When is Technology Developmentally Appropriate for Young Children? Part 1

DreamBox Learning” Three years ago, when I was the K–12 math curriculum coordinator for a public school district, I listened to teachers, principals, parents, and other community members discussing student technology needs and use in our schools. I distinctly remember one preschool teacher who proudly stated, “In our early childhood classes, students won’t ever be on computers, so we don’t need them.” I didn’t see anyone nodding in agreement, but none challenged her statement either—and I think the room was a bit stunned by her absolute certainty. But I also think people were perplexed by the broader underlying question: “How young is too young for students to use technology for learning?”

When is too early?
This meeting was held in 2010, just before the first iPad was released. It seems that since then, the question has been addressed directly by many parents who are now giving even their babies tablet computers (via this ABC news story). Despite the fact that children are increasingly interacting—although not necessarily “using” or “learning”—with technology at younger ages, parents and educators need to have conversations about young children, technology, and developmental appropriateness.

A Skeptic Parent
As a parent of four children under the age of 10, I’m skeptical of learning resources—both print and digital. [Full disclosure here: Before my oldest son was in pre-school, I used him as a guinea pig for DreamBox, and watched him play 2–3 times per week for several months. In all, I watched him for the first 90 hours he was on DreamBox. Never helping, just watching. The quality of the lessons, the real-time adaptive differentiation, and the understanding of math he developed are the reasons I eventually came to work at DreamBox.] As a parent, and as the Senior Curriculum Director for a learning technology company with an award-winning program, I’m continually thinking about developmentally appropriate technology usage for young children. Specifically, there are four concepts that parents and teachers should consider when deciding to use learning technology with young children.

1. Define Learning Goals

Let’s start by ignoring technology and classrooms altogether. The primary question in education should always be: “What are the learning outcomes we want?” Once the outcomes are defined, we can then decide what students need to do in classrooms or on computers that will ensure they reach these goals. The problem with the preschool teacher’s statement that I mentioned earlier is that her way of thinking leads to ignoring technologies that could effectively support learning goals. Successful ends are determined by the means we choose.

Exploration
Although it’s true for people of any age, there’s a strong consensus that early childhood education should engage children in explorations of their world. They should be investigating their environment, manipulating objects, and observing causes and effects in age-appropriate situations. Exploratory learning experiences help students make sense of ideas and improve their ability to discover and understand increasingly complex things. If technology empowers them to explore meaningfully, then it should be used as one of many tools employed to support and deepen their understanding. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) advocates this viewpoint: “Allow children to freely explore touch screens loaded with a wide variety of developmentally appropriate interactive media experiences that are well designed and enhance feelings of success.” The NAEYC has an entire position paper devoted to this subject: Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8.

Continued Learning
Making Math WorkInterested in learning more about technology in the classroom? Check out our latest K-8 Blended Learning whitepaper, Making Math Work, from our friend Tom Vander Ark.

Tim Hudson

Tim Hudson

VP of Learning for DreamBox Learning, Inc., Hudson is a learning innovator and education leader who frequently writes and speaks about learning, education, and technology. Prior to joining DreamBox, Hudson spent more than 10 years working in public education, first as a high school mathematics teacher and then as the K–12 Math Curriculum Coordinator for the Parkway School District, a K–12 district of over 17,000 students in suburban St. Louis. While at Parkway, Hudson helped facilitate the district’s long-range strategic planning efforts and was responsible for new teacher induction, curriculum writing, and the evaluation of both print and digital educational resources. Hudson has spoken at national conferences such as ASCD, SXSWedu, and iNACOL.
Tim Hudson