iPads for Kindergarteners: For the Birds?

(A version of this essay appeared in Holistic Parenting, Nov 2014)

I recently went to visit an elementary school. The school was wonderful - bright, open classrooms with large windows, outdoor playgrounds nestled up in the woods behind the school, healthy homemade lunches, foreign language starting in kindergarten, music and art, and an outdoor eco program. I was very impressed.

And then the principal told me that every kindergartener is given an iPad.

On some level, I can understand the allure of computer technology in the classroom: it offers an abundance of activities on a wide range of topics -- activities that engage and entertain students, are easily incorporated into classroom lessons, and, in some cases, can be tailored to individual levels. Even the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) claims that integrating technology in an interactive manner can improve classroom instruction (1). In addition, cutting edge technology is appealing to the parent community who no doubt wants their children to receive a cutting edge education. So when funding is made available for each child to have his or her own iPad, it would be hard for a school to resist.

But cutting edge technology does not equal cutting edge education. In fact, many disadvantages are often associated with screen time, including passivity, lack of social interaction, inhibition of deep processing and reflection, decrease in physical fitness, attentional difficulties, and sleep disturbances (2). One might argue that these findings are based primarily on studies examining the effects of television and video games, not age-appropriate, interactive technology that is integrated into classroom activities under the watchful eye of a dedicated teacher.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder, what can a five-year-old possibly learn better from a screen than from the world itself? When I voiced my concern, the principal reassured me that the iPads are used age-appropriately to enhance learning. For example, during a unit on birds the kindergarteners take their iPads outside to record birdsongs. When they come back inside, they listen to the songs and look at pictures in order to identify the birds.

Using the iPad as a recording device seems harmless. It’s not as though the children are simply sitting at a desk looking at birds on a screen, nor are they being drilled with factual knowledge at the expense of engaging in physical movement and outdoor exploration, both of which would arguably be inappropriate uses of technology (3). The children are using iPads to record birdsongs in nature. At first glance, this scenario appears to characterize an appropriate use of technology in a kindergarten class.

I have to ask, though, what are the children not getting because they are using computer technology? What would the alternative look like?

What if the children were asked to go outside, sit quietly for a period of time (a lost art in and of itself), and really listen to the birdsongs? In small groups they could take turns trying to replicate the song they heard, getting feedback from their peers and teacher on how close they were to the real thing. Instead of focusing on their screens in order to manipulate the recording app, they could observe the birds and make note of their physical characteristics, or draw them on sketchpads. Then, back in the classroom, they could talk about the songs, compare what they recall to a recording the teacher had made, and use their own drawings to identify the birds.

Even though the two activities (with technology and without) are similar in terms of content learned (names, songs, physical appearance of birds), there are fundamental differences in the skills that are required and, thus, developed.

In the lesson with technology, the children are asked to listen for the birdsong and then use the iPad to record it. Back in the classroom, the children use the iPad to replay the birdsong. Although the children do go outside to record the songs, they are relatively passive in the process and there is minimal cooperative interaction.

In the lesson without technology, the children are asked to listen to the birdsong. They have to pay close attention in order to notice the musical detail of the song and the physical appearance of the bird. Furthermore, they have to work together to accomplish the task. Back in the classroom, the children have to rely on their observations in order to identify the bird and its song. In this scenario, the children are active participants throughout the lesson.

A lesson on birds is perfectly appropriate for 4-6 year olds.  Furthermore, children these ages are capable of paying attention to and remembering details of birds’ songs and physical appearance. Giving children the opportunity to practice and develop these skills is what learning is all about, perhaps even more so than the actual content of the lesson. So why would an educator design a lesson that promotes a more passive role for the students? In other words, why would you give a child an iPad to record the song instead of requiring the child to engage in the cognitive exercise of recording it mentally?

In discussions with other parents and educators, it often comes up that even if computer technology does not enhance the learning process for young children, it is a fact of society. Therefore, it is important to incorporate technology into the classroom from an early age; not doing so may have the downside of making it more difficult for children to become proficient with technology later in life.

However, with technology changing so quickly, today’s computers won’t even resemble the technology that will exist when our five-year-olds are teenagers, let alone young adults entering the workforce. It is unlikely that the skill of navigating an iPad in 2014 will be relevant to the computer skills needed in 2025. Besides, new technology is increasingly intuitive and user-friendly; if it is not, it is heavily criticized in the market.

Furthermore, I have seen two-year-olds figure out how to work their parents’ “screens” in a matter of minutes, which begs the question, what “computer skills” are children learning if it is something a two-year-old can master in a few minutes? The skills that are really necessary for success with computer technology (and in life in general) are logic, troubleshooting, and perseverance, none of which are typically required in children’s computer programs and apps that operate on a point, drag, and click basis.

Finally, to the best of my knowledge, there is currently no empirical evidence of a critical period for learning technological skills. That is, there is no age after which a person is no longer capable of learning how to use a computer. It is possible that a 40-year-old encountering a computer for the first time would face a steep learning curve (as my own, highly computer-literate father experienced), but a twelve-year-old is just as capable of figuring out a computer as a five-year-old. Case in point, many of us middle-aged folk didn’t have any computer technology in our elementary school classrooms, and we have proven capable of mastering a wide range of new technology, including our iPads. 

Regardless, the national trend is to integrate technology into classrooms as early as possible, with technology standards that begin in pre-school. Currently, the NAEYC offers several recommendations for successful integration of technology into the classroom. Generally, they state that, “technology and media should be recognized as tools that are valuable when used intentionally with children to extend and support active, hands-on, creative and authentic engagement with those around them and with their world” (1).

However, their guidelines do not address what I consider to be the detrimental components of technology in early education. For example, while the use of iPads in the bird unit described above falls in line with the NAEYC guidelines, it greatly changes the nature of the activity, and, in my opinion, deprives the children of important skill development.

Therefore, instead of embracing technology as a valuable tool for young learners, I propose evaluating its use based on the following questions:

  1. Does the technology provide the opportunity for children to develop skills or is the technology performing those skills instead of the child?
  2. Does the technology enhance or inhibit the children’s use of their own sensory or physical skills?
  3. How does the technology affect the children’s active participation in the lesson?
  4. What would the same lesson look like if the technology were not used? What is gained and/or lost?

I believe the answers will shift as children get older in that the benefits of technology run along a continuum, increasing as children get older. A computer is unlikely to enhance a lesson on birds for a five-year-old; however, a computer may be extremely beneficial to a fifteen-year-old learning about the human respiratory system in a biology class. Therefore, it seems a reasonable approach would be to gradually – and thoughtfully – integrate technology into the curriculum over a period of several years after the children have had a chance to develop the set of skills the technology will likely replace.

Technology has a useful and important role in society and in education, but technology is also most beneficial when it extends or facilitates human capability, not when it replaces it. If children are not given the opportunity to use and develop a range of skills, then as adults, they will be far less capable, and their use of technology will be far less effective.

(1) http://www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PS_technology_WEB2.pdf

(2) Sigman, A. (2012). The impact of screen media on children: A Eurovision for parliament. Improving the Quality of Childhood in Europe 2012, Volume 3.

(3) Wardle, F. (2002) The role of technology in early childhood programs. Earlychildhoodnews.com. Retrieved August 5, 2014 from http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com/earlychildhood/article_view.aspx?ArticleID=302