The Magic That’s Missing Online

July 22, 2020

“Computer programs are not a substitute for real preschool, any more than the wooden puppet Pinocchio was a real boy,” according to Steven Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. The Blue Fairy used her powers to bring Pinocchio to life, but it will take more than magic to help young children in the current moment. “Young children learn best through hands-on activities, engaged with adults and other children,” Barnett pointed out when the COVID-19 pandemic pushed early learning online. Since then, parents have wondered about what their young children are losing.

The answer depends on children’s home life and access to technology, as you see when you talk to a single mom who’s struggling with computer issues. Zarinah Poindexter is a nursing aide at a hospital in Kansas City, an essential worker who puts in 12-hour shifts. Making sure her three children, ages 2, 10 and 12, keep up with their school work “is a lot,” she sighs. “They are not used to staying at home, and I don’t have all the equipment I need to help them.” An electronic virus put her laptop on the fritz, one of the children broke her tablet and her desktop computer is being repaired. Even when the desktop is fixed, Poindexter says, they will have to share it. “The children are frustrated and don’t know what to do.” So are many other children and their family members.

As preschools shift to distance learning, they confront a digital divide that we discussed in in our white paper Tech for Every Tot. Most low- and moderate-income families have some form of internet connection, but many are under-connected with mobile-only access and inconsistent connectivity. For example, 23 percent of families below the median income level and 33 percent of those below the poverty level rely on mobile-only internet access. When measured by ethnicity and race, the gap is even greater for Black and Hispanic families, especially those who come from other countries.

Families headed by Hispanic immigrants are less connected than other low- and moderate-income families. Ten percent of immigrant Hispanic families have no internet access at all compared with 7 percent of U.S.-born Hispanic, 5 percent of white and 1 percent of Black households. And 44 percent of immigrant Hispanic parents don’t use computers at all.

The main reason some families don’t have home computers or internet access is because they can’t afford it, as we pointed out. But parents have other issues with computers and their concerns predate the onset of the pandemic. Seventy-four percent worry about their child being exposed to inappropriate content online, 63 percent say they think time spent with technology detracts from time spent on other important activities and 34 percent say they worry that teachers know less about their child’s individual needs due to the time spent using technology—a concern that’s most common among immigrant Hispanic parents.

The parents’ reservations reflect ongoing debate about appropriate use of technology in early childhood education. Some physicians, policymakers and educators also are concerned that technology use among the young might hurt social and gross motor skills, contribute to obesity and diminish development of skills in areas beyond digital literacy. As children spend more time in front of screens, it may also put them at higher risk for myopia and some potentially blinding eye diseases, as recent medical findings suggest.

We need further research to gauge the extent of these threats to children’s well-being and health. But there’s no doubt that “nothing will ever take the place of one person actually being with another person,” as eloquently put by Fred Rogers, the late creator and host of the iconic preschool TV show Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. “There can be lots of fancy things like TV and radio and telephones and internet, but nothing can take the place of people interacting face to face.”

“Online learning poses challenges, just by the nature of the beast,” according to Gary Ritter, dean of education at St. Louis University. “It’s hard for most teachers to engage kids most of the time anyway. It’s going to be way harder for them to engage students on a new medium with all kinds of distractions,” Ritter says, “So even in the best-case scenario, it probably won’t be as enriching as what takes place in a classroom.” Younger children find it especially hard to interact normally through a computer screen, so parents should sit with their children through lessons to help make up for what’s missing.

For most young children and parents, online learning is posing challenges, says Jarrell Harris, a teacher at Empowering Young Lives Early Childhood Academy in Steger, Illinois. “It’s pertinent to be teaching young children this way because we don’t want them to fall behind,” he explains. “But it’s different when kids can come to class and socialize and share their experiences with other children. When the pandemic is over, I think the kids will be glad to go back to the preschool building and get their minds off virtual learning.”

Not only are the children struggling, their parents are, too, he points out. “Think about all those people whose children have been sent home with learning packets. Children may do the work, but they need the teacher’s guidance to understand why they’re doing things a certain way. Besides, they do better in a focused learning environment since there are so many distractions at home. And parents aren’t sure how to teach the children, so they constantly reach out to me for help. Many parents are used to helping kids with their homework. But now they have to build this abnormal routine into their days, so online learning is also life-changing for them.”

Many parents are having the blues as they struggle to step up to these new demands while holding down jobs and doing all their household chores. But educators have ways they can help parents be more at ease with online learning. They can invite family members to make videos of early learning activities at home or take photos that their children can discuss with their peers. They can recommend high-quality learning apps to parents via a weekly newsletter or blog and ask them to share their favorites. They can encourage parents to network as a way to trade ideas about online resources, recommend tutorials that have improved their computer skills and share ways to feel more comfortable using technology to help their children learn.

Teachers can also support families in accessing digital technologies to help them stay connected. They can help families with remote learning by offering clear instructions. They can provide online resources for facilitating learning at home. And they should be mindful of the unequal burden that preschool closures place on students and their families. That means not being judgmental of parents who are less adept at helping their children keep up.

Even the best efforts to get parents onboard and online won’t close the digital divide at this disruptive time and help ensure equity in education for all young children. That depends on human connections computers just can’t replace. The key component in an early childhood setting is the warm interaction between teacher and children—the magic that’s missing online, as Rogers put it in 1994. “No matter how helpful computers are as tools,” he explained, “and, of course, they can be very helpful tools, they don’t begin to compare in significance to the teacher-child relationship, which is human and mutual. A computer can help you learn to spell HUG, but it can never know the risk or the joy of actually giving or receiving one.”

Sad to say, hugs are out of the question as the pandemic upends our normal lives. Much is now different, but not the basic nature and needs of our young children. They aren’t puppets who just perform on command when you put them in front of a screen and pull their strings. They’re real, live boys and girls who need guidance and support from competent caring teachers. They need to be in a setting that fosters sharing, social exchanges with their peers and hands-on learning. That’s something that even the Blue Fairy can’t change with a wave of her magic wand. So, until the crisis passes, educators and parents have only one course of action: try to adapt to change and wish on a star for better times.


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