A Mouse in the House and the Desire To Learn

We recently released Family Time with Apps: A Guide to Using Apps with Your Kids, a free interactive guide for parents and caregivers. The book features comic strips that parents and children can enjoy together, as well as tips on selecting apps that can help turn screen time into family time. Whether the challenge is preparing for a new experience like starting school, spending more time outside, connecting to distant loved ones, or reading together every day, the guide provides tips on how using apps together can support a child’s learning and development. It is available from the iBook Store.

We’ve invited some experts to share their own perspectives on the scenarios that we explore in Family Time with Apps. We’re thrilled to kick off this series with a guest post by Toca Boca‘s Play Designer, Jens Peter de Pedro, who shares his own perspective on playing—and learning—with his daughters.



We had a mouse problem in our home, a common occurrence when one lives in New York City. Luckily, I’m not afraid of mice; there really is no reason to be. No mouse has ever seriously hurt a human being. Still, my wife is terrified of them. She won’t enter a room if a mouse was spotted in it. I think this must be learned behavior because I cannot imagine a prehistoric homo sapien in his right mind running away from a mouse.

I got rid of all the mice. It wasn’t scary, just sad. However, we still have a mouse problem of sorts: my daughters are holding onto their fear of mice. They are not as terrified as my partner is, but they don’t trust that mice are not all that dangerous. They dread the day the little fluffy rodents return.

Photo courtesy of Jens Peter de Pedro

Photo courtesy of Jens Peter de Pedro

I’ve tried to quench their misgivings by showing them videos on mice. We’ve learned about how many offspring they have— 10 to 12 per litter. What their natural habitats are—forests and grasslands. We all agree on their level of cuteness—extremely high. Yet despite this, my family still remains suspicious towards the species.

My youngest daughter, Sasha, nurtures another suspicion as well.

“Is this book about letters?” she asks with squinting eyes, piercing at me sideways.

Sasha is wary of any book or app that appears to teach reading or writing. How this happened I don’t know. Both my wife and I believe that learning to read can happen anytime and there is no proven benefit to learning early. Unless, of course, you are in “the learning race” and you start suspecting that you are among the last in your heat, but we didn’t enter our daughters into that competition. They are not in school. Still, I admit I have downloaded a couple of apps about letters and numbers for her in case she is interested, and it is possible that she felt I wanted her to learn. I do, of course! Maybe I even harbor a little unchecked fear somewhere that she will be behind her friends who do go to school? If so, perhaps I subconsciously transferred this fear onto her?

Have I made Sasha afraid to learn letters? It’s possible. The pressure on kids to perform, and on parents to have them perform, is so huge that it is difficult to escape. Perhaps my emotions have transferred onto her. Emotions do enter the mind quicker than information does. This is true for grownups, but especially for small children who often stop at feeling a situation when they don’t completely understand it.

Such is the case with the tutees of my friend, Larry the Math Teacher. He tutors children in Manhattan, often after their parents’ botched attempts. Larry tells me he wishes the parents had never tried to help their children with mathematics. They use the wrong methods, and what’s worse, they make their children feel inadequate. It is not that the children aren’t smart enough or that the math is too advanced, rather panic and misgivings of letting down their parents blocks their minds as soon as a mathematical problem is put in front of them. Adding to an already dire situation, parents often unknowingly transfer their own fears of math onto their children.

“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular things he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of like and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned…the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning” – John Dewey

Collateral learning is one of the things tests cannot measure. It is completely possible to get a good grade in something while learning that the subject studied is a total waste of time. “I aced that chemistry test! Hated every minute of studying for it.” That’s not a contradiction. And while the knowledge gained from this type of learning will be gone in a week, the negative feelings associated with the subject could last a lifetime. Chemistry sucks. Lesson learned.

That’s why it is so dangerous to coerce children into learning something, as dictated by our current learning paradigm. Learning should be about love for a subject. If the interest isn’t there, isn’t it safer to wait to introduce it?

At Toca Boca we are aware of collateral learning. We put a lot of effort in making our apps gender neutral. This is to avoid having children inadvertently learn that chopping carrots is for one sex and driving cars off of ramps is for another.

Learning is not so much about the transfer of information, as it is the transfer of culture. To that end, culture is really just the answer to “Who cares about what?” Your children will care about what you care about, and later about what their friends care about.

It’s when you let yourself go into a state of pure play, where your true emotions show, that the most important kind of learning will happen, because your child will get a glimpse of your soul and be able to see what you truly care about.

You see, I could wipe out all the mice, teach my youngest all the letters, or help my oldest squash her math problems, but if I transfer my fear of mice, illiteracy or algebra onto them, I might as well be the one standing on that living room chair.

Last week I found a note on the dinner table. Sasha had written her name for the first time!


I have no idea how she learned and that’s okay, because I trust that whatever got her there will keep her going. I just gave her the freedom to play and somehow she ended up overcoming what was holding her back. There are no lazy kids.

“What is called laziness is either lack of interest or lack of health. A healthy child cannot be idle; he has to be doing something all day long.” – A.S Neill, founder of Summerhill, the world’s oldest Democratic School

Sasha wanted to learn to write her name, so she did. I’m sure she could tell by my smile I was happy for her.

Her curiosity had recovered!


What are some of your favorite tips or apps for playing games together? Share them in the comments below or via Facebook or Twitter with the hashtag #familytimewithapps, and we’ll publish highlights on the blog next week!


Jens Peter de Pedro

Jens Peter de Pedro

Jens Peter de Pedro is Play Designer at Toca Boca, the leading children’s digital toy app developer. Mr. de Pedro is the Play Designer behind apps such as Toca Hair Salon, Toca Band, Toca Kitchen, Toca Train and Helicopter Taxi. He has worked for organizations such as The United Nations, WGBH Boston, and Swedish Television.

Mr. de Pedro has a master’s degree from New York University in Interactive Telecommunications and a bachelor’s degree from Stockholm University in Psychology, Education and Children’s Culture.

Mr. de Pedro likes cheap food, playing basketball and going for walks in desolate industrial areas. He also enjoys rhyming to a beat under the pseudonym Dude’s a Rapper. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two daughters.

His name is pronounced Yens.

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