Technology for Tots
Minnesota School Board Association Journal, Early Spring, 1998
Like an increasing number of middle class children, both my kids have never lived in a house without a computer. My now twenty-something daughter had a working knowledge of the keyboard gained by playing a simple game before she went to kindergarten and used Bank Street Writer, a simple word processor, to write even her earliest grade school papers. When he was four my son played for a few hours with the CD-ROM Just Grandma and Me, but moved quickly to building his own multimedia books using HyperStudio. I am a little concerned. This same young man, now in sixth grade, just spent a bundle of his Christmas cash on an unappetizing program called Grossology that in loving detail explains all the human body’s least appealing functions and byproducts. Which would not be a problem, except that the science fair is just around the corner!
Technology for children of all ages has both its defenders and its opponents. Don Tapscott’ s book Growing Up Digital: the Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill, 1997) glowingly describes children like mine: young learners for whom technology is just as common and no more significant than air. He asserts that our adult concerns about computers and such come not from anything inherently bad about the technology itself, but from the rightful suspicion that we know less about it than our children. Tapscott predicts a bright future for what he calls this N generation, and worries about the children who do not develop an early comfort level with keyboards, chat rooms, and network protocols.
On the other side of the fence, Internet pioneer and sometime social commentator Clifford Stoll asks what sort of message we send to children when we plunk them down in front of a piece of machinery rather than spending personal time with them.
“…kids love these high-tech devices and play happily with them for hours. But just because children do something willingly doesn’t mean that it engages their minds. Indeed most software for children turns lessons into games. The popular arithmetic Math Blaster simulates an arcade shoot-’em-down, complete with enemy flying saucers. Such instant gratification keeps kids clicking icons while discouraging any sense of studiousness or sustained mental effort. Plop a kid down before such a program and the message is, “You have to learn math tables, so play with this computer.” Teach the same lesson with flash cards, and a different message comes through: “You’re important to me, and this subject is so useful that I’ll spend an hour teaching you arithmetic.” (Stoll, Clifford, “Invest in Humanware.” New York Times, May 19, 1996.)Meanwhile the evidence is now incontrovertible: all children need good learning experiences very early in life if they are to continue to be good learners as they get older. Are computer games, videos, and digital toys good for the Barney generation?
An increasing number of parents and preschool teachers believe technology can add to their arsenal of stimulating learning activities for young children. Educational videotapes have long entertained and taught preschoolers. Computer programs stress reading readiness include Arthur’s Reading Race by Broderbund, Let’s Go Read by Edmark and Ready to Read with Pooh by Disney Interactive. Early math concepts are explored in Table Top Junior by Broderbund, Millie’s Mathhouse by Edmark, and How Many Bugs in a Box by Simon and Schuster Interactive. Apple Computer sells a special “Early Childhood solution” that bundles a variety of software titles selected for children ages 3 to 5 with a powerful multimedia computer.
Even the Internet has sites designed for very young children such as the picture dictionary at <http://www.EnchantedLearning.com/Dictionarytitlepage.html>. Specially designed keyboards for small fingers, stand-alone electronic learning games, and even plush-toys packed with microprocessing power fill toy and computer stores. (At this point it looks like grandmas, not superintendents, are the main buyers of such equipment. Far more new software titles for children are being developed and marketed for the home rather than the school market.)
Two observations then about technology and very young children:
The software which most engages these little folks is very demanding. Its intense use of animation, sound, and graphics requires fast, powerful machines on which to run. The easiest productivity tools ARE easy because of extensive on-line guides and virtual helpers. But too many districts still use the “pass-me-down” technology budgeting plan: when the high school computers are replaced, the oldest, slowest ones go to the elementary schools. This is nuts. Budgeting should always start with the question “What specifically are the learning goals I am trying to help children meet?” Move to “What software effectively helps children meet those goals?” And end with, “What kind of equipment is necessary to run that software?” It’s easy to argue that the youngest learners need the best equipment if such reasoning is used.
The second observation has more to do with technology’s role in early childhood education. As Stoll suggests, it’s easy to allow software perform a role far better done by “humanware.” Who has not used television as an electronic babysitter? So it is tremendously important that we remember technology is only one tool - along with books, games, play, toys, storytelling, naps, graham crackers, conversation, and hugs - that develops and stimulates young learners. I am convinced that children come to love reading not just because of the intellectual content of the books, but because of the associative memory of sitting close to another human being while being read to. If I had to chose between a my child hearing a first-rate librarian read a story or having him click through even the most involving CD-ROM multi-media “book,” I’d insist on the librarian every time.
The question really is not whether we should use technology with small children, but how do we do it wisely? Wise use will only come when there are a sufficient number of technologically literate preschool teachers who are not replaced, but supplemented, by effective technologies. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that our children can have both laps and laptops when appropriate and when needed?