Do you remember the magic of watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? This gentle man in a cardigan invited us into his home and taught us something new about the world, all through the portal of the family television set. His genius was to use the technology of his day to connect with the hearts and minds of children and their families, to make his millions of students feel personally addressed and actively engaged.
Now, even television seems on its way to the junkheap. As the development of technology in our homes and schools continues to impress us with astonishing acceleration, it’s important that we remember Mister Rogers’ example: that technology has the singular ability to make the world smaller, more understandable, even friendlier—a neighborhood for the digitally aware.
Our position on the use of technology in early education comes in two major parts:
1) Technology and interactive media, when used ethically and thoughtfully by educators and parents, will enhance standard forms of education and deliver lessons with greater efficiency, accuracy, and—importantly—depth of imagination.
2) The integration of technology into early learning will give our young people power over the growing feeling that technology is taking over, that it’s outstripping our ability to stay ahead of it. Properly applied, technology in the home and classroom will shape students into ethical digital citizens who move through the web with self-awareness, safety, and respect.
Interactive vs. Passive Media:
First of all, let’s distinguish interactive media from its passive counterparts. A joint position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College defines interactive media as digital and analog materials designed to engage students in active and creative use, drawing on their social skills and imaginative efforts. Some examples: computers, tablets, interactive whiteboards, cameras, e-book readers, tape recorders, and microscopes. Ultimately, the value of these materials can be calculated by how they are used.
When devices like computers and tablets serve as passive entertainment only, they risk decreasing students’ attention spans, discouraging social interaction, and increasing the likelihood of childhood obesity. We’ve all noticed the dangerous lure of endless scrolling and screen time.
But, when applied as tools to enhance curriculum, encourage participation, and excite students about the possibilities of learning, research suggests that these devices can enhance children’s cognitive and social abilities.
This conclusion is good news for the development of creative learning styles and teaching methods, and offers us all hope that an increasingly technological world doesn’t have to diminish the social and active elements of learning. In fact, it can radically strengthen our approach to educating young people.
Below are our key findings:
The undisciplined and passive use of screen time, background television, and other media can lead to negative outcomes. These include irregular sleep patterns, behavioral issues, focus and attention problems, decreased academic performance, negative impact on socialization and language development, and an increase in time spent by young children on screens.
Appropriate technology and media use balances and enhances the use of essential materials, activities, and interactions in the early childhood setting, and becomes a part of the daily routine. When technology is integrated properly into the learning environment, it doesn’t replace standard classroom activities like creative play, group discussion, or exploration. Instead, it supports this kind of learning by expanding access to interactive content. Interactions with technology and media should therefore be “playful and support creativity, exploration, pretend play, active play, and outdoor activities.”
Teachers must take the time to carefully evaluate and select technology and media for the classroom. When selecting media tools, teachers and parents should be careful not to rely on unverifiable claims made in a product’s marketing material. Carefully monitor your children’s and students’ use of tech tools, and adapt according to their level of positive engagement.
Effective uses of technology and media are active, hands-on, engaging, and empowering; give the child control; provide adaptive scaffolds to ease the accomplishment of tasks; and are used as one of many options to support children’s learning. Examples: reading interactive e-books in addition to print copies; interactive media that encourage outdoor exploration; students sharing real-life experiences through images, stories, and sounds; use of drawing tools on touch screens to enhance students’ graphic fine motor skills. The use of technological tools not only enhances cognitive learning, but also improves tactile and motor abilities.
Technology tools can help educators make and strengthen home–school connections. With technology in the classroom, teachers can keep parents and families involved with the education of their children in unprecedented ways. Video conferencing, shared access to a digital archive of student progress, and video recordings of students at key learning checkpoints will keep up the momentum of learning between home life and time at school.
Technology tools can be effective for dual language learners by providing access to a family’s home language and culture while supporting English language learning. Digital technologies make it possible for students to engage actively with the sights, sounds, and stories of different cultures through games, music, and other carefully selected linguistic activities. One successful strategy is to use video chat to connect students with native speakers of the language being studied.
Digital literacy is an essential guide for early childhood educators and parents in the selection, use, integration, and evaluation of technology and interactive media. As technology and media continue to graft themselves into our lives, it is more important than ever for students, educators, and parents to be empowered with the awareness of technology and its implications. For parents and educators, this means being well versed in the media that children may be exposed to and ready to discuss the values and dangers of the internet, entertainment media, and social media with students. For students, “digital citizenship means having critical viewing, listening, and Web-browsing skills.” The old adage rings true here: don’t believe everything you see on the Internet.
Digital citizenship is an important part of digital literacy for young children. Along with digital literacy, students must be aware of the enormous power technology gives them, and the consequences of that power. As more of our lives are projected online, we must be sure that our children are aware of their responsibility to move through the digital world ethically, kindly, and appropriately, being careful to protect their own security and well-being.
Imaginative instruction through interactive media and technology is the responsibility of parents and educators. It offers an exciting and refreshing way to enhance the learning of our students, as long as it is taken up with care, thoughtfulness, and clear boundaries. We have to remember that it is not the role of schools to resist the direction the world takes, but to prepare students to mark their own paths through it with intelligence, thoughtfulness, and strength of will.
Because, whether we like it or not, technology is shaping the world. If classrooms don’t expose their students to its better angels, to instruct them in best practices of utility and ethics, students will be more likely to succumb to the darker possibilities of the technological smorgasbord. Those students who are better schooled in technology will be readier for the world they come to inhabit after matriculation. And the world at large will be better off for it, too.