Why Flashcards for Kids Don’t Really Help Them Learn


Mar 13, 2017


Flashcards for kids are big business. They promise everything from easy learning to better brain development, and they’re immensely popular in India. But how effective are flashcards for kids, especially younger kids?

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. Flashcards are great for memorization and, thus, good for school preparedness in a system that rewards memorizing and recalling facts. What they’re not very effective for? Actual learning.

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The limitations of flashcards for kids

Flashcards don’t aid brain development.

Flashcards won’t actually make your child’s brain bigger or better or brawnier; the human brain develops from birth on a fairly set course influenced by experience-expectant and experience-dependent behaviours.

Experience-expectant behaviours are innate, natural behaviours like eating, playing, seeing and touching objects. The brain develops based on information gathered from sight, sound, taste, interaction and speech. All children discover the world through these senses, regardless of location or culture.

Experience-dependent behaviours, however, like reading or playing chess, are not innate traits, but rather are skills that emerge from outside stimulation and learning. These are culturally influenced or artificial behaviours that the brain experiences throughout its lifetime, and vary from child to child, depending on family, interests, and more.

Both of these behaviours encourage learning within a framework of reference. When a child plays with a ball, he will realise all round objects have no edges, and possibly that most round objects with a rubbery texture will bounce. Similarly, when he plays chess, he learns to strategise and think of consequences.

Flashcards, as a form of memorization, lay outside both learning behaviours (and, consequently, don’t aid brain development) because…

Flashcards take the context out of learning.

When children are just taught to recognise information on a card, instead of to internalise the word or concept in context, they’re unlikely to be able to use that information. It’s why your toddler may be able to recite “2+2=4” but is probably wholly unable to compute the same thing when given one pair of shoes and asked how many more he needs to make four. (And for the record, he won’t actually develop that ability until he’s primary school-aged, because sometimes there’s just no hastening Mother Nature.)

However, when the concept of basic addition is taught in context – that is, when the child understands ‘2’ as a written symbol of a physical amount — then he can apply it in other areas and, you know, do maths. This understanding of the representative and the physical can’t be taught by flashcards which, by their nature, are representative only.

Flashcards can overburden the brain and backfire.

Experts are talking more and more about neurological crowding – when too much information competes for synaptic connections in the brain. Think about when you’ve got multiple phone messages, emails, people calling your name, all coming in at one time – your brain goes blank, and it takes longer for you to do all the things you need to do, in the order you need to do them in.

The same thing can and does happen to kids. And one of the disadvantages of using flashcards for toddlers is that you’re basically feeding your child’s brain more and more info, one card at a time, where gets backed up, without any actual work, link or relation to anything else, making it more difficult for you kid to actually process everything else.

So, what can you do that is more effective for development than flashcards for kids?

Make play, not flashcards

Learning through play actually changes brain structure – in a very good, leg-up-the-ladder way. Play configures the connections of neurons in kids’ prefrontal cortex– the part of the brain that helps figure out how to solve problems, deal with emotions and much, much more.

Speech development is a good example of the impact of flashcards versus play. A child learns to speak more fluently through regular conversation with her parents/caretakers – not by looking at words on a sheet of paper.

In fact, play by any other name is called interacting – with you, with objects, with the world – which makes a child think, connect, build synaptic pathways between words and their tangible meanings – rather than memorising that a round red object is called an apple. When a child is playing, an object can be a hammer, a doll, a child, a car and more – depending on what the child has experienced and will be able to replicate. Which means that the child is able to use objects to symbolise what it wants, and re-envision a variety of scenarios, without focusing on the object itself. This is directly inverse to the use of flashcards in teaching, where the focus is on the card, rather than the object, its uses, and its practical applications.

And play fosters curiosity. The authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards: How Our Children Really Learn — And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick, filmed toddlers and their parents interacting at mealtimes, when the toddler would ask for a certain object and the parent would hold up every item near the object, naming it, till they found what the toddler wanted. The authors found that toddlers would persevere for up to seven conversational rounds till they got what they wanted, and they summarise the act of learning through interaction with this pithy question: ‘Would you learn a word for ‘grape’ if you took seven attempts to get one?’

  Read more about curiosity on The Swaddle.

Flashcards for toddlers may make us feel like we’re helping our children get ahead, but we’re not. But in the face of someone telling us that we’re making a mistake by not using flashcards or memory aids with our kids, it’s easy to second-guess ourselves. For these times, the authors of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards have conveniently come up with some guidance for parents:

  • Reflect on whether you should be leaping into action with every new media report or what the Joneses are doing with flashcards for kids.
  • Resist from joining the herd buying flashcards for kids. Don’t panic that you’re not letting your child get ahead.
  • Re-centre yourself about making the right choice. Research the subject at hand, and remind yourself that childhood is for play not work.

Now those are some thoughts you can put on a few flashcards… along with a reminder to play more with your kids.


Written By Akhila Vijaykumar

Akhila Vijaykumar is a writer with experience across advertising and journalism. Occasionally, the crossover does make her demand truth from soap and try to cajole quotes into starbursts, but no harm no foul. She loves books by Terry Pratchett, dogs and pizza, often at the same time.


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