For the Love of Routines — and Research

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 are thrilled that our good friend Shelley Pasnik of the Center for Children and Technology and Education Development Center has agreed to share her expertise on a topic on almost every parent’s mind: the importance of routines in our daily lives.


Family Time with Apps: Routines

I was asked to write about the last strip of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s new interactive book. Perhaps you know it? It’s the one about routines. That’s right: Routines. Those habits of mind, body and household meant to make life manageable. As the blurb above calls out, the good people at the Cooney Center are having different people write about each of the eight themes and Routines was my assignment.

If you’ve been to the iBook Store and downloaded a copy you may know it as burnt-orange routines. I could have gotten sizzling fuchsia’s “Preparing for new experiences,” dreamy lavender’s “Making travel more fun” or oceanic aqua’s “Connecting with distant family,” which enviably includes a pirate, but I didn’t. I got Routines. And not just any routines, but predictable ones.

For those of you who know me as a researcher this may make sense. Routines and research: both have to do with consistency and predictability. Both are known to be rather staid. Let’s give that one to Shelley! I choose to believe that I got Routines for the simple reason that the Cooney Center folks love me more than the seven other contributors. Or, it could be that the developers of this book were in on the secret: routines are the lifeblood of families. While they can be maligned as the boring or uninspired bits of daily living, slavishly bound to a clock and just too ho-hum to be of any real interest, those characterizations couldn’t be further from the truth.

It’s precisely because routines establish structure and minimize guessing when it comes to the larger container of an activity that they are useful. And I don’t mean useful from an efficiency standpoint, but from a creative one. Routines, much like research, are methodical so the people following them, in this case young people who are figuring themselves and their places in the world out, don’t have to be.  By having the adults draw the boundaries, routines lead to a safely held feeling of containment or offer up a clear— though just as safe—“push here” signal to a child, depending on her stage of development and temperament.

The illustration in the book is a light-hearted rendering of a model parenting technique: the calm countdown with ample warnings before the gentle, “Time’s up” arrives. As the text aptly notes, this kind of time management on the mom’s part supports the child’s emerging self-control. But, from a kid-as-growing-complex-person perspective, the Kapow! panel is the second-to-the-last where, bemused cat looking on, the child’s block-letter exclamation reads, “Look out!” At this point, parenting transcends time management. The mom’s measured approach has created a space for her child to be unapologetically engrossed. In this way, the constraints of routine function as design principles; at their best they liberate rather than narrow. Mom in a thin-striped shirt and daughter in a thick-striped shirt are in harmony, each holding her own.


Gateway to New Routines

This week my colleagues at EDC and SRI released a study we conducted as part of the CPB-PBS Ready To Learn initiative, which is a U.S. Department of Education program that seeks to develop and research how public media can improve children’s school readiness. We explored what young children learned after engaging with content from PEG+CAT, a transmedia property that emphasizes early mathematics and problem solving. Like all of Ready To Learn, which has at its core a commitment to equitable opportunities, the young learners who participated in the study come from low-income communities. We found positive signs of engagement among many of the 4- and 5-year-olds, strong positive parental impressions of the materials, and improvements in math learning, especially related to shape identification, an important early math building block. (You can read the full study here.)

So why do I mention all of this in the context of routines?

The nature of the study was to pressure-test the PEG+CAT materials, which includes video episodes, interstitial video, online games, and a tablet-based app that allows children and their families to engage with the same characters, settings, and narratives on multiple devices, across various physical and social settings. By design, the study took place in a lab over five weeks and didn’t intend to influence families’ home routines. The funny thing about routines is that as regimented as they are, they also are living and breathing evolutions. Some of the families, after experiencing the five-week routine of our study setting, told us they’d begun tinkering with the content at home. This kind of integration is where the real promise of the materials may be. (We hope to know more about this once we wrap up a 185-family Home Study of the same materials later this year.)

Not only can a routine give a child license to go deep on a particular morning, as happens in the interactive strip, or within the confines of a formal study session, as happened in our offices, but it also can be a mechanism for building momentum over multiple days, weeks and months. This combination of repetition and deepening exploration—what people in the learning sciences define as “successive interactions with specific concepts and skills” and moms and dads simply refer to as “the way we do it at home”—is crucial to learning.


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


Shelley PasnikShelley Pasnik is the Director of the Center for Children and Technology and a vice president of Education Development Center. Her research is devoted to understanding how cultural institutions—especially public media, private foundations, and corporate philanthropies—can use emerging technologies to support teaching and learning.



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