Maren Herman’s preschool classroom is filled with educational devices to entice a 3-year-old: toys, finger paints, books galore.
And among the tools Ms. Herman uses in her classroom at Shady Lane School in Pittsburgh are two iPads and a laptop computer. On a given day, children might use a software app called Handwriting Without Tears to practice tracing letters. On other occasions, the iPad has been used to stream music fit for a king during a pretend royal ball.
From Ms. Herman’s perspective, tablet devices such as iPads are just one of many tools appropriate for early learning—when used with the understanding that they’re not intended to supplant other developmentally appropriate materials.
“It’s not any different from a pencil, or a pen, or a glue stick,” Ms. Herman said. “We may have the iPad or the laptop out for a half an hour, and during that half hour, we cycle through 13 children in a classroom.” In that time, they’re not only learning from the device, but they’re also absorbing a basic comfort level with technology that will pave the way for its use later on in their schooling, she said.
Ms. Herman is not alone in embracing technology with young learners. Tablet computing exploded with the introduction of the iPad from Apple in 2010, and since that time, tablets have made inroads at every instructional level. But their use is particularly seductive at the preschool level because tablets do not require children to have the keyboarding or mouse skills necessary for other forms of computer technologies.
The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a New York-based children’s digital-media research organization,the education category of Apple’s app store, a slice of the more than 500,000 apps available in all subjects. Of about 200 top-selling apps in the education category, 58 percent were for toddlers and preschoolers.
But the introduction of tablets and other electronic media in preschools poses tough questions for educators, among them: how to select developmentally appropriate software; what academic areas are best supported with technology; and how technology use should be balanced with other classroom activities.
At the same time that educators are trying to figure out how to use technology best, others are saying that evidence suggests that there’s little need to introduce technology to young learners because it crowds out more appropriate activities.
“The idea that we have technology, and we have to get it to kids as early as possible, is not based on any scientific evidence,” said SusanLinn, the director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood in Boston, who said she’s been called a Luddite for her views.
In 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center produced a joint position statement on the use of technology and interactive media in early-childhood programs.
• Evaluate technology and interactive media carefully before introducing them to children for their support of creativity, exploration, and play.
• Provide a balance of other activities for children that include active, hands-on engagement with the world, using the technology as a support.
• Use technology to support adult-child interactions, such as through the use of interactive e-books.
Practices to Avoid:
• Prohibit the passive use of noninteractive technologies such as television, videos, and DVDs before the age of 2 in early-childhood programs, and discourage passive and noninteractive use of technology between the ages of 2 and 5.
• Avoid technological versions of activities that are not developmentally appropriate, such as electronic worksheets for preschoolers.
• Don’t allow technology to replace real-world activities. For example, a touch screen can be used to produce art, but should not replace paints, markers, crayons, or other materials.
SOURCES: National Association for the Education of Young Children; Fred Rogers Institute
In 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media producedon the use of technology and interactive devices for children from birth through age 8. The NAEYC, in Washington, is the largest association representing early-childhood educators, center directors, and others who work with young children. The Fred Rogers Center, based at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa., was developed under the leadership of the late television host Mr. Rogers.
The document was generally favorable toward the use of technology in preschool classrooms. Technology used appropriately can “enhance children’s cognitive and social abilities,” and can “strengthen home/school connections,” the document said. It also equated digital literacy with traditional literacy, saying “young children need opportunities to develop the early ‘technology-handling’ skills associated with early digital literacy that are akin to the ‘book-handling’ skills associated with early literacy development.”
Report co-author Roberta L. Schomburg, an associate dean of the education school at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, said that the type of technology used with young children doesn’t matter as long as it is being used for a developmentally appropriate purpose. But she also said young children tend to gravitate to tablet devices as opposed to desktop computers because tablets are so easy for them to use.
“Toddlers just touch things and make things happen,” Ms. Schomburg said.
The devices are particularly helpful when being used for developing literacy skills, she added. Some software can help children build letter sound and recognition skills. Other programs can allow children to create electronic books with their own narration and artwork.
She said electronic media have been criticized as immersing a child in a program where the real world is excluded. But Ms. Schomburg said that technology can help promote interactions.
“What I love seeing is a child with an iPad in a parent’s lap, looking at things together,” she said.
One term repeated frequently in the joint statement from the NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center is “developmentally appropriate.” For example, it’s not developmentally appropriate to expect young children to drill with math worksheets, so a tablet version of a worksheet would also be inappropriate, the statement notes.
But it can be difficult to find programs that offer the best of what is currently available in educational technology, said Warren Buckleitner, the founder of the, a monthly electronic newsletter that reviews products and notes trends in children’s interactive media. Like the magazine Consumer Reports, the Flemington, N.J.-based newsletter takes no advertising.
“There’s a lot of snake oil on the production side,” he said.
A program Mr. Buckleitner mentioned as being a favorite of children as well as appropriate for them, is LetterSchool, which makes a game out of drawing letters. Among program producers, he cites Duck Duck Moose, a San Mateo, Calif., software developer of several educational tablet apps in literacy and math; and Toca Boca, based in San Francisco, which has a suite of game and toy apps.
Among Mr. Buckleitner’s tips for teachers: Consider carefully what they want an app to do, such as introduce math skills or teach children the sound of letters; gauge carefully the ease of use; check to see if the app offers support such as built-in help functions or word pronunciation; and look for adjustable options, such as volume or multilingual output.
The Sesame Workshop, which has created apps and e-books based on its famous characters, has drawn together information from dozens of experiments with young users to offer its ownfor developers of early-childhood apps.
For electronic storybooks, the workshop has found that it works best for children not to be able to interrupt a character as it is reading a page aloud, said Mindy Brooks, the director of education and research at Sesame Workshop. If the children can skip around too easily, they don’t get an idea of a story’s coherence, she said.
But the rush into the use of technology can seem headlong, said Ms. Linn, of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. Groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics have offered guidelines to restrict or discourage the use of passive media, such as television, with children. The effects of media such as computers and tablets are not yet fully understood, she said.
Ms. Linn said that the NAEYC and Fred Rogers joint statement, while more balanced in its current form, still offers “an invitation to ed-tech companies to come in and get their devices into early-childhood classrooms.”
Her organization, in partnership with the Alliance for Childhood, an advocacy group in New York, created its own document,saying that while more research needs to be done, children already appear to be using devices at the expense of other important activities such as active play and hands-on exploration.
“I know that the argument is that technology is here to stay, and I think that’s really true,” Ms. Linn said. “The question is, what do children really need?”
A version of this article appeared in the May 08, 2013 edition of Education Week as Ed-Tech’s Proper Role Poses Puzzles for Pre-K