You, a parent of young children, may be tethered to your phone, iPad and laptop. But you cringe at the thought of touchscreens and apps slinking into your children's preschool classrooms. You worry about your 4-year-old turning into a device-obsessed zombie who barely notices the world around her. You might even suggest that screen technology should be banned from any setting designed for young children.
The National Association for the Education of Young Children doesn't agree with you. And with good reason.
Today, the NAEYC, the largest trade organization for early educators in the country, released a statement in conjunction with the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media about technology and young children (up through age 8). Though the groups discourage "passive screen technology" usage -- like TV and DVDs -- with children under two, they don't suggest a ban on screens for preschoolers or kindergartners as some child-advocacy groups have suggested. Nor do they say teachers should avoid using technology with young kids. Instead, the groups puts the onus on teachers to make smart decisions and use technology appropriately.
It's a brave document. Five years ago when my daughters were in preschool, I would have cringed at the sight of a bulky, wire-tangled computer monitor sitting next to shelf of wooden blocks. Child-development experts say that children should be using their hands to mold spaghetti out of play dough, color with crayons and practice with scissors. Is it really necessary to teach them to click a computer mouse at such an early age? School is a place to learn social skills, to share, inquire, and laugh with other children. Why would we allow kids to get sucked into a screen, blocking out any interaction with the people around them?
But the last few years of touchscreen technologies, digital photography and Internet video calls (i.e. Skype) are challenging assumptions about the isolating and detrimental effects of new technology.
Research from the University of Pennysylvania, Georgetown University, Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, Yale University, and elsewhere has revealed potential for screen-based or interactive media when it leads to social interactions.
What if "computers in the classroom" means children sitting in pairs around electronic tablets, talking about a recent field trip and sequencing video clips on what they did first, next and last? What if children could Skype with a scientist in Antarctica and watch penguins on video as a prelude to a penguin-walking race on the playground? Real paint and easels should exist in every classroom, but why not also allow children to "paint" on an iPad and record themselves talking about why they're choosing certain colors?
Growing numbers of young children are already using electronics and other interactive technologies at home, in the doctor's waiting room, at restaurant tables everywhere. YouTube is awash in videos of toddlers using tablets, preschoolers playing the Wii and kindergartners narrating their own movies. In the spring of 2011, 39 percent of 2-to-4-year-olds and 52 percent of 5-to-8-year-olds had used mobile devices like touchscreen tablets at least once, according to a nationwide survey by Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that publishes media reviews and advocates for greater awareness of the impact of media on children.
The NAEYC statement doesn't delve into what parents should be doing at home with their kids. But it makes an important point about what should be happening inside classrooms. When educators choose to use technology - whether online games, electronic white boards, or digital photo software -- they should use it to enhance lessons, not replace them. "Educators who lack technology skills and digital literacy are at risk of making inappropriate choices and using technology with young children in ways that can negatively impact learning and development," the statement says.
Just as teachers steer parents toward good books and reading techniques, they can be resources for parents dealing with the media streaming through their children's lives. They can demonstrate technology-assisted activities that trigger new conversations and exploration. They could host family technology nights, providing examples of how to develop their children's minds (asking them questions about the games they are playing) and what to avoid (leaving the TV on as background noise or getting sucked into Internet advertising).
To be sure, this will take training that is lacking so far. A dearth of funding for preschool teaching doesn't help, but neither does the hand-wringing over technology's infusion into early childhood.
We need to be preparing teachers who know time-tested methods for teaching young children (yes, keep the play dough!) but who also see new technologies as a tool for sparking a love of learning. Maybe their creative approaches could rub off on us parents too.