Addressing the Alliance for Childhood at the European Parliament

Published March 8, 2012 – by Lisa Jordan

Speech to European Parliament March 6, 2012
Lisa Jordan, Executive Director

At Bernard van Leer Foundation we believe that young children are everybody’s business. To achieve change for children we focus on opportunities that show the greatest potential for impact. Today I am going to talk about the business with maybe the greatest potential for our youngest citizens, one of the only growth markets in our shrinking global economy, and an industry in which young children are increasingly consumer and producer, new media.

But first a bit about Bernard van Leer Foundation that was created in a time that researchers were just beginning to think of the learning potential of the new media of that age, TV. When I tell you that research we supported resulted in Sesame Street you may understand why we feel researching the potential of our own NEW media is so important.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation is a private philanthropy based in the Netherlands. We work in eight countries around the world including the Netherlands itself and for Roma children in the EU. For 42 years our focus has been to create greater opportunities for young disadvantaged children below the age of eight. Most of that work has centred on creating a better understanding of children’s development amongst adults. The understanding that the first years of a child’s life lay the foundation for their future. The understanding that investing in opportunities for young children is the key to creating a more equal and prosperous society.

While we have focused on creating models for early learning in the past, we now focus on the challenges associated with scaling quality early learning. In addition we focus on the two largest impediments to children’s development, violence and health hazards created by the environment in which children grow up.

Does new media have the potential of scaling quality early learning opportunities for young children?

We think it does. Scaling quality early learning opportunities does not need to follow the institutional path, through schools, day care centres and crèches. Learning starts at birth and does not stop once school is out for the day.

I want to share with you a few facts that have driven our interest in the potential of on-line learning and media.


The first is that 72% of the apps now created are for children under the age of eight. I don’t mean amongst children’s apps, but amongst all apps being created for touch-screens. This means that ¾ of all production is oriented toward young children. And don’t be fooled if they are placed in the ‘educational’ section of the apps store: the vast majority falls into the category of mindless entertainment.

This is a wasted opportunity.

The second fact is that 90% of the brain development occurs in the first five years of life. Parents are a child’s first teacher. And when children are very young, they learn through play. The evolutionary reason for play is learning. There is a faulty perception in society that play and learning are different activities. In the Netherlands and elsewhere children do not enter a structured learning or play environment before the age of 4. And when they do, play is relegated to recess.

I can say it again, a wasted opportunity.

The last fact is that more screen time is clocked by children of low social and economic status than of those in middle or higher social classes. Video games are played by more than 90% of school age children. What we want is to make learning fun through quality game design. Fortunately there are many game designers out there who want the same. This is not to disguise learning within video games but to infuse learning throughout video game design.

This is the opportunity we are excited about: merging the worlds of early learning specialist with the new media designers.

I will quote a game designer from Norway, Bendik Stang:

‘’Our approach to gaming in education is that gaming is learning. We do not believe that learning activities should be disguised in game-like environments, but rather that learning is much better achieved through the game itself. Quality game design can make education more relevant by enabling players to step into different roles, confront a problem, make meaningful choices and explore the consequences of these choices. Teachers are also increasingly confronted with large classrooms of widely divergent capabilities. Games let players take on different challenges, fail in a safe environment and, ultimately, succeed and ‘level up’ at their own pace.’’

This designer – one of the founders of Snowcastle Creations – created an app for very young children called ‘Say it with Zoe’ which does exactly what a little picture book does, except that it is interactive, the child can sit on your lap and press the screen or can lie on the kitchen floor and do the same while Poppy or Mommy is cooking. The touchscreen is not like the TV or the computer or even your blackberry. It is portable, interactive and the reach is the perfect width for chunky little hands. This makes it a high potential new learning medium for kids as interaction is one of the key ways in which young children learn.

The Bernard van Leer Foundation and Cinekid the largest children’s film festival in the world have teamed up to support the production of high quality media for young children. 20 experts from two fields came together last October to determine how to build a stronger pipeline of good quality apps that will not drain the brain but build its capacities.

We are not alone in looking at this tremendous learning opportunity. The White House has a fellow looking at games and learning, some of the biggest scientific challenges are being resolved through on line gaming like Folidit and Bjork, bless her, is using new media to marry science and music in the classroom. Kids should feel like the superheroes of sound, she says.

Now is this appropriate for babies? Whether it is or not is almost a mute question. I will leave you with this YouTube video which more or less says it all.

Speech to European Parliament March 6, 2012