Technology and the early childhood years
Remember the Sony Walkman, the Palm Pilot, handheld calculators or playing Pong? In their heyday, they were technological advances—innovative and revolutionary! Each brought criticism and concerns as they proliferated and transformed the mainstream culture. Each found its niche but was eventually replaced with new, sleeker technology. While the actual devices have changed—technology is here to stay! Our children were born into and will continue to live in a world of ever-changing interactive media. What is our responsibility, as parents and as early childhood educators, to help young children navigate this rapidly changing digital world? How much is too much? What kinds of material or devices are appropriate? What kinds are not? Now more than ever before, when it comes to technology, we need to make informed, developmentally appropriate decisions that support our children’s growth and learning.
While there is much research on the value of technology use for young children, research findings remain divided. Negative outcomes such as irregular sleep patterns, focus and attention problems and negative impact on socialization have been identified as possible side effects of technology use; still other researchers have found no evidence that technology use is harmful for young children. (NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center, 2012). There is broad support, including recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly discourages the use of screens and technology for children under the age of two years. As researchers continue to ask and answer these questions, we continue to try to optimize learning through the use of technology while mitigating the potential misuse.
At Greenhouse, technology is used in the context of our studies and projects, as one possible tool for learning. Children may be seen doing ‘research’ with a teacher on the Internet—“What do you know about New York City?” You may find a child dictating a story to a teacher, who is typing her words to go into her journal. We use digital cameras to document and share all of our work. We use technology thoughtfully to enhance our children’s learning. We use technology as one tool for creative expression and problem solving, and as a way to find out information.
Both at school and at home, it is vital to understand that with guidance, technology tools can be used responsibly; without guidance, those same tools can be inappropriate and even reckless. There is interactive media that has valuable educational content and then there is material that is, well, shall I say, less-than-valuable educational content. Ultimately, technology tools and content are not all equal. When making decisions about your child’s use of technology, there is much to consider. Parents need to intentionally evaluate and select the digital materials their child interacts with. When making decisions about materials, find media that will allow your child to create or be interactive. There is a distinct difference in value between passively consuming technology, and actively using technology to express one’s thoughts and ideas. Find material that is active, hands-on, engaging and child-controlled. (NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center, 2012) Use technology to expose children to new ideas and objects, or use it to stay connected to far away loved-ones by participating in a Skype conversation. Be an informed consumer of technology products and do not depend on marketing materials (Baby Einstein, I’m looking at you!) to inform your choices. Common Sense Media (commonsensemedia.org) is a valuable resource with a balanced approach that can help parents make informed decisions about media content and use.
After making informed choices, another important way you can ensure the responsible use of technology with your child is to watch, listen and play with them while they are engaged with devices. Young children love flipping through digital photos or watching videos of themselves or loved ones. Be close by as your child is playing the new Daniel Tiger app so you can help your child make connections from the game to their own life. (“Bath time, PJs, brush teeth, story and song, and off to bed” works for Daniel’s bedtime ritual; it just might work for yours!). Even if you’re making dinner, you can still have one ear on the iPad! Additionally, we need to remember that we are the models from which our children will learn behavior. Teach your child acceptable use of technology through your own behavior. Monitor and manage your own connection to technology while with the family. Prioritize family time that is completely device free—a walk in the park, a game of Candy Land—and whatever you choose, make family time be about connection (in real life) and building relationships. Also, time matters! The amount of time a child spends with technology is always an important consideration. Time spent sitting in front of a screen is time not spent climbing, running and jumping. Time spent pointing and clicking is time not spent pretending, socializing and constructing. Monitoring the amount of time spent in front of screens—all screens (television, computers, tablets, mobile devices, electronic games and e-readers)—is vital to ensure a balanced use. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises one or two hours of screen time a day for children older than 2 years. Realities of family life remain—some days there may be more time spent on screens and some days less—and the ultimate goal is balance. And lastly, remain ‘plugged in’ to the latest research. There is still much to learn about young children and technology use. Emerging issues including 3D vision and eye health, electromagnetic fields and radiation, and child obesity (to name only a few) are important questions and issues to keep thinking about. Our children exist in a world where technology is all around them. We need to ensure that their exposure to it is developmentally appropriate, and we need to teach them how to use it wisely and safely. As in so many aspects of life, balance remains the answer.
Wondering what educational apps are on my iPad? Below are just a few of my (and Jono and Lucy’s!) favorites apps.
2 -3 years
Peek-A-Zoo: Uses animals to help kids identify different traits or behaviors (Find the animal that is feeling surprised. Which one is lonely?). The graphics are a bit silly and cartoonish but it is very intuitive and easy for the younger set to maneuver.
Vehicle Fun: Simple pictures of authentic vehicles (tanks, motorcycles and such) and the sounds they make. What is more fun than looking at pictures of trucks? Hearing their sirens and whistles, of course! Super simple and has beautiful photos of actual vehicles, with good sound and voice quality.
Bugs and Buttons: Who doesn’t love counting realistic roaches and ants as they fly across the screen? This app practices skills like counting, patterning and memory. In addition to the more skill-based activities, there are some fun games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Catch ’Em (yes, they catch roaches!) What I love most are the realistic graphics (none of those cheesy animations or primary colors—just real roaches and bees!)
Endless ABC: It is like a puzzle, but with letters and words. As a letter and vocabulary app, kids match letters to spell words. The graphics are fun: not too silly, but still enough to make the kids laugh. While there are some limits to the app (great for matching letters, not so great on allowing children to use vocabulary learned), I have found that what is missing in design can be made up in our interactions together with the app. I will either make up a sentence using the word or encourage the kids to make up a sentence using the word. I also encourage them to match the letters in order from left to right (the app allows them to match in any order).
Letter School: A simple and straightforward letter- and number-writing app with animated features. It has clear and concise directions and teaches the proper letter formation in a fun and intuitive way. It also builds and progresses with children’s skill.
Memory 4 You: An app designed to help children exercise their working memory. This is a very simple, straightforward app with few graphics, bells or whistles. Children need to be able to remember a string of objects and then drag pictures into the proper order. (Truth? On a slow night, after the dishes are done, I could break out the iPad and lose myself in this game; my working memory needs as much help as it can get these days.) I like its simplicity and that it has flexibility to build with the children’s skill.
Monkey Lunch Box: A typical kids’ app—cartoon graphics, lots of positive reinforcement, repetition. As children help the monkey pack his lunch box they play different fast-paced games that expose kids to letter names, colors, shapes, counting and pattern recognition.
National Association for the Education of Young Children and Fred Rogers Center. 2012. Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Children from Birth through Age 8 Position Statement. http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PS_technology_WEB2.pdf
Common Sense Media. www.Commonsensemedia.org
A FINAL THOUGHT
Today in my inbox, I found the below email from ExchangeEveryDay, Child Care Exchange Magazine’s free online newsletter. It was so fitting, I had to share! Enjoy!
Piaget walks into a room…
“Imagine that Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, B.F. Skinner [and Lev Vygotsky] walked into the speaker ready room before their panel at the NAEYC Annual Conference,” posits Warren Bucklietner in his chapter, “What Would Maria Montessori Say About the iPad?” in the new NAEYC publication, Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years. Buckleitner uses this clever device to explore how digital play and learning stack up versus the theories of these great thinkers who shaped our profession:
“Montessori is angry. ‘I typed my last name into iTunes and came up with 500 apps! Some are good, but others are merely low-rate flash cards.’ ‘Really though, what’s the harm with the occasional flash card, as long as it’s used with a reward?’ asks Skinner. Montessori’s cheeks are flushed with emotion. ‘Some of these apps don’t go deeper than the lowest level ideas — shapes, colors, letters, and numbers….’
Piaget nods in the direction of Skinner. ‘She has reason to be angry, B.F. Some of these apps imply the acceleration of development, even for infants. We should all be concerned with app quality…. I’ve notice that my own daughters now prefer their iPads to the observation of mollusks! But I’ve been observing them as they play and I’m pleased to report that my stage theory maps well to this digital medium…. A child born 100 years ago developed in much the same way as a child born this year. What is different in 2013 are the experiences due to the technology. Candlelight can be provided by LEDs. But still we have the choice of real candles. Parents have genetic screening, antibiotics, and their babies can have bedtime stories read by grandparents who live half a continent or half a world away.’
Vygotsky quietly adds, ‘Mobile devices help ideas flow across the geographic and economic chasms. Services like Google, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter can move ideas from Leningrad to San Francisco at the speed of light.’ He starts getting very excited. ‘The knowledge elite could dissolve. Every teacher could have a virtual mentor and unlimited professional development. That, my friends, is worth getting excited about.”