original post  @ “Apps: Miracle or Mirage?” by Patrick Jackson ELT author

To mark the launch of the Potato Pals 1 app, author and guest blogger Patrick Jackson asks some important questions about app time.

My son Kai is 10 and hooked on his iPad. We should really call it a KaiPad. He’d use it pretty much all day long if we let him, (although he tells us that we are completely wrong about that). He watches videos on YouTube, draws and paints, takes pictures and makes his own videos. Bedtime story has moved into Kindle for the iPad now and he seems to be reading more than before. Above all else there are apps. Apps that build cities and apps that destroy them, apps that communicate, apps that create, information apps, puzzles, apps to rule the world and fight epic battles in the past, present and future. I love the speed at which he mastered the technology. I love his confidence. “How did you learn to do that?” I ask him. “Dunno. Just did. It’s easy,” he says.

Potato Pal Joy: EnJOYing her apps!

Potato Pal Joy: EnJOYing her apps!

If you are in any doubt about the speed of this technological helter-skelter, just think about this. The iPad was launched less than four years ago. Isn’t that amazing? If you don’t think so, find some seven year olds and tell them that they are twice as old as the iPad.

Watch their faces.

Putting this awesome technology into small hands is exciting but aren’t there worries? Even more so than television, parents and teachers have a new way of occupying small children for indefinite periods of time. With this brave new world of opportunity comes big responsibility. We are the first generation of parents and teachers to deal with this new reality. We’re all feeling our way along in the dark. Meanwhile, app developers are racing ahead, creating more and more wonderful ways of entrancing our children. The kids are keeping up. Are we?

In our family, Kai is allowed a couple of iPad sessions a day, each lasting half an hour. Before he goes to school, he is allowed to draw pictures or watch ‘educational’ videos on YouTube but is not allowed to use the ‘entertainment’ apps. In the second session, after homework, he can do pretty much what he likes but the first thing he always reaches for is his iPad. He cherishes that time most of all in the day. It’s a far more powerful way of getting him to do things than pocket money ever was, that’s for sure. Occasionally he gets an extra ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes, on a long flight or car journey he gets to do an even longer session. Happy days! When it’s time to finish, we drag him off the thing using a team of wild horses. I do know that feeling, because I am the same with my computer. I also know how grotty he feels when he’s done too much screen time.

I think we should be asking this question: What is the child on the iPad not doing? What other activities is the iPad time replacing? What would this child have been doing otherwise – in a pre-technology world and would they be having a richer experience? Is the iPad replacing play that would be more creative, more active, more social, more real and more healthy? Is an app satisfying our instinct to run without running? A large number of Kai’s apps seem to replace what was called ‘play’. Sometimes he looks rather lonely there, folded up on the sofa, utterly absorbed.

Painting on an iPad lacks the sensory quality of painting in real life – the joys of getting messy. Is all this digital play just a mirage that replaces the real thing? No mess. No cleaning up. They don’t even make much noise and they hardly even move. How convenient. How un-childlike.

Apps are certainly not going to be going away any time soon though. Of course, there are some positive questions that we should ask when choosing apps for our students and our children. Will the child learn something from it? Is it interactive? Does it give room for the child’s own individual input? Does it leave the child with a sense of achievement? Does it produce something that can be shared with others? Does it involve practicing a lasting skill? Is this content appropriate, enriching and improving? Can they really hear their own voice?

When I had the opportunity to create an app for Potato Pals, I wanted to make sure that the answer to all those questions was “Yes!” I hope that you agree.

The Potato Pals 1 app can be downloaded from the App store. We here at Super Simple Learning are big fans of the Pals. We used the books in our classes when we were teaching in Tokyo, and it was our favorite series. We’re super excited there is an interactive app now available!

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author interested in the use of songs, stories and real world connections to motivate learners. He believes that the classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place for students as well as teachers. Patrick spent 13 years in Japan teaching learners of all ages but is now based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of Potato Pals, Stars and Everybody Up, all published by Oxford University Press. Patrick tweets atpatjack67 and blogs at


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