There exists much debate about the effects of digital technology environments on children. The study aimed to determine whether or not the use of an educational app can positively impact preschoolers’ attention development.

A connection to the Theory of Multiple Intelligence 

Howard Gardner’s widely embraced Theory of Multiple Intelligences, though a subject of much criticism, might provide a valuable segue into how technological classrooms adopt similar scaffolds for encouraging diversity in the varying degrees of student strengths, development rates, and preferences for learning. Further, there continues to be mounting evidence for how gamification elements might serve to motivate and engage learners. Elements leading to this success are clearly stated goals, self-choice, and immediate feedback. Gamification allows for all three.

Neumann & Neumann (2013) suggest how previous studies’ conclusions on computer-based tasks, serious video games, or digital cognitive training games can be used as scaffolding tools to assist with children’s cognitive development.

Developing sustained attention in children

171 children between the ages of 3 and 4 years old were divided into experimental and control groups for a quasi-experimental study. The children were all from a northern city in China and the income and parents’ education levels from the school were in the average range of the city.  The experimental group used an educational tablet app twice a week for 12 weeks in an effort to examine their sustained attention and attention orientation speed. Building on previous findings, educational digital apps could promote attention development in young children. The researchers believe their first hypothesis was proven, that tablet training with an educational app can foster sustained attention development in young children. However, their second hypothesis two – that tablet training with an educational app could accelerate young children’s attention orientation development – was inconclusive.

Sustained, but not gained

The results indicated that children in the experimental group had significantly longer fixation duration than that of the control group after 12 weeks of training using the app. However, the results did not provide evidence for accelerating the children’s orientation development. According to the study, attention in young children can be sustained but not necessarily gained from the use of technology apps. Yet, the researchers believe the outcomes show how educational game-based tablet apps lead to positive attention development in young children. The results of the study serve to reinforce previous research that children as young as 4 years old can have improvements in sustained attention with intervention.   

Aside from limiting media usage, a suggestion for practice is allowing students to complete one task before moving on to another. This requires setting up an expectation for how many tasks, activities, or games children are engaged with, as this will allow for greater ease in student completion.

Notable Quotes: 

“The study suggests more collaboration between educational organizations and software companies to create appropriate educational apps with built-in, routine school activities, and appropriate features for preschool students to operate, play, learn, and practice.”

“The main purpose of the study is to examine the effect of using an educational serious game in preschools on young children’s attention development. A preschool classroom has an environment full of visual, aural, or other distractions. Many empirical studies (Axelsson et al., 2016; Del Moral et al., 2015; Falloon, 2013; Neumann, 2014, 2018; Ramos & Melo, 2018; Walczak & Taylor, 2018) proceed with cognition, literacy, numeracy, and other digital interventions in school or classroom environments for the best ecological validity.“

“On the basis of the feedback from classroom teachers and children, a qualified, children-friendly app can play an important role in young children’s learning process… This implies that the school and the government should establish appropriate tablet- assisted educational serious game learning activities in preschool curricula. However, factors such as age, settings, children’s development level, teacher’s familiarity on an app content, and features have to be considered in the introduction of new technology. This requires evaluations and personal use experiences from educators and practitioners.”

Personal Takeaway

As an educator, the one element in the study that resonated most was the need for diversification of methods for how students might access learning. The tablet app provided for a range of activities, including video, drawings, nursery rhymes, and games versus a more traditional approach. Though evidence continues to be compiled for the positive effects of technology, the authors indicated how technology should be intentionally used and in balance. This aligns with my experiences in the classroom but also with years as a boarding school faculty house parent. The nature of this research centering on such young children and the introduction of technology only emphasizes the gravitas of intentionality


Matt Piercy

Summarized Article:

Wen Liu, Liting Tan, Dan Huang, Nan Chen & Fang Liu (2021) When Preschoolers Use Tablets: The Effect of Educational Serious Games on Children’s Attention Development, International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 37:3, 234-248, DOI: 10.1080/10447318.2020.1818999