Technology in Early Childhood: Advice For Parents and Teachers From A Trusted Source

 
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Photo by Barnaby Wasson.

3.28.12 | It seems like everyone has weighed in on the how-young-is-too-young debate around children and technology. Doctors, parents, researchers, software developers, media producers—the list goes on. But this month we finally heard from respected experts with direct experience: early childhood educators.

The Fred Rogers Center partnered with the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) on the release of a major new position statement, “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Servicing Children from Birth through Age 8.”

Some of the authors involved have devoted their lives to understanding how young children think and learn—and how the needs of, say, a 2-and-a-half-year-old are different from the needs of a 4-year-old. They spend their days interacting with and observing little kids through a developmental lens.

Read more:

The full position statement: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Servicing Children from Birth through Age 8.

You can submit feedback and questions to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Their verdict: “We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” said Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center.

But the experts have included some very important caveats. Namely, they recommend limiting passive screen time (such as TV) for children ages 2 through 5, and avoiding it entirely for children under age 2. And they warn that if technology is provided without guidance and education, “usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

While the statement provides guidance on how technology should be used in educational settings, including pre-school centers and day care, the advice in this document has great value for parents, too.

The last time NAEYC took a position on technology integration was 1996, when technology was a different beast entirely. As Lisa Guernsey notes in a post on the statement’s release at the New America Foundation’s Early Ed Watch blog, the new statement has not been without controversy. In development for three years, it has gone through multiple drafts and public comment periods. Many early childhood professionals still argue technology has no place in classrooms; they point to research showing children learn best through creative play and interactions with their environment, peers, and adult teachers and caregivers.

But after a careful examination of the research and practice, NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center determined interactive media can be an effective tool to support learning and development in the early years. Just like building blocks or play dough, however, its use and effectiveness depends on context: the who, what and why.

Speaking during a NAEYC webcast announcing the positions statement’s release, Roberta Schomburg, an associate dean of education at Carlow University, said the first question an educator or caregiver should ask is whether technology is relevant and useful to a particular activity.

“The first question should be: ‘Is this the best choice for accomplishing a particular set of developmental goals or not?’” she said. “Knowing the child, his or her interests, developmental stage, cultural and linguistic background, individual abilities, all contribute to the decision-making process.”

The statement urges educators to explore technology use within a framework of “developmentally appropriate practice.” By that they mean that all decisions about what takes place in the classroom should be guided by what we know from research about how kids learn and develop, and what’s optimal for that learning. They recommend that in the early childhood years, children’s use of technology should be “active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering” and, importantly, should give the child control and “help children progress in skills development at their individual rates; and are used as one of many options to support children’s learning.”

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Photo by Barnaby Wasson.

Specific examples include expanding young children’s access to new content – like finding pictures online of polar bears, for example, or Skype chatting with relatives who live far away. Technology should not be an isolated activity, but should instead become part of the daily classroom routine, enhancing and expanding lessons.

“We use technology as means to play, not supplanting play, but extending and supporting play,” Mark Bailey, director of the Early Learning Community in Portland, Ore., told me last year. Bailey and his colleagues use technology with children between the ages of 3 and 6 to explore and document their experiences; they use a digital ProScope to view a butterfly wing close-up, for example, digital cameras to photograph their latest block creations, and classroom computers to dictate stories. These are the kinds of optimal experiences the NAEYC researchers are talking about.

The statement makes an important distinction between interactive, participatory media such as apps, e-books, or interactive white boards, and non-interactive media, including some television programs and videos that encourage more passive viewing.

The authors also recommend using media that directly supports building relationships between students and caregivers or teachers. Dynamic interactions are especially important for very young learners, who learn best with encouragement and feedback. Some critics have raised concerns that time with technology is taking the place of the time children spend talking and interacting with the adults in their lives.

“It’s a tool in the context of learning relationships, and if you don’t have the relationship, its not all that valuable,” Schomburg told me when I talked with her for a story last year. “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.” [For more, read “Playing Along: Why Parents and Educators Need to Use & Discuss Media With Children”].

The statement also emphasizes the information and guidance educators (and parents!) need to evaluate and select quality and enriching media tools. In conjunction with this position statement, NAEYC released some helpful examples of effective ways to use technology in the classroom by age group (pdf). And the Fred Rogers Center has also been working on an initiative to create a broader framework for identifying quality media tools across a range of platforms. This work will be aimed not only at early childhood professionals, but also at parents and media creators. The Center just released a new Early Learning Environment, or Ele, a website designed to share digital resources that support early learning with teachers, family child care providers, and families of young children birth to 5.

The position statement also finds that professional development is crucial, particularly for giving teachers the opportunity to experiment with technology on their own and receive ongoing support. Digitally literate educators who have a background in child development will have no problem integrating technology effectively. However, the authors caution that educators who lack technology skills or digital literary education, as many do, are “at risk of making inappropriate choices and using technology with young children in ways that can negatively impact learning and development.”

The authors acknowledge that evidence about the value of technology on children’s development is conflicting, and more work is needed to guide policy and practice going forward. There have been studies linking passive media use and childhood obesity, for example, and studies pointing to associations between screen media and attention span, language development and sleep patterns. But research has also shown some evidence that with careful design, and attention to professional development, media resources can help teach reading.

Susan Linn, director of the coalition Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, told me that while NAEYC has been responsive to the concerns of her organization and colleagues around the country, she feels they didn’t go far enough in providing the information child care providers and parents really need—specific time recommendations for screen time limits—which many in the public health community are advocating for in child care centers and early education settings.

The first question should be: ‘Is this the best choice for accomplishing a particular set of developmental goals or not?’

– Roberta Schomburg, Carlow University

Research shows young children are spending anywhere from 22 to 32 hours a week with screen media. Linn said this is time not spent engaged in activities known to be beneficial and educational to kids, like interacting with adults, hands-on creative play, or physical activity.

“And unless there are brakes, there is every indication that the amount of time children spend with screen media is going to be increasing,” she said.

Parents, teachers and caregivers need specific advice about how and when to put the brakes on. A 15-minute limit for a preschooler, for example, may be an appropriate amount of time for them to be playing, and learning from their favorite app.

“The early childhood community and the public health community really should come together and find ways to help parents not just make better choices about what their kids are doing with screen media, but to make better choices about time,” she said.

Time, context, and educational content matter very much in determining whether the media experience is going to be valuable for the child.

The problem, I fear, is that the approach taken in Mark Bailey’s classrooms at the Early Learning Community is the exception, rather than the rule. Though the position statement urges early childhood educators to be sensitive about the technologies they choose, I think many educators, care providers, and parents don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to be selective

Figuring out how to “arrange play experiences for children to construct and explore their ideas about how technology works,” as the NAEYC’s Examples for Classroom Practice suggests educators do for preschoolers and kindergarteners, is hard. And while it’s important to put these examples forward as best practices, the reality of many classrooms may be very different.

Absent training or resources, the common fall-back for new technology is to use mainstream, commercial media designed by industries guided by profit instead of by developmentally appropriate practice.

The kind of deep, nuanced guidance this statement provides is desperately needed and incredibly valuable. Many of us are looking for lessons on how to help our children use new technologies to develop, as Rita Catalano of the Fred Rogers Center says, “critical thinking, creativity, communication skills, and content knowledge” that will equip them to be problem solvers now and in the future.

I look forward to hearing more from this community about how to put these principles into practice, with leadership from nursery school teachers, not Viacom.

Read the full position statement at NAEYC. The early childhood community is encouraged to send feedback to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Another podcast is scheduled for early April.

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