Parents and school leaders alike question the purpose of technology in the early years (Birth-4 years for the sake of this post). These conversations tend to focus on common questions including: What technology is appropriate for this age group? What are the risks and are there benefits that outweigh these risks?
It is important to clarify the term technology before proceeding. Merriam-Webster defines it as “the use of science in industry, engineering, etc., to invent useful things or to solve problems.” To use the simplest of examples, knowledge of how a ball rolls down an inclined plane is a scientific principle that led to the creation of the wheel as a means to transport items. The wheel is therefore technology in the same sense that computers apply scientific processes to generate outputs which allow the user to accomplish tasks.
There is no question that we want children to become problem-solvers. Problem solvers are able to apply the sum of their experiences and use these funds of knowledge to accomplish a goal. By definition, this is technology integration. So, what does this look like in the early years?
- Sensory Play- interacting with various substances to develop an understanding of objects and how they change in various environments.
- Cause and Effect- push/pull toys, inclined planes, and simple programable toys foster an understanding of cause and effect.
- Creating/tinkering- Using materials to create a physical object that represents an idea. Young children are just starting to discover that their thoughts can be put into action; creating with blocks or recycled objects lets them practice this skill.
- Expanding Vocabulary- language is exploding in the early years and reading books and expanded conversations around new topics gives children exposure to the language that they will use to articulate their thought processes in the future. As children create, an adult should be using correct terminology to describe phenomena and materials which help children build their vocabulary.
These are just a few examples, but it should be clear that none of these examples are accomplished through worksheets and flashcards. Real-world experiences and handling real objects give children a strong foundation in basic scientific principles upon which they can pose questions, test theories, and come up with solutions to problems. If you have not experienced the weight of a boulder, you are not likely to consider it as a possible solution to building a shelter from the wind.
I have spoken with parents who feel that handing their child a cell phone with an educational video is an activity that is preparing their child for the future. What skills is this activity teaching? In a high-quality video, perhaps the child is exposed to some new vocabulary, but that vocabulary isn’t grounded in personal experiences and the definition may not be completely clear in the context. Many videos may follow a plot line consisting of a problem and the characters develop a solution, but the child is a passive observer and not involved in the process of generating ideas or testing hypotheses.
But what can we do with our iPad?
Sadly, so many families feel that they cannot make it through their day without their child engaging with the iPad or another screen for a period of time. How can you make sure this time is constructive?
- Set clear, tangible limits. Determine limits for screens (10 minutes at 3:50pm) and set timers to keep to these limits.
- Remain beside your child while they are using the device. Ask questions about their actions.
- Remember that habits are established through repetition. It can take 2-4 weeks to truly establish a new routine. If your child has previously had unlimited access to screens, this may be tough at first, but supplement the day with new physical activities or provide a menu of choices for alternative ways to fill the time.
In conclusion, remember that like most things, screens and technology are beneficial in moderation, but dangerous when used in excess. The technological mental processes that many parents want to promote are also found in physical activities and problem solving skills involve low-tech solutions. Finally, any piece of technology being used by a toddler or preschooler should be used alongside a trusted adult who actively asks questions and uses vocabulary to promote comprehension.