetitive as they were, each kid was very different. They would make me laugh, or ask me different questions. They would always surprise me,” she said.

In 2010, Mike Elgan of PC World magazine wrote that “the iPad will spark a revolution in children’s culture . . . kids will learn to read, write, and count on iPads.” If his prediction is correct, Menkes’ research will prove even more compelling, as multimedia platforms become tools for not just play, but the conventional standard for learning.

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