What is chatta? Why does it exist?

An interveiw with chatta co-founder Chris Wiilliams,

Can you tell me very briefly about Chatta? What is it and why does it exist?

Many children are starting school behind in expected levels of language development. Research tells us that oral narrative competence is an essential indicator in future writing competence and that if children are unable to communicate effectively when they start school they will very often continue to struggle.

We developed the ‘chatta’ approach over 2 years in hundreds of nurseries to give parents and early years practitioners an evidence-based and powerful method to give their children the experiences and activities which lead to successful language development.

*Why are you in support of young kids (0-5s) using technology?

It ain’t what you do its the way that you do it . I think it can be  addictive and reduces social interactions. I also think it can bring experiences to life and can capture memories and improve language development. I’m always wary of young children being left unsupervised with technology for extended periods.

With ‘chatta’ the parents and practitioners use the technology with their children to share stories based on  family activities and experiences.

When we looked at all the evidence of what needs to happen for young children to develop language and narrative competence we combined everything into a very simple app. We wanted to create something that increased opportunities for interaction and storytelling.

Some of the design elements of chatta are there to reduce digital distractions for both. parents and children. We wanted to fight fire with fire. A child learns to speak based on the activities they do and the language they hear. More interactions lead to more language. We wanted to find a simple way to make the most of what technology can offer and present it in a way which helps give children the best start in life.

With chatta a child never uses the technology on their own, ideally they don’t need to touch it. It is about using a digital device to link images of activities, memories and experiences with language.

*There doesn’t seem to be any definitive guidance on screen time in the UK, unlike in Canada or the USA. Is that correct? 

There is an ongoing debate. The message is getting stronger but dictating to parents what to do/ what not to do isn’t always the best way. All parents want the best for their children. Parents are busy and life has challenges and sometimes 20 minutes on the IPad is exactly the right thing to do. Sensible guidelines would be I’m sure be welcomed by parents.

My feeling is that we need to be most concerned about the parents use of smartphones. I believe smartphones have allowed us to communicate more, but actually talk less. How many times have we seen parents eyes glued to screens paying little attention to their children. I don’t blame the parents, I think the rapid growth in the portability of constantly online technology has had a huge effect on the behaviour of many adults. People (some not all of course) browse Facebook whilst driving, they walk into lamp-posts, they sit in the most beautiful places there are and gaze obliviously at their screen.

I’ve seen campaigns such as “Stop, Drop and Talk” and “There is no lap to replace your lap” and whilst I fully support the message sometimes the delivery can feel patronising for parents. Almost moving towards a nanny-state. I think parents don’t need to be told what not to do, but to be shown what to do in a positive and supportive way. Being a parent is not easy.

*Can you suggest a few good, different ways to enrich a young child’s use of technology – simple ideas that might boost their language, their cognitive skills, their understanding of how technology fits into a healthy balanced life, etc?

My suggestions are to use technology to take photos and to look at the pictures together as a family. Talk about them. Send the good ones to friends and relatives. These days parents take pictures of everything. These thousands of images support their children’s memory and recall of people, places and events and provide parents powerful opportunities to model language and tell stories. I work with one family and both parents struggle with literacy and reading to their children, and they want to and know they should. It’s not that technology should replace reading and stories but that stories help us tell more and more stories. The father in the family loves fishing – and what a storyteller he is – with his pictures of the lakes, the rods and the bait and the gripping tales of ‘the one that got away’. Using photos is helping with his interactions with his children and improving his own literacy.

*Is there any evidence to suggest interactive smartphones and tablets are any better for kids than TV?

I don’t know – it is early days I think. I think it is widely accepted that letting a child watch TV all day is really bad. The same applies to smartphones and tablets. I still think the focus needs to be on parents too and that the home learning environment is critical for a child’s development.

*Obviously one of the reasons parents use smartphones and tablets is for a bit of quiet – would you put restrictions on how long without interaction is too long?

Anything more than an hour a day is probably too much. I think it’s different if the activity is collaborative and involves talking and interaction.

*Generally, how can parents know if the learning games and apps they’re providing their kids with are good ones?

A lot of digital content which presents itself as ‘educational’ may well be good for counting, matching, sorting and learning words but might not be the right thing for a child still in the earliest stages of developing physically, socially and emotionally. I think all of the “Toca Boca” apps are excellent because they promote collaboration and turn taking. I think many of the spelling and reading apps may not be the most appropriate fo the youngest children despite the fact that children may do well with them and enjoy them.

I once spoke to the parents of a 3 year old and they showed me how he could swipe his way through to high scores on a spelling game which game him an age related score of over 8 years. The child couldn’t speak – couldn’t string together 2 words. Children need to be doing more things that lead to conversations. They can become very proficient with any number of ‘educational apps’ but they need to be talking and to be hearing and engaging with language.

*Any tips for how you prevent tantrums when the technology gets taken away?

If there are tantrums when its taken away then it shouldn’t be given back until this is resolved. I’ve worked with parents who have been bitten by their own child when access to technology is stopped. Yet- they have quickly given it back to the child on the same day- leading to exacerbation of the problem.

There needs  to be rules and limits and there should be consistency. If a child is allowed to use technology then countdown timers are very helpful. A timer ( they are in-built on most tablets/phones) can  make the ending of an activity predictable. Also if a child knows what they will be doing next then that also brings consistency, structure and predictability.