Digital Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom: When is a child ready?

Head shot of Carrie Lynne DraperGuest blogger Carrie Lynne Draper shares resources and discusses the use of digital technology in early childhood programs. Carrie Lynne Draper, M.Ed, is the Executive Director of Readiness Learning Associates, a STEM Readiness organization, in Pasadena, CA,  growing children’s learning processes using science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Focusing on the development of scientific dispositions through STEM and pedagogical design of equity-oriented STEM learning environments, Carrie has worked in early childhood STEM education for more than thirty years as a classroom teacher, program administrator and university instructor. As a long time NSTA member and past board member of NMLSTA, she  is frequently asked to present at national and state meetings on early learning STEM, NGSS and STEM Excellence. 

Welcome Carrie!

Logo of the Fred Rogers CenterThis summer, Fred Rogers’ family keeps the legacy of Mister Rogers Neighborhood alive with a new documentary. Fred believed that the foundation of every child’s healthy development is the power of human connection. “Whether we are parents, educators, media creators, or neighbors, each of us has the unique and enormous potential to nourish children’s lives with positive interactions,” a statement from the Fred Rogers Center. I believe this is certainly true for STEM curriculum writers and teachers.

 As I work in early childhood classrooms I frequently hear teachers ask, “What would Mr. Rogers think about the use of digital learning and how would I know if a child is really ready?” Some refer to today’s early childhood students as the “swipe and scroll generation.” In recent years children have experienced increased exposure to interactive technologies such as computers, tablets and smart phones.  With a vast increase in mobile devices, it is obvious that we need to think about our students as being technologically literate and confident about their future. Many have proposed that meaningful exposure to technology through mass media and other interactive platforms may help young children consequently leaving STEM education, cognitive and developmental psychology, computer science, and human development experts wonder, “What should be our digital technology philosophy in early childhood programs?” And how Two children drawing on paper, outside on a sunny we find the balance between children using 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional learning activities? How does a teacher know when a child is really ready to use digital devices in the classroom? And where does a teacher find trusted resources? There’s no question that children are fascinated about how things work and are made, and are ready to problem solve. And we know that children thrive when they can ask, imagine, plan, and create and interact with the world around them. 

As educators of young children we work to establish a community where there is student cohesiveness, and we look for activities where children can collaborate and, of course, communicate. They are designing and inventing all the time. We want to offer them a variety of environments that may foster those pathways so children may grow up to be innovators and inventors someday. But not every use of technology is appropriate or beneficial. Doug Clements and Julie Sarama talk about a learning trajectory that has three components that are important to remember: a goal, an understanding of the developmental progression of children’s learning, and instructional activities. To attain a certain confidence children should progress through several levels of thinking. That is the developmental progression in any science, technology, engineering, or math topic. And it is aided by tasks and experiences, those instructional activities that are designed to build the mental actions on objects that enable thinking on each level.

Child holding up a hand in sunlight, making shadows on the wall.Dr. Gary Marcus, professor at New York University in a recent TED talk shared why toddlers are smarter than computers. He explains that the way a toddler learns and reasons really holds the key to making machines, robots, and artificial intelligences much more intelligent. Pretty amazing but if you think about it there is a lot of technology in early childhood. Children are experimenting with light and shadow, cause and effect, and other concepts such as patterns and sequencing—the foundations of coding and programing. Here are some resources for educators to review and make choices for their program, their  classroom, and their children. 

Zero To Three, an organization that “works to strengthen the critical roles of professionals, policymakers and parents in giving all children the best possible start,” produced research-based guidelines available to download: Screen Sense: Setting the Record Straight—Research-Based Guidelines for Screen Use for Children Under 3 Years Old (May 2, 2014). 

Other resources from Zero To Three include:

Author Lisa Guernsey wrote two books discussing digital technology:

  • Screen Time: How Electronic Media-From Baby Videos to Educational Software-Affects Your Young Child (2007 Basic Books)  
  • And with Michael H. Levine, Tap, Click, Read Growing Readers in a World of Screens (2015 Jossey-Bass/Wiley), a book about how digital technologies could be used to improve, instead of impede, early literacy. 

The Erikson Institute in Chicago, an independent institution of higher education, provides  graduate education, professional training, community programs, and policymaking using scientific knowledge and theories of children’s development and learning to serve the needs of children and families. The Technology in Early Childhood Center (TEC) at Erikson  seeks to empower early childhood educators to make informed decisions about the appropriate use of technology with children from birth to age 8. Resources include:

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College 2012 joint position statement (page 4) asserts, “Digitally literate educators who are grounded in child development theory and developmentally appropriate practices have the knowledge, skills, and experience to select and use technology tools and interactive media that suit the ages and developmental levels of the children in their care, and they know when and how to integrate technology into the program effectively.” 

As Mr Rogers said, “We have to help give children tools, building blocks for active play.  And the computer is one of those building blocks.  No computer will ever take the place of wooden toys or building blocks.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be mutually exclusive” (1985). Join me in exploring this urgent question of how to effectively use the digital technology that is available for young children (frequently when they are not in school) in ways that are integrated with essential learning experiences.

Additional Resources on Digital Learning

Center on Technology and Disability. See resources for educators and families on instructional and assistive technology including many from the Technology Solutions for Early Childhood Symposium.

Math, Science, and Technology in the Early Grades by Douglas H. Clements and Julie Sarama. The Future of Children, Starting Early: Education from Pre Kindergarten to Third Grade (Fall 2016), 26(2) 75-94.

New America and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop 

Northwestern University Center on Media and Human Development

University of Chicago, Center for Advancing  Research and Communication (ARC).

Office of Early Learning & Office of Educational Technology, US Department of Education. Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief. October 2016.

The purpose of this policy brief is to:

    • Provide guiding principles for early educators (including those in home settings), early learn- ing programs, schools, and families on the use of technology by young children to support them in making informed choices for all children.
    • Inform the public, families, and early educators on the evidence base used to support these guiding principles.
    • Issue a call to action to researchers, technology developers, and state and local leaders to ensure technology is advanced in ways that promote young children’s healthy development and learning. 
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1 Response to Digital Technology in the Early Childhood Classroom: When is a child ready?

  1. Carrie Lynne Draper says:

    Additional resources and research can be found at Georgetown University.
    Rachel Barr and her team The parent resource page is great.

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