The role of technology in early education

toddlertabletAs technology becomes an increasingly important and ever present part of our lives, many are starting to ask what the appropriate role of technology is in the lives of young children.  While some parents and child advocates are concerned about possible negative impacts of excessive “screen time” for children, others believe that appropriately used digital media has the ability to help children learn in new ways and prepare them for a lifetime of learning. A recent brief from the New America Foundation proposes several essential actions to prepare early education for the digital age.

There are three important characteristics that must be taken into consideration when deciding the appropriate role of digital media in a child’s education: the content, the context, and the characteristics of the child.  Passive use of digital media or allowing children to watch adult-oriented TV shows can have negative consequences, but when the context and content are aligned to meet the needs of an individual child, interactive media can be used to promote learning and exploration, even for very young children.

There is enormous potential for technology use in early education, but expectations need to be set high and technology needs to be used as a supplement to, not in place of active play and exploration. We need to retire the harmful idea of “technology as a babysitter” and instead see it as something that can productively promote back-and-forth interaction between children and their parents, teachers, and classmates.

This can take many forms: reading an ebook with a classmate, video chatting with a relative who lives far away, or using a math app to practice counting skills while a teacher supervises. If technology is integrated into learning activities both at home and at school, children start building skills at a very young age that prepare them for a future as a student and citizen in the digital age. However, as with many of the issues we discuss here, the risk lies in poor implementation.

We can give toddlers tablets, but unless they have parents and teachers engaging with them to ensure the media they are consuming is developmentally appropriate and substantive, we might just be providing preschoolers with very expensive playthings (and veering into that “technology as babysitter” territory). As the role of technology in our society continues to evolve, I am hopeful that networks of parents, teachers, providers of children’s media, and other professionals who work with young children will work together to share information and high-quality materials.

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