This article appeared in the Winter 2012–13 issue of Erikson on Children under the headline “Tech help.”
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Young children love playing with technology, from iPads to digital cameras. What do early childhood practitioners — and parents, too — need to think about before handing children these gadgets?

We asked Chip Donohue, dean of distance learning and continuing education, for his insights. In March, Donohue launched Erikson’s TEC Center, which stands for Technology in Early Childhood, with the support of The Boeing Company.

Donohue also co-chaired the writing team and working group that developed the guidelines for media and technology in early childhood programs released in March by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media.

Let’s start at the beginning: what is technology in early childhood?

Chip Donohue: It could be a camera, audio recorder, music player, TV, DVD player, or more recent technology like tablet computers and smartphones used in child care centers, classrooms, or at home. More than once, a teacher has told me, “I don’t do technology.” I ask them if they’ve ever taken a digital photo of their students, played a record, tape, or DVD, or given kids headphones to listen to a story. Teachers have always used technology. The difference is that now teachers are using really powerful tools like iPads and iPhones in their personal and professional lives.

Technology is just a tool. It shouldn’t be used in classrooms or child care centers because it’s cool, but because teachers can do activities that support the healthy development of children. Teachers are using digital cameras — a less flashy technology than iPads — in really creative ways to engage children in learning. That may be all they need.

At the same time, teachers need to be able to integrate technology into the classroom or child care center as a social justice matter. We can’t assume that all children have technology at home. A lack of exposure could widen the digital divide — that is, the divide between those with and without access to digital technology — and limit some children’s school readiness and early success. Just as all children need to learn how to handle a book in early literacy, they need to be taught how to use technology, including how to open it, how it works, and how to take care of it.

Some experts worry that technology is bad for children. Where do you come down?

Donohue: There are real concerns about children spending too much time in front of screens, especially given the many screens in children’s lives. Today, very young children are sitting in front of TVs, playing on iPads and iPhones, and watching their parents take photos on a digital camera, which has its own screen. There used to be only the TV screen. That was the screen we worried about and researched for 30 years. We as a field know a whole lot about the impact of TV on children’s behavior and learning, but we know very little about all the new digital devices.

The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages screen time for children under two years old, but the NAEYC/Fred Rogers position statement takes a slightly different stance. It says that technology and media should be limited, but what matters most is how it is used. What is the content? Is it being used in an intentional manner? Is it developmentally appropriate? The NAEYC/Fred Rogers position statement doesn’t set specific limits on technology, just as the field doesn’t set limits on block time or the book corner or dramatic play or manipulatives. We wouldn’t tell a child that his 10 minutes of puzzle making or reading for the week is up.

My advice to teachers and parents is to trust your instincts. You know your child and if you think they have been watching the screen too long, turn it off. It’s up to the adult to notice that a child’s computer time is limiting interactions with other kids and nudge her in new directions. It’s also up to the adult to understand the child’s personality and disposition and to understand if technology is one of the ways the child chooses to interact with the world.

At the same time, cut yourself some slack. We all know that there are better things to do with children’s time than to plop them in front of a TV, but we also know that child care providers have to make lunch, and parents need time to take a shower. In situations like that, it is the adult’s job to make the technology time more valuable and interactive by asking questions and connecting a child’s virtual experience on the screen with real-life experiences in her world.

How do early childhood professionals learn how to use technology appropriately?

Donohue: No one is really teaching early childhood professionals about using technology and that’s a big problem. Teacher education programs have to help future teachers be digitally literate and comfortable enough with the intersection of technology and child development to know how to be appropriate, what’s effective, how much is too much, and what to avoid.

The other part of the conversation is program directors and administrators. They are going to be expected to train their teachers on how to use technology in the classroom and need to know how to do it well. If not, teachers will continue to set new technology aside or use it inappropriately because they haven’t had a chance to play with the technology and learn about what it can do. That’s a big missed opportunity for children.

The TEC Center was created to help provide a professional resource that is sorely lacking. On our website, the Center aggregates and curates examples of best practice. People are already doing great things with technology and children. We need to learn from them. Soon, the TEC Center will also begin offering professional development courses. Likewise, Erikson’s teacher preparation program is helping teachers become more comfortable with these tools.