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Exchange Focus: Using Technology Appropriately in the Preschool Classroom

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By Ann S. Epstein,
Senior Director Of Curriculum Development at HighScope

Exchange Focus PDF

Introduction

As technology for young children proliferates, educators and parents wonder if, when, and how to use it appropriately to support early development. Professional organizations concerned with children's well-being feel pressured to issue position papers. For example, the policy statement of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Communications and Media (2011) states unequivocally that children under age two should not be exposed to any screen media and emphasizes the value of unstructured play for the young child's developing brain. At the same time, AAP recognizes that high-quality interactive media can have educational benefits for children above age two, improving "social skills, language skills, and even school readiness" (p. 1041). A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media (2012) goes further in green lighting technology. While cautioning against its passive (noninteractive) use, the statement says that "technology and interactive media are here to stay" (p. 2) and that, appropriately used, with the support of knowledgeable adults, they "can be harnessed for [early] learning and development" (p. 2).

Popular media have also weighed in on the issue. Columnist Steve Almond, in The New York Times (June 21, 2013), expressed the ambivalence of many parents when he both lamented the obsession of his young children (ages 4 and 6) with their digital devices and admired their determination to use them, including for "educational" purposes such as reading. Reporter Ruth Konigsberg acknowledged that in "the debate about wired children ... people have strongly held beliefs about something that can't yet be proven conclusively one way or another" (Time, August 12, 2013, para. 8). Press coverage on the topic alternates between concerns about the loss of children's creativity and social skills versus claims about the speed at which children learn to process information. Studies, scarce as they are, are cited to buttress the reporter's point of view.

Indeed, research has a hard time keeping up with the latest digital inventions and how children use them. Studies on young children, particularly before they reach school age, are infrequent. Nevertheless, the data (summarized below) are converging on the fact that passive media can contribute to language delays, obesity, social withdrawal, attention problems, and even irregular sleep patterns. A few studies point to the potential benefits of limited use of technology if it respects the hands-on way young children learn. However, it is too soon to predict technology's long-term effects on the acquisition of knowledge and skills across all domains of development.

Like everyone committed to promoting high-quality early education, and making it accessible to young children of all backgrounds, HighScope confronts these same questions and dilemmas about technology. In this article, we therefore present a HighScope position statement on young children and technology, based on the tenets and practices of the HighScope Curriculum and the research available to date. Our intention is to inform early childhood educators today as they make programmatic decisions and provide guidelines for evaluating the technology of the future.

What the Research Says

One researcher states that "Media culture influences how children behave and treat one another. It also shapes how they learn, what they learn, [and] what they want to learn [author's italics]" (Levin 2013, p. 1). As noted above, however, research on the use of technology by and with young children is scarce. Moreover, while some studies have been conducted by academics, others have been done by groups with an interest in (if not explicit ties to) media producers and distributors. That said, here is what is known about young children's use of digital technology at the time of writing this article:

The amount of technology used by children. Young children today spend a great deal of time in front of screens. This encompasses both foreground media (meant for children) and background media (meant for other family members but which young children see and/or hear). For example:

  • Children spend an average of seven hours per day using screen media, including 12 hours a day for those under age two. Ninety percent of parents report that children below age two watch some form of electronic media.
  • While some studies report children aged two to four average two hours a day of screen time (Rideout, 2011), other research finds children aged two to five years spend more than 32 hours a week in front of a screen (McDonough, 2009). "For many children, this is more time than they spend in any other activity except sleeping" (Levin, 2013, p. 13).
  • Fifty-two percent of children aged birth to eight have access to a smart phone, tablet, or similar electronic device (Guernsey, 2012).

Howtechnology is used by children. Educators agree that literacy today means developing digital literacy (technology-handling skills), much as it meant concepts about print (book-handling skills) in the past (National Institute for Literacy, 2008). However, the way that digital education takes place has important implications for its effectiveness. Studies show that:

  • Most parents admit to using screen time as a distraction, peacekeeper, or babysitter while adults do household chores (AAP, 2011).
  • Educational content matters at least as much as format (Wainwright & Linebarger, 2006). For example, interactive literacy programs appear to foster early reading skills while those that use drill-and-practice techniques do not (Corporation for Public Broadcasting, 2011).
  • Technology is only effective when teachers mediate its use with the same developmentally appropriate practices they apply to any other type of learning experience (Plowman & Stephen, 2005; 2007).

The effects of technology use by children. Most research has documented the negative effects of media use by young children; however, a few studies suggest its potential benefits, provided the format, content, and use of the technology is developmentally appropriate. The following are examples of the findings:

  • For children below age two, media exposure has been associated with language delays (Linebarger & Walker, 2005).
  • For preschool and school-aged children, media use has been associated with physical, behavioral, and mental health problems, including obesity, poor sleep habits, aggressive behavior, and attention disorders (Nunez-Smith, Wolf, Huang, Emanuel, & Gross, 2008).
  • Children in households with heavy media use (that is, where the television is on all or most of the time) are read to less often (25 percent less for three- to four-year-olds and 38 percent less for five- to six-year-olds) than in other households with low or moderate media use (Rideout & Hamel, 2006).
  • The more time children under age five spend with media, the less they interact with others (siblings, parents, peers) and the less creative their play (Vandewater, Bickham, & Lee, 2006).
  • For children aged one to three, background televison reduces the amount of time they play and diminishes their focused attention when they do play (Schmidt, Pempek, Kirkorian, Lund, & Anderson, 2008).
  • "Active, appropriate use of technology and media can support and extend traditional materials in valuable ways ... both cognitive and social" (NAEYC & The Fred Rogers Center, 2012, p. 7). For example, computers allow young children to manipulate shapes (mathematics) with greater dexterity than they can manage by hand and often promote collaborative (social) problem solving (Clements, 2002).
  • "Additional research is needed to confirm the positive outcomes of technology tools on children's language and vocabulary development, logical-mathematical understanding, problem-solving skills, self-regulation, and social skills development" (NAEYC-Fred Rogers Center, 2012, p. 7).

HighScope Position Statement on Young Children and Technology

The prevalence of technology in the world today impels us to question if, when, and how digital media can be used appropriately in early childhood settings. As such, HighScope presents here a position statement on young children and technology. The statement is not intended to replace those cited above (AAP and NAEYC-Fred Rogers Center), but to briefly lay out the "big picture" issues that adults should consider in evaluating the use of technology with young children. Rationale for statement. Our position was developed with three overarching guidelines to reflect HighScope's commitment to good early childhood practice. The statement therefore:

    1. Takes the available research into account

    2. Is based on the HighScope tenets of active participatory learning (Epstein, 2014; Epstein & Hohmann, 2012)

    3. Acknowledges the crucial role of adults (and their associated professional development) to mediate the appropriate use of technology and balance it with other venues for early learning

Content of statement. The content of the statement reflects four underlying dimensions:
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    1. We begin with choice, recognizing that not all programs have the resources, access, or cultural inclination to include technology in the classroom. At the same time, we should be mindful that inequalities in exposure may have implications for children's subsequent school readiness.

    2. The statement then sets forth guidelines to determine what, when, and how to use technology appropriately with young children, considering all aspects of their development.

    3. The position states in simple terms the role and responsibility of adults in supporting young children's use of technology.

    4. Our position acknowledges the rapidly changing world in which the statement is issued. We avoid mentioning specific digital devices because the statement could quickly become obsolete.

HighScope Position Statement on Young Children and Technology

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