A Proactive Approach to Technology in Early Education

June 24, 2016

The way early educators use technology today to help young children learn is a relatively new field of scientific research. There is a vast market for phones, tablets, and televisions, which are types of screens used in early childhood programs, but many times, early educators may not be taking full advantage of how these technology tools can contribute to children’s learning experiences. We spoke with early childhood and technology expert Dr. Chip Donohue, Director of Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center in Chicago, to get the answers on how to properly use technology when sharing it with children. Dr. Donohue also is Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education at Erikson and Senior Fellow at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. The focus of Dr. Donohue’s ongoing research can help early educators as well as parents to view technology as a valuable resource within the classroom and the home in a way that can positively impact young minds when used in an integrational and collaborative manner.

How did you begin your work in the early care and education/technology field?
I was a Montessori School Director in Madison, Wisconsin in the early 80s when the Apple //e computer first arrived. I had a parent who showed up with a computer under his arm and said, “You gotta take a look at this. This is amazing!” He also was a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who enticed me back to my doctoral program. Way back then, when we were looking at the very beginning of young children and computers, I was already interested in how we could use these devices as tools for learning for children and what teachers would need in order to use them well, or what a child care provider or home based care giver would need. So that’s where my career started.

Then I got involved with the Fred Rogers Center and I was one of the co-authors for the NAEYC National Position Statement on Technology, and this really brought me back to this conversation of technology and young children and what is appropriate. And of course the difference between mid-80s and today is that we’re in a digital age. Devices are different, the screens are different and how kids are using them, and how families are confronting all of that. While there are some similarities certainly, it’s a new world and parents and educators are looking for new answers.

What particular research are you working on at the moment?
What we’re working on at the moment is STEM, how the “t” [technology] in STEM fits into that work. We’re doing a lot of work in technology integration and what that looks like in classrooms. One of the things that was clear to me when we were working on the [NAEYC] Position Statement was that we had a gap between what we were defining as best practices and what many educators were ready to do. So really, our passion at Erikson is teacher preparation and professional development. The work I’m doing at the TEC Center is largely focused on helping educators who work with young children use these new tools well and help young children to be learners of the 21st century.

Let’s talk about the technology itself. How much time would you say is appropriate for children below 5 years of age to spend with a screen per day and why?
Time is only one metric. Time is one way of us thinking about if how long a child spends in front of a screen has value. In this interactive media age, I think we have to dig deeper than that. It’s not just one child and one TV in passive viewing: Is the child engaged in the screen activity? Is the content appropriate? Is the content quality? How long has the child been involved is certainly part of it, but I think that educators and parents are pretty good judges of when enough is enough and don’t need me to tell them that it’s 15 or 20 minutes or 13 minutes. In fact, I actually think young children will walk away and do something else once it’s not interesting to them anymore. I’m trying really hard to get us to think that it’s not about screen time, [but instead it’s just about] time engaged with the content, time engaging with others, time playing with another child or engaging with an adult. Kids spend their time with lots of tools and this is one of many tools that kids have access to.

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How would you define educational screen content?
I always want to think about these [screens] as tools for learning which is different than tools for teaching. And lots of the apps out there are intended to teach the child something, a specific bit of information or something about mathematics, etc. While that has some value, I really see the power of these tools being how children can use them in their own learning, for communicating, collaborating, asking questions about the world, and finding answers to things that are interesting. So educational to me comes from the child’s interest, from the child’s developmental level, and what they want to know about. And then, if I’m the teacher or the parent, is technology, the screen, the right tool to put in the child’s hand for what they want to do? Sometimes it is, but sometimes it might be something else.

We talk about intentionality in the [NAEYC] Position Statement a lot. Intentional is not just about what screen you’re handing over but why you’re handing it over; I think this becomes really important. Then, the other part of education we tend to miss is that it’s not just one child, one screen. I’m really wanting [to create] interactive media that includes interactions with others, and a lot of the work we’re doing here at Erikson is on social emotional learning and technology. We’re really interested in how these new screens, these multi-touch screens, create an environment where more than one child or a child and an adult can engage jointly in what’s happening on the screen. So I always encourage educators and parents as well to spend some time watching with their child, spend some time engaging with their child and playing alongside their child, so they [educators and parents] can understand what they’re learning and make it a richer experience.

In other words, engaging the child through questions?
We know about dialogic reading and the power of asking questions of a child as they read a book, what do you think is going to happen next? Why do you think that happened? So as you go, the adult who is alongside the child enriches the experience and engages the child in predicting, in thinking, in responding.

We should do the same thing with media. I can’t always sit with my child for every screen experience but I can ask them from the kitchen as I make dinner about what app are they using, what game are they playing, what’s happening on the screen, and the question I always like to encourage parents to ask is: what are we going do when we turn it off? To really be sure about the fact that these devices have an on-and-off switch and you as the adult are the one in charge of when it is on and off.

Not all children will want to turn off a device when asked. What approach can early educators and parents use when that happens?
What I always say is, it is the child’s job to fuss when you take away something they want to do and your job as the adult in the equation is to take it away when it’s time to take it away. Talk about why it’s being turned off now, provide alternatives for what you’re going to do instead. Honor the child’s feelings, “I can tell you’re really disappointed. I can tell you’re angry with me.” Give the child the right to their feelings, but in the end they’ve got to move on because you’re moving on. I’m really big on empowering parents and educators to really feel like they have some control here, and I get it: the child is going throw a fit and that’s not fun when the child throws the fit. What can I do before the end of screen time to foreshadow that? And then invite them to do something else. So you’re just building a bridge, and it’s about parents feeling confident in themselves that it’s OK, they’re making the right decision, and when enough is enough, it is, and time to move on.

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What are some of the negative effects of too much technology on young children?
Our adult behavior with media is what children are watching to take their cues from how to use media. Sometimes that means that we need to do a little reflection, is our screen always on? Is the TV always on in the background? These are things that we can change. The closer to bedtime a child has a screen experience, the closer to when they’re supposed to go to sleep and are still on the screen, the more likely they’re to have difficulties falling asleep, to wake up quickly, and to have nightmares. In other words, it’s very disruptive to the child’s sleep and we all know how important sleep is. When I talk to parents, the two things I probably say the most are: Turn off the background TV, and at night as you get your child ready for bed, turn the screen off earlier in the evening. Maybe have a rule that says after dinner, no more screens. Let’s get back to hugging, holding, and reading a book to calm a child down.

The American Academy of Pediatrics talks a lot about no TVs in bedrooms and I’m all for that, but I think it’s more complicated for today’s parents because the TV is only one screen: there’s a computer screen, an iPad screen, a phone screen, all of that. So we need some strategies for thinking about if screen time is disruptive.

We all have to remain concerned about technology and young children. What we want is healthy growth development and learning for young children, and so we want to be sure that our use of technology isn’t getting in the way of that. So there is a fear that technology might keep some kids from going outside as much as they need to and there is a fear that technology might lead to obesity. In both of those cases, there’s no causal relationship, we have to be careful about how we manage that. If kids aren’t going outside enough, we need to get them outside. The screen could be one of the causes, but there could be lots of other causes. The question that always gets asked is, if they’re at a screen, then what are they not doing? And so this displacement idea that if a child is using the iPad, they’re not doing puzzles, they’re not in the art corner and they’re not building blocks, and again my comment to that is that it’s up to the adults to see technology as another tool, like blocks, like art materials, like the dress up corner. It’s just another thing in the environment for children to use. We would know when a child spends too much time alone in the block corner that it was time to encourage them to come back into the group and be part of the class.

How can technology be effectively used?
I get really excited about the potential for this as a tool for social emotional learning and for intellectual gain because children can use it together, not just by themselves. My natural gut instinct as a child development person is to fight the idea of one child, one screen isolation, and really how do we use these tools to connect to each other and to the important adults in children’s lives? It’s a powerful tool for kids to tell their story, to document what they’ve learned, to show you something about their world. They are already learning at 4 years old that they can tell a story and their story has value, and they can click the button and send the story to the grandparents and communicate with others about it. To me these are the lasting lessons: I’m in charge, I’m a media maker, I create content, I don’t just consume it, we’ve got these tools that are amazing when given the right opportunities. The focus on apps can limit what this amazing device can do, and I’m really interested in open-ended possibilities.

Chip DonohueChip Donohue, Ph.D., is Director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at Erikson Institute in Chicago. He is a Senior Fellow and Advisor of the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College, where he co-chaired the working group that revised the 2012 NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement on Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Chip is the editor of Technology and Digital Media in the Early Years: Tools for Teaching and Learning (2014) and has edited a new book, Family Engagement in the Digital Age: Early Childhood Educators as Media Mentors (2016).

Dr. Donohue, who also serves as Dean of Distance Learning and Continuing Education at Erikson Institute, received the Bammy Award and Educators Voice Award as Innovator of the Year in 2012 from the Academy of Education Arts & Sciences. In 2015, he was honored as a children’s media Emerging Pioneer at the KAPi (Kids At Play International) Awards.

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