Cen Campbell is a children's librarian for the Santa Clara County Library District. She has developed an archetypal early literacy program, Tablet Tales, that incorporates digital media into traditional storytelling. Cen is an advocate for a librarian's use of digital media (apps + eBooks) to enhance existing literacy learning programs. She believes children's librarians should become industry leaders in evaluating, curating and recommending interactive, tablet-based technology to parents and children in their communities. You can also find Cen on her early literacy blog Little eLit.

8 Questions with Cen Campbell:

You have quite a progressive perspective of digital media – ebooks and apps – and the positive impact it can have on literacy learning. Why do feel digital media can be so impactful to a young child’s literacy development?

CC: My progressive perspective has more to do with the children’s librarian's role in the evaluation, dissemination and constructive use of digital media for young children than the media itself. While some research is beginning to emerge on the use of interactive, tablet-based media with young children, there are still no definitive guidelines for the consumption of this kind of media, and very few positive role models to show parents what a healthy media diet looks like. Our children live in a media-saturated environment; it is time for librarians to step and offer some guidance on the quality and quantity of digital media consumed by families in our communities.

What tips do you have for how best to blend digital media and traditional books to get the most out of storytime with young children (ages: 2-5)?

CC: The biggest “tip” I can give is actually stated in your question: blend digital media and traditional books. Apps and eBooks are not a replacement for paper books in storytime any more than a puppet or an egg shaker is a replacement for a paper book.  An iPad is an incredibly useful tool which can facilitate parent education, offer reader’s advisory for high-quality apps and eBooks, showcase the library’s digital collection, and project felt boards, draw and tell stories and digital books onto a large screen so everyone in the room can see them.

What would you recommend to parents who aren’t sure how much screen time is most appropriate for their child at this stage of development?

CC: The AAP recommends no screen time under the age of 2 and only limited exposure after the age of 2, while the NAEYC’s position statement states “When the integration of technology and interactive media in early childhood programs is built upon solid developmental foundations, and early childhood professionals are aware of both the challenges and the opportunities, educators are positioned to improve program quality by intentionally leveraging the potential of technology and media for the benefit of every child.”

What parents need to understand is that not all screens are created equal, and that it is up to them to be actively involved in their children’s media consumption. Sometimes “screen time” can consist of a parent and child sitting together, reading a copy of an award winning picture book on an iPad (try Olivia!) with no interactivity or animation. Sometimes “screen time” is the child sitting passively by themselves watching Dora or other commercial media while their caretaker is busy. When it comes to consuming digital media, I’d say do the former whenever you can, and minimize how much you do the latter.

I try to be realistic about the world we live in; sometimes parents (me included!) need a few minutes to get something important done, and the occasional stint with passive media is unavoidable. In my house there is no time-based rule about media, only quality-based rules. Book-based media always comes first, and I try to be as present as possible whenever my son is interacting with a mobile device. 

Parents need to use their judgement, find only the best quality media to share with their children, avoid commercialized content, and watch their children’s reactions to that content. 

One of the difficulties for parents these days is in sifting through the hundreds of thousands of apps/eBooks that are out there. What qualities should they look for in a good educational app for early childhood?

A lot of the work of finding high quality apps has been done for us already; check out some of these of review sources: Digital StorytimeCommon Sense MediaKindertownAppiticKirkusthe Horn Bookthe Cybils and School Library Journal. If any of these websites give an app a good review, you can usually trust it.

Beyond that, look for interactivity that moves the story along, avoid in-app purchases and apps with ads, avoid controls at the bottom of the screen (too easy for little hands to hit accidentally), and look for apps that allow various options for sound and text.

For the Santa Clara County Libraries, you’ve developed a program called Tablet Tales. Tell us a little bit about the program.

CC: Tablet Tales was my first foray into digital storytelling. When I began this initiative, few other library systems had begun experimenting with iPads in storytime, and as far as I knew, there had been no formalized pilot project deployed across an entire system. I took my experience performing traditional storytimes in libraries and translated various storytelling techniques into the digital realm.  I think when some librarians hear about this project they envision children slack-jawed while a computer reads a book to them; the reality is quite the opposite.  I find that the mix of singing, movement, musical instruments, puppets, paper books, digital books and digital felt boards supports more learning styles than most traditional programming and lets parents know they can ask librarians for advice on what kind of high-quality digital media to share with their children.

Are there activities or takeaways that can be gleaned from Tablet Tales and applied in the home environment?

CC: Absolutely! One of the main reasons for librarians to incorporate digital media into their early literacy programming is to model healthy media behaviors.  Librarians sometimes joke that storytime is not really for the kids; it’s for the parents! We demonstrate how you can support the development of the 6 early literacy skills (Vocabulary, Print Motivation, Letter Awareness, Print Awareness, Narrative Skills and Phonological Awareness) with easy techniques like playing with funny rhymes, pointing out words, singing instead of saying, asking the child to finish sentences etc; these activities and techniques remain the same in the digital realm, but many parents may assume that because an iPad is already “interactive” that they no longer need to provide that kind of stimulation. The reality is quite the opposite; there are MORE opportunities for parents and children to learn together through using interactive media!

I try to remind parents (and my colleagues) that apps and ebooks are not a replacement for paper books; they are to be used alongside paper books, and can sometimes be more appropriate than paper books (ie on a long plane ride, in a room full of 100 people etc). Tablet Tales has taught me how powerful a motivator interactive technology can be for this new generation of kids; parents can take advantage of that and consider digital books a legitimate reading choice that can be shared by the whole family.

In addition to being a librarian, you write an early literacy blog called Little eLit. Tell us about your blog.

CC: I began LittleeLit.com because there were no other librarians developing best practices for incorporating this new technology into traditional library services for kids. I collect resources and success stories, provide consulting services and training workshops, and I’m always looking for partners to share their experiences with projects that have to do with literacy, kids and technology. It’s hard to find support when you’re developing a program that includes cutting edge technology; my aim is to create a community of knowledge and share my experiences so my colleagues don’t have to re-invent this particular wheel.

Who is your favorite Letter Buddies character?


CC: Chatty C loves cake. So I think I love Chatty C.

A special thanks to Cen Campbell for taking the time to participate in our KidTech interview series! Librarians have always been an important part of early childhood literacy in communities all over this country and Cen is continuing that good work in this digital era!

K + Y