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


End of summer harvest

A friend just posted on her Facebook page, “Finish this sentence: If I wasn’t afraid, I’d…” In her comment box, I finished the sentence with “write what I really think.” So I am going to write what I’m really thinking right now.

I resent our garden.

I know it sounds crazy, especially when I love the idea of growing our own food, letting our children experience the process of planting seeds and watching them flourish into colorful, healthy vegetables that we then cook into wholesome, tasty meals. But the truth is, gardening is a shitload of work and I don’t like cooking.

Up until this month I haven’t minded the work. April was fun because I love planning, and that is what one does in Vermont while waiting for the thaw. We mapped out garden beds, organized seed packets, and tidied up the yard and barn for the upcoming change of season. May and June were enjoyable too. I like the work of turning over the soil, weeding out the dandelions and crabgrass, and pruning trees and bushes. The combination of physical exhaustion, fresh air, and a final result of tidiness brought me great satisfaction. In July, the produce began. At first it was fun. Raspberries! Blueberries! Kale! We had salads with dinner and cobbler for dessert. The kids spent their days snacking on snap peas while I carefully weeded in between the delicate plants.

But now, the harvest overload. We have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of beans: long, slender green, yellow, and purple beans, bush beans and pole beans. They are fresh and crunchy, and far more flavorful than any bean I have ever bought from the store.

The zucchini and yellow squash are also piling up. We were fortunate to make it through the beetle infestation, and now we are enjoying freshly grilled squash and sweet zucchini muffins. Broccoli, garlic, carrots, scallions, beets, lettuce, chard, basil, parsley, and finally, tomatoes; I haven’t walked through the produce section of the grocery store in weeks.

Our first year of gardening was a success. I should be filled with gratitude for the good weather and rich soil. After all, this garden was not a hobby, but a necessity in order to cut down on grocery bills over the entire year. We’re depending on this garden to justify other expenses in our lives.

But despite the wonders and good fortune of home grown food, I resent that the garden is driving me into the kitchen on the most beautiful days of the waning summer. I want to spend these splendid weekend days hiking and biking, going for late afternoon swims at the pond, and exploring new trails in the woods behind our house. But I can’t because the hundreds, maybe even thousands, of beans have to be blanched and frozen, or pickled into dilly beans. The zucchini and carrots need to be shredded for soups and breads. Lasagnas, tomato sauces, pesto, broths… the to-do list pertaining to vegetables is overwhelming, exacerbated by the fact that I do not enjoy cooking.

I happily spend hours baking - provided it involves chocolate, but as soon as the task is cooking, it feels like a chore. The mere sight of squash and dirt-covered beets taking over my counter triggers a list of a dozen activities I’d rather be doing. The thought of sacrificing a warm, sunny afternoon to be slaving away over a steamy pot in the kitchen makes me grumpy. I’m even less enthusiastic about giving up my evening time – the only few hours of the week that I can enjoy the quiet of sitting alone at my desk. I love sitting at my desk. I do not love standing in the kitchen.

But we do it anyway, my husband and I. He takes one night and I take the next – so we can both still have some evening time to ourselves. Sometimes we’ll cook together. Our chest freezer is slowly but surely filling up with soups and breads that we’ll enjoy all winter.

I’m hoping that the experience of lower grocery bills and garden-fresh meals in February will make this August-September phase of the gardening cycle more gratifying next year.

In the meantime, I am sneaking in as many chocolate chip zucchini bread and red velvet cake recipes as I can.

Taking my kids swimming

This month at VT Mommies I write about taking my kids swimming and the anxiety I feel when my kids are around water. Since writing this, I've taken my kids swimming a few times and it has been great. They absolutely love it and beg to go to the pond every day.

Jumping in: Taking my Kids Swimming

“It’s going to be at a swimming pool, mom! We get to go swimming!” my daughter enthusiastically tells me about her classmate’s upcoming birthday party. My stomach clenches as I wonder how I’ll manage that one, especially if it is on a day when my husband works and I’ll have to take all three children, none of whom can swim yet.

I have no particular reason to feel anxious about my children and water. I have always loved swimming and consider myself to be a strong, if not fast, swimmer. As a child, swimming was one of my greatest pleasures, and, as an adult, I find it both invigorating and calming. I never sleep better than after a good swim, and the sight of a sparkling blue swimming pool or clear, glittering lake makes me profoundly happy.

Even the way I learned to swim should quell any fear I have about my own children and water. When I was six, my mom signed me up for what she thought were swimming lessons at the local high school. But as she sat in the bleachers with my little sister, watching lines of kids dive into the Olympic size pool and start swimming across, she realized it was swim team, not swim lessons. There was nothing she could do as she watched me obediently jump into the pool when the whistle signaled my turn. I didn’t sink. I doggy-paddled my way across and loved every minute of it.

But the thought of my own three children in a body of water scares the crap out of me. There is no doubt that drowning is a real danger, but to some degree, my fear is irrational, especially since I am not particularly risk-averse in other areas of their childhood. I let my kids climb high up in trees without a second thought, we go for bike rides on curvy country roads, and I drove them hundreds of times on the Anacostia freeway in Washington D.C., all of which should be scarier than allowing them to swim in a life-guarded pool or lake under my supervision.

I blame my fear on anxiety. Thanks to a combination of my anxiety-prone genetic makeup and our increasingly anxiety-prone parenting culture, I have let swimming slip into the category of “hazard to avoid” rather than “essential childhood pleasure.” I’m not sure why my perspective on swimming—but not tree climbing—has been skewed, but I’ve somehow let the unlikely possibility of tragedy override the absolute joy of going swimming on a hot summer day.

Some degree of anxiety is a good thing: it can sharpen our minds in a high stake situation, like taking an exam, and ensure we are vigilant while supervising children at a swimming pool. But keeping anxiety at just the right level can be tricky, especially when our children are involved and the protective instinct isn’t always rooted in a rational risk assessment.

This summer, I will get my “swim anxiety” into balance and share my love of swimming with my children. I will take them to the upcoming pool party and we will meet friends at the lake for play dates. To help ease my fears, I will ask my friends with one child to help me watch my three, and I will sign them up for swim lessons, making sure they are lessons and not team practices. Not yet, at least.