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Digital decisions: How policymakers & families can navigate technology for young children

By Megan Carolan, Director of Policy Research

Last week, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel briefing in Washington, D.C. hosted by America Forward and the LEGO Foundation focused on whole child learning. ICS is a proud member of the America Forward coalition,  a network of more than 70 social innovation organizations that champion innovative, effective, and efficient solutions to our country’s most pressing social problems.

We couldn’t have asked for better company for this conversation. At the start of the event, Sarah Wolman of the LEGO Foundation, led the whole group in an interactive discussion of what the research tells us on the science of play as foundation for child learning. Then she let us practice what we preached, diving into the LEGO “duck” activity and pitting the tables against each other in a feat of engineering prowess.

For the panel, I had the pleasure of sitting alongside experts from our fellow coalition members:

  • Adrián A. Pedroza, National Director of Strategic Partnerships, Abriendo Puertas/Opening Doors
  • Sonya Soloway, Senior Site Manager, Jumpstart, Howard University
  • Chavaughn Brown, Chief of Research and Innovation with the AppleTree Institute

The conversation was far-ranging, touching on issues relating to professional development and making sure teachers feel “allowed” and empowered to use play in their classrooms to the complexities of full family engagement and culturally responsive programming to the high-level policy challenges of the multiple funding streams which support early childhood.

And then we got to one of the stickiest questions in early childhood policy and practice – we know hands-on play is good, and we know children (like all of us) are surrounded by technology: so, what’s the secret to making technology work in an early childhood context?

The answer is, there’s no magic formula to finding the right fit. This is a question we know is on the minds of parents, grandparents, teachers, administrators, and model developers but a one-size-fits-all approach rarely works and may create more stressors than intended. It’s a question we addressed in our recent brief on outdoor learning and play – where we identified possible solutions for parents, programs, policymakers, and communities for navigating the question of technology in the early years.

By now, you have probably heard that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children aged 2 to 5 years, and recommends high-quality programming. They also now note that videochatting with loved ones doesn’t count against this time limit, which is good news for long-distance grandparents and other loved ones.

But what does it mean for technology to be high-quality for children?

I shared that one common recommendation for using technology in any setting is to make sure that novelty doesn’t win out over the simplicity of more traditional play. Sonya Soloway spoke on the panel about the experience of a child playing grocery story in a free choice center, and how a teacher can use that experience to build early math skills as they select the number of items they need. This is a good example of where traditional play makes sense – you can find an app that allows a child to play this pretend game on their own, but the hands-on method allows for more social development and even motor development. Further, there is very little governing of the terms apps and toys use in their marketing (as we discussed in a recent post on product safety as well, and as Slate has reported regarding privacy concerns) – so an app claiming to be “educational” in the app store does not necessarily have to meet any demonstrated standard to make that claim.

E-books are a bit more complex, as on face, it would seem that any book is a good idea, digital or paper! Research is mixed in how children interact with them. We know that sometimes kids are distracted by the animations and extra features rather than the text itself, which defeats the purpose–parents may also be less engaged while reading these, because they rely on the technical engagement. Undoubtedly, though, there is a convenience to it which may give children access to larger variety of books than relying on paper only. How adults use e-books with children is really the deciding factor and, as is the case with paper books and technology in general, co-use is recommended for the best result.

For anyone with young children in their life, whether at home, in their classroom, or in a community-based program, it’s helpful to remember the “3 Cs” shared by experts Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine

Graphic derived from this tipsheet at TapClickRead.org. Tap, Click, Read was written by Lisa Guernsey of New America and Michael H. Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Teachers, administrators, and parents will need to continually consider and reevaluate our approaches to technology for young children, as new technologies rapidly develop and the brain science considers to teach us the opportunities and pitfalls of technology use for kids. Adults should resist the temptation to immediately latch on to the next “hot” educational device or program – particularly in classrooms, where teachers may get whiplash from shifting every few years into new systems, never truly unleashing the value of one before a new one comes along. As the LEGO Foundation has written, the true value of technology is in what it can do for classrooms: “we are committed to working with teachers and school leaders to help them understand not just how the technology works but how the technology can be used to create powerful opportunities for learning in a more active and open-ended way. “

The reality is that no home or classroom is likely to be totally free of technology in the 21st century; the challenge is making sure technology use is truly aligned with the goals and needs of the children and adults in the room. NPR reporter Anya Kamenetz shared her Michael Pollan-inspired mantra on considering technology use – both as an author of a book on the subject and as a parent herself:

“Enjoy screens. Not too much. Mostly with others.”

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