This article will focuses on the educational aspect of technology for very young children and looks at whether it is appropriate in light of research on how a young child’s brain and body need to develop to maintain optimum health and well-being.
When I think of a toddler, I think instinctively of a whirligig, chubby arms and legs in constant motion, muddy, grubby faces delighted with life one moment and then just as suddenly, stricken at an injustice, like simply having to go home. Of sand pits and never-ending bucket castles which are kicked over instantly amid sounds of joy, of splashing in puddles and running no-where in particular, just running for the sake of it.
What I don’t think of immediately is knowledge. Of alphabets and matching shapes, of phonemes and manipulating numbers. Yet we do of course quite naturally teach our children all kinds of things, even when they are small.
We are our child’s first teacher, but is there a definitive list of what every toddler should know? Of course not, that is very subjective and depends upon the environment in which a child grows. However, if we take a look at a young child’s development, it will give us clue’s into what kind of learning might be appropriate and beneficial to our toddlers.
The general stages of learning development go from concrete learning (touch) in the early years, through to more symbolic learning (letters) to abstract modes of thought.
Young children learn through exploring with their whole bodies, including using all of their senses. In order for optimum learning to take place, children need to be talked to, read to and played with. They need hands on creative play, physically active play and plenty of interaction with other children and adults.
According to a research paper, neuroscience discoveries show that early experiences literally shape how the brain gets built. How young children spend their time has a life-long knock on effect. Babies and toddlers brains have an excess potential to make connections between different types of neurons. As the child is involved in a certain activity, connections are strengthened, whereas habits that do not get much practise may lack a strong neural base.
(A Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood and Alliance For Childhood, 2012)
Ultimately, as parents, we need to reflect on what skills we would like our children to posses and build on for their future and since young children are big imitators, we need to provide them with a human model. We need to show them what it means to be human through our own actions. There is nothing like a young child in the family to sharpen our focus about who we are, and what we wish the next generation to become.
So where does technology fit into all of this?
Young children are incredibly adept at using new technology. Toddlers using a tablet for the first time are quick to navigate around and find the features of interest to them. Portable devices present the perfect world of buttons, lights, touch screens and interactivity for our little learners.
In educational terms this is why we now refer to current youngsters as the ‘digital generation’. They are growing up with technology like no child before them and developing an innate understanding of all things digital.
We are however, only just beginning to understand the long term effects of how this will change the way young children think, act, learn and even sleep.
From parents I have spoken to online and in real life, there is this feeling of inevitability. Technology is here and here to stay, so why stop our young children mastering technology related skills? One mother told me that ‘the screen-time debate for toddlers is rather outdated given what apps can now enable preschool kids to do’ and another said, sighing as she did so that ‘it goes against everything I believe but I’m thinking kids need to be tech savy these days, it’s just the way of the world. Kids need to grow up as digital natives. They have to have an instinctual understanding of the technology to thrive in modern society’.
Do they? I personally don’t buy into the defeatist shoulder-shrugging ‘ they need to know now in order to thrive later’ argument. My own technology deprived children seem perfectly capable of learning tech skills pretty fast when given an opportunity, so I don’t fear they will be left behind in years to come. Besides the technology of today is likely to be very outdated by the time our children grow up.
There is also the question of whether parents are really using technology for their young children in order to ensure they have the skills later. Surely, when being entirely honest, parents would admit to using it because it enables them to have some spare time. This is totally understandable, and I have plonked my two in front of a film for that very reason. Our community ties are stretched these days, and most of us live a long way from our families. We don’t all have extended family on our doorstep to hand the children to when we need a break or to get something done in peace.
Technology though isn’t a great babysitter. It doesn’t provide the loving warmth that a human can and in fact it can be actively harmful. Many TV programs and computer games are targeted to young audiences to ‘help’ them learn to read or count, or teach them social values. The educational slant provides the guilt release many parents want, they feel it’s OK for their young child to play about on the ipad if it’s deemed as learning. However these so called learning apps are not based on actual child development, instead ‘the business model for almost everything on a computer screen is marketing plus taking our personal information and embedding products in whatever we’re watching’ (Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, 2012)
Kids tends to equal sales, we are being hoodwinked and mostly we know it but choose to turn a blind-eye, the general feeling seems to be that our toddlers are learning via these devices, so how can that possibly be a bad thing?
To date, research tells us that screen time for infants and toddlers has no real benefit. New technologies are marketed as ‘interactive’ – but usually this merely offers children a choice between a predetermined set of options. In contrast, genuine free play is limitless and is only restricted by the power of a child’s own imagination.
Play and spontaneous physical activity stimulates a part of the brain (the cerebellum) which coordinates motor activity, balance and also the higher cognitive functions required for learning skills such as reading.
Many of today’s apps are geared towards alphabetical knowledge for babies and toddlers. However, selecting and watching a screen is no substitute for genuine mental activity. Reading is not simply built on alphabetical knowledge, but on whole language skills, such as listening and understanding others and effective self-expression (Jane M. Healy, 1999).
The best way to enhance your young child’s language, and later reading ability is to converse with them and involve them in what you’re doing. A toddler’s brain is not sufficiently developed for the actual task of reading yet, trust that it will be later.
Another false positive regarding learning apps is the apparent ability of a young child to concentrate on a screen. In fact this is even used in sales pitches:
‘They’ll capture and hold your child’s interest. They’re lots of fun – at home or on the go. They’re designed for the way kids play today. And the best thing about our apps for kids – they’re based on learning concepts. So you can feel good about their playtime, and they’ll be so engaged, they may not even know they’re learning!’ (www.fisher-price.com)
However research states that for preschoolers, ‘even 20 minutes of a fast paced cartoon show (or similar fast paced computer game) has been shown to have a negative impact on executive function skills, including attention, the ability to delay gratification, self-regulation and problem solving’ (Alliance for Childhood, 2012).
Another key time parents may use apps on mobiles or ipads for example, are during ‘waiting’ times. Perhaps when waiting for older children participating in clubs, or when on the bus or a car journey or waiting in turn at the hairdressers or during a meal out. Apps are used to keep children quiet, to give parents a break or to prevent the child from becoming bored.
We should however, think carefully about the implications. There is nothing wrong with a young child feeling boredom, it is often the precursor to creativity and imagination. Unfortunately our society seems increasingly intolerant of toddlers, of their movement and their noise, but channelled properly, these ‘waiting times’ could be key learning times to join in with or observe adult social interactions. If toddlers are just shut down and made quiet with mobile apps for our convenience, how and when will they learn these important skills?
If we find we need to keep our toddler still and quiet too often, perhaps we should assess how our time might be used differently in order to meet their needs better. Walking instead of being strapped into a car would fulfil their need for movement better. Letting your older child enjoy free range time in the park or woods with younger siblings would most likely meet everyone’s needs better than a structured indoor club. Finding a more child friendly café, perhaps with a play corner might be a preferable option to a restaurant where a toddler is expected to sit still.
Overall I think we need to assess carefully what toddlers are getting from time on screens, is it developmentally appropriate, is it actively preventing learning taking place?
It is also worth asking whether an ipad is even the best tool for a particular kind of learning. It can be fantastic at showing what it’s like at the top of Everest, but not so good for drawing for example.
Yet in reality, toddlers don’t need Everest, they need to know how the mud feels in their own back-yard. They don’t need touch screens, they need real experiences to touch, see, smell and hear. They don’t need apps to teach them colours, they need to roll down lush green hills and gaze at sunsets as the sky turns every shade of red. All children, but especially toddlers, need to understand learning concepts at a personal and physical level.
The best learning comes from living.
Campaign For A Commercial-Free Childhood – Alliance For Childhood – Teacher’s Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (2012) Facing The Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology And Early Childhood
Healy, Jane M. (1999) Failure To Connect, Touchstone
Other recommended reading:
Healy, Jane M. (1984) Your Child’s Growing Mind, Broadway Books
Johnson, S.R. (2014) Teaching Children to Write, Read, And Spell. A Developmental Approach, youandyourchild’shealth.org
Oppenheimer, Sharifa. (2006) Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, Steiner Books.