Learning, Digital Media and Creative Play in Early Childhood


Educators at the Early Learning Center work to ensure developmentally appropriate uses of technology in early childhood classrooms. Photo courtesy of Mark Bailey.

3.24.11 | At a small school near Portland, Ore., a typical day for 3-year-old students might involve using digital cameras to photograph their latest block creations and then, with the help of a teacher, uploading the photos to the classroom’s iPad and dictating narratives about their work.

“We believe that children learn best through play,” Rachelle Mejia, a lead teacher at the Early Learning Community (ELC), says in a video on the school’s website.  “They learn social skills by socializing with each other as well as with adults.”

ELC is a child development center for children age 3 to 6. In a regular day here, a child might examine a butterfly wing using a digital ProScope or add a block to a SMART board bar graph that represents the pet her family has at home.

“We use technology as means to play, not supplanting play, but extending and supporting play,” said Mark Bailey, director of the Early Learning Community and a professor in the College of Education at Pacific University where the school is housed.

Bailey works to ensure developmentally appropriate uses of technology in these early childhood classrooms. It’s an approach few are taking, but turns out it may be key to guiding children into their digital future.

The school draws from a mix of pedagogical approaches—from Waldorf and Montessori, to Reggio Emilia, a progressive early childhood approach developed by educators in north Italy that is known for its emphasis on art, reflection and deep immersion in project-based learning.


Students working with a digital ProScope. Photo courtesy of Mark Bailey.

The school’s website notes that children at this age learn best when they are “actively engaged in authentic interactions with their world.”

Bailey stresses that the same child described above may also not use technology at all on some days, and while technology is a tool for learning in preschool, it cannot substitute hands-on engagement with the world.

As noted on their classroom blogs, children at the Early Learning Community are busy with many non-technical activities associated with the preschool years: riding bikes in the play yard; eating mangoes as part of the study of fruit bats; making sculptures out of ice or clay; visiting the local post office to mail a letter; and making pizza to be devoured later in the day at snack time.

Bailey says that the technology in the classrooms at the school is “almost invisible.”

“It’s always kind of sexy to begin with, and everyone clamors for it, but now it’s just part of the classroom, like the magic markers. It’s just one of the choices.”

Are All Screens Created Equal?

Early childhood experts have long cautioned against media use for preschool age children. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that parents avoid television-viewing entirely for children who are younger than 2 and limit the viewing time of older children to no more than two hours a day. Some studies have linked screen time to childhood obesity, poor school performance, and attention deficit disorder.

But are all screens created equal? Perhaps not, says Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.

“In the old world, children’s media – namely television – was usually something to be passively absorbed at home,” Guernsey wrote in a recent blog post. “But today, children are gaining access to media that encourages – no, requires – some interaction on their part. Couldn’t that interaction bring with it the potential for harnessing that media to enrich children’s learning in many promising ways, in and out of school?”


Photo courtesy of ELC.

The market for educational media for young children is exploding. Almost half of the 100 top-selling education apps in the iTunes App Store were for preschool or elementary-aged children, according to a content analysis by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in 2009. These new games and mobile apps allow preschoolers to do everything from animate their own to cartoons, to learn their ABC’s, or to find, sort and measure virtual dinosaur bones. And they all claim to be educational.

Meanwhile, parents are handing over their smartphones to entertain bored kids in the back of the car. And the iPhone has become, according to one New York Times article, “the most effective tool in human history to mollify a fussy toddler, much to the delight of parents reveling in their newfound freedom to have a conversation in a restaurant or roam the supermarket aisles in peace.”

But it turns out that while there is some evidence that games and mobile apps can be a powerful tool for learning for older kids, we don’t actually know that much about the potential of these newer technologies to educate toddlers and preschoolers or what effect they are having on children’s cognitive, social and physical well-being. And the rapid pace of change is making it harder and harder for researchers to keep up.

Who’s Steering the Ship?: Guiding Teachers and Parents, Protecting Play

“There is a major dearth of good research on young children and technology,” Guernsey told Spotlight, stressing the importance of slicing the age groups very narrowly within the early learning years because of the rapid changes in brain development and physical motor skills.

The developmental needs of a 2 1/2 -year-old, for example, can be very different from the needs of a 3- or even 3 1/2 -year-old. The New America Foundation recently published a policy paper (pdf) requesting Congress allocate funds to study young children and digital technologies because so much is still unknown.

“Industry is steering the ship. And maybe they have the kids’ best interest in mind, but they ultimately want kids to watch the shows and come to their websites.” Guernsey said.

“They are seeing things through the world of ‘how can we engage kids through media?’ instead of asking the stepping back questions: ‘What do we want children to be getting out of a media experience in the first place?’ and ‘When is it going to be useful for them?’”

“We need to be ensuring that babies and toddlers and preschoolers have the time, the space, the silence and the inspiration to engage in creative play.”

– Susan Linn, Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), in partnership with the Fred Rogers Center, is trying to address this gap by providing some guidance to educators and families. Both groups are working to create a position statement on the best practices for technology, media and early childhood, and a “Framework for Quality” on how to determine quality media tools.

“There’s a lot of research about TV, and I think people understand how to judge quality when we’re talking about TV, but it’s a whole new world now for digital media,” said Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center.

“Technology is not stagnant.” Catalano said. “We need to provide guidance that remains relevant and applicable and enables people to make their own decisions.”

The position statement is expected this fall.

Susan Linn is one of 70 early childhood experts urging NAEYC to recommend that young children have little or no exposure to screen technologies in child-care, preschool or kindergarten settings.

“Preschoolers already spend 32 hours a week [outside of school] with media,” said Linn, executive director of the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, which spearheaded the letter to NAEYC. “What we know from the research is that screen media tends to replace activities known to be both educational and beneficial to children, and those are hands-on creative play and interaction with parents.”

Linn is also an instructor in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of “The Case for Make-Believe: Saving Play in a Commercialized World.”

She says her colleagues’ concerns stem from kids’ 24/7 “unfettered, unregulated access” to commercial media and technology. Since kids can watch and play with anything they want at any time, they often don’t have a chance to “flex their creative muscle.” Access, she says, is what makes children’s media habits so different than they were in the past.

A new report summarizing the data on children’s media consumption from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop finds that young children spend their days surrounded by media. Children are also using online tools for longer periods of time than they were even just a few years ago.

Linn says technology is engrossing and habitual. “The more you engage with it, the more you want to engage with it. Children who engage with screen media under the age of 3 tend to have a harder time turning it off when they’re older,” she said.

And though Linn agrees new virtual worlds, games and apps do promote creativity for adults and older kids, she believes these spaces do not meet young children’s developmental need for imaginative play.

“We don’t seem to be thinking developmentally,” she said. “With screen media you get everything, you get the voice, what the characters look like, you get how they move.”

“In order to create your own story, you have to have an imagination and the experience that comes from conjuring something out of nothing, or transforming an inert object into something alive,” added Linn, offering playing in the dirt or playing dress-up as examples. “We need to be ensuring that babies and toddlers and preschoolers have the time, the space, the silence and the inspiration to engage in creative play.”


Photo courtesy of ELC.

Parents need help figuring out how to set limits with new media and making sure it doesn’t replace one-on-one time talking with their children, which experts agree is still the most valuable learning tool of all.

Roberta Schomburg, an associate dean of education at Carlow University who is co-leading the work at the Fred Roger’s Center, said one of the things they expect to focus on, in addition to identifying quality in children’s media, is getting parents to understand the importance of setting limits and guiding their children’s media play.

“It’s a tool in the context of learning relationships, and if you don’t have the relationship its not all that valuable,” she said. “When adults are talking to children about what they’ve seen, what they’ve heard, and children get assistance in their ability to process it, that’s when it’s the most valuable.”

Back in Oregon, Mark Bailey agrees. He says that before using technology with young children, teachers and parents should ask themselves: “What’s the value added at this particular developmental level?” and, “What can technology offer that other things can’t offer?”

Bailey believes all teacher education programs should have a fully integrated technology component that requires new teachers to create and evaluate their own technology-based learning tools. He says he’s watched new teachers have these “aha moments,” when they come to realize that most of what’s out there is really not all that valuable.

“Most of the commercial software that’s out there I won’t buy, because I think it disempowers children,” he said. “What are really useful are the interactive and empowering tools.”

As an example, Bailey sees promise in technologies such as speech-to-text software to help emergent writers put their stories on paper, or the National Library of Virtual Manipulatives, a collection of web-based manipulatives and tutorials that teach early mathematics concepts, or some of the collaborative online tools that encourage children to connect with people and places around the globe.

Guernsey, of the New America Foundation, is also hopeful.

“I get nervous when people just close the door on technology in preschool,” she said. “There’s an opening of windows onto new worlds that can occur when you have a computer there – a YouTube video or a Skype chat with other preschools in Sweden or Singapore. These are especially magical moments that can happen with young kids -  especially when they just don’t get that otherwise.”

Interested in connecting with other educators around the developmentally appropriate use of technology? Get involved at the NAEYC technology interest forum website: techandyoungchildren.org.

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