Handbook of Language and Literacy Development - a Roadmap from 0 to 60 Months

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Computer use by Toddlers and Preschoolersclick to print Print
Research Review / Parent

Written by: Eileen Wood, Wilfrid Laurier University

All types of computer technologies are beginning to appear and be used in classrooms across our country. Some of those technologies, especially laptop and desktop computers, are also a very visible presence in early childhood education centres and in the homes of young children. With computers being so widely available, it is important for us to understand as much as possible about how toddlers and preschoolers interact with computers and how computers can be used to help to develop their skills and abilities.

Introducing Toddlers and Preschoolers to Computers

Parents and caregivers often express uncertainty about many aspects of introducing their young children to computers. Information on when and how to introduce computers, technological considerations, and ways to encourage increasingly independent use is provided in the following sections.

When should I Introduce Computers?

Exposure to computers can begin very early in life. Exactly when children should be introduced to computers is an unresolved issue. Some agencies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children not be introduced to screen technologies, including computers, until after their second birthday. Others, however, have argued that this recommendation is too conservative and that children can be on the computer earlier than two years of age. Given this conflicting information it is hard for parents to judge exactly when they should introduce computers. So, what should parents do?

Parents need to give serious thought about when and why they would like to introduce their child to computer technology. Overall, there are some advantages to introducing computers to children but the age of first exposure will depend on what parents feel works best for their family. There are two positive outcomes that parents and caregivers should consider when deciding whether to introduce computers to their young children:

1. Through teaching children to use computers, parents can allow their children to become informed and competent in using a tool that is very important in our society.
2. The computer can be used to present unique, interesting and educationally relevant learning experiences for children.

For more information on outcomes of introducing computers to young children see a following section - Interactions between Computer Use and Early Child Development. Regardless of the specific timing for introducing computers, a more important consideration might be how children should be introduced to computers so that positive outcomes can be realized.

How to Introduce Computers

There are several things to keep in mind, when you introduce computers to children such as to engage in shared use, model how to use the equipment, remember that computers are not a toy, to be careful about the location of the computer, and to work toward a gradual introduction to computers.

Shared Computer Use

The best way to use computers with young children is through shared use. When parents or caregivers work with a child on a computer, they can help that child learn about the equipment and how to navigate through software. They are also able to supervise what the child is doing while interacting with the computer.

Shared computer use for toddlers typically begins with the child seated on an adult’s lap and with the adult controlling the movement of the mouse and keyboard. The key goal for the first few sessions is to show the child the interesting images and sounds that the software provides. For example, two-and-a-half-year-old Monique enjoyed sitting on her mom’s lap as her mom navigated through a “Max and Ruby” matching game online. Monique was captivated by the colourful animated characters and scenery and by the playful music.

Modeling How to Use the Equipment

Slowly, a parent or caregiver can begin to teach the child to use the equipment. For example, adults can model the use of the mouse with the child. The first step is to help the child to physically control the mouse. For example, parents or caregivers can put their hand over the child’s hand at first to teach the child how to hold his or her hand and fingers to work the mouse. They can also help the child to find the right buttons and show how the mouse moves. By age three, Carlos was very interested in attempting to use the mouse “all by myself. ” With some initial hand-over-hand assistance from his father, Carlos became able to point and click on his own – although he continued to “overshoot” his screen targets on occasion.

If a child’s hand is just too small, or independent use of a standard mouse appears too challenging, alternative devices could be introduced (for more information, see the next section - Providing and Introducing Appropriate Technology).

Computers are NOT a Toy

With practice, young children can learn to work on the computer without sitting on an adult’s lap but a parent or caregiver should continue to be beside, behind, or otherwise close to the child because there likely will be continued need for assistance with the mouse and especially with keyboard tasks.

Supervision is also a key element when young children use computers because the equipment is expensive and is electrical—both of which can pose concerns. For example, young children often approach computers with the same curiosity and sense of exploration that they approach “toys” in their environment. This approach by children can be dangerous and expensive. For example, in our research we replaced many CD drives when children exhausted the mechanism by pressing the buttons to open and close drawers repeatedly. Children also lifted mouse buttons up rather than pressing them, which caused permanent damage. It takes time for children to understand that although computers are fun to “play with” they are not a toy like other toys.

Location of Computer

Shared computer experiences may be best facilitated when computers are located in places within the home where family members can congregate around the computer and interact. Public locations, like a living room, kitchen or family room, also allow parents to engage in greater supervision of activities than when computers are out of view, for example in children’s bedrooms.

Gradual Introduction to Computers

Many children do not have rich media experiences early in life and many parents choose to wait until their children are a little bit older before introducing computers. For these children, similar to their early-exposed peers, adults and peers can facilitate acquisition of computer skills by providing supports (physical and verbal) when children are acquiring the basic skills.

Over time parental and caregiver support can be gradually reduced. Again, the goal is to introduce children gradually so that they develop the skills to operate the computer independently while working under the supervision of an adult. For more information, see a following section –

Encouraging Movement towards Independent Use

Providing and Introducing the Appropriate Technology

Age- and ability-appropriate computer use by toddlers and preschoolers requires informed adult consideration of the needed technology. Careful selection of both hardware and software is required.

Selecting Hardware

When introducing a young child to computers, the first challenge usually involves navigating the hardware. The match between user and input device is critical for making the transition to computer efficient and enjoyable. Input devices vary greatly (touch screen, trackball, stylus enlarged mouse, keyboard, joystick, mouse, and specialized keyboards) and each has features that determine which device would be most appropriate.

Novice users, especially very young children, often experience physical and spatial challenges when interacting with input devices. In some cases the physical requirements involved with more demanding devices such as the mouse can be reduced by using devices such as touch screens or a variation of a traditional mouse (e. g. , enlarged stationary mouse). Although input devices have been devised for children as young as 9 months of age, few have been tested experimentally. Of those that have been studied, testing has usually been conducted with children three years of age and older. For these children, the touch screen is the easiest device to use when the task involved requires simple pointing and pressing. When there is a moving target, or click and drag operations are involved, then the mouse or a modified mouse is a more effective device to use.

Selecting Software

There are two forms of computer use addressed in the literature; the Internet and software applications.

Internet Applications

In order for children to be able to use the Internet effectively, they must have rudimentary verbal skills that allow them to read and spell. Because very young children are still developing these skills, most of the literature addressing computer use for very young learners (i. e. , toddlers, preschoolers, early grade schoolers) focuses on computer software applications rather than the Internet. As children develop skills, and with support from others (e. g. , when care providers and siblings mediate access), children can gain access to online sites.

Software Applications

Selecting appropriate software is a challenge. There is no government body that screens the educational quality of software for children. Given the lack of consistency in rating systems that are used to evaluate content across different media (i. e. , television, video games, and software), it is not surprising that parents and caregivers are confused and do not understand what ratings might mean and often do not use ratings to help them to select software for young children.

Current ratings identify age-appropriate content (with respect to issues such as violence) for most commercially available computer programs and there is no regulated rating system applied to software available through Internet sites. Thus, it is very important for parents and caregivers to co-view or try out software before presenting it for children to use to ensure that the content is appropriate.

Sometimes parents and caregivers dismiss games as important learning tools; however, good software games can be every bit as educational as software specifically promoted as educational.

What qualities might be important for preschool software?

1. Good software involves active participation where the child starts, directs and is interested in the activities.
2. The software presents a real world task, one that is concrete and understood by the child.
3. The software is geared to the ability level of the child. Because toddlers and preschoolers are nonreaders, spoken directions are essential. Because of memory limitations, directions should be simple and easy to understand graphics/icons should accompany choices in order to make options clear to the children.
4. The software should have a learning sequence where one concept follows another and there should be levels so that children can progress as they improve.
5. Ideally, the software will adjust the level of difficulty as the child plays (that is, move through levels from easy to difficult based on success at the preceding level).
6. It is important that children learn through discovery rather than being drilled in specific skills.
7. The act of using the software should be engaging for children. In other words, the activities leading to the goal should be more important than the goal itself.
8. Finally, software should provide children with many opportunities to test different responses. It is important that children use a trial and error approach because it is through resolving errors that children build on their knowledge.

Encouraging Movement towards Independent Use

Some children who have early exposure to and experience with computers have been shown to be able to point and click a mouse and load a CD Rom as early as 3 years of age. Ideally, children should be encouraged to become independent in controlling their own activities at the computer. When children acquire the skills needed to control their own activities, they show greater attentiveness to the tasks and activities than when adults are in control.

Timing Computer Use

Once children acquire the skills to use the computer independently, it is important that adults set rules regarding use of technology, monitor the use, and supervise the programs being used. For example, parents and caregivers can set time limits for each session. How much time is enough or too much? At present we use the same general guidelines that we use for other media to help us to determine what is an appropriate amount of time. Generally sessions should be fairly brief and typically not exceed 20 to 30 minutes a day.

Interactions between Computer Use and Early Child Development

Research on the interaction between computer use and early child development can be clustered into three main areas of influence. These are general educational benefits, influence on early language and literacy development, and interaction with social development.

General Educational Benefits of Computer Use

The use of computer technology in the home and in the early childhood education classroom can provide a unique way for toddlers and preschoolers to gain age-appropriate social and cognitive information through play. Much of children’s early learning occurs while they are playing, therefore, computers can be a good forum for introducing and building important skills because most software uses a play-based format.

Computers are also a highly prized and motivating activity for many young children and encourage children to attend to and engage in the learning process. The speed, colour, movement, and child-game interaction are all features which help to keep the child interested in and involved with the software.

Software design provides opportunities for individualized instruction and independent learning along with an ability to do something and see an immediate effect. For example, many software applications have a range of levels that the child can progress through as their skills improve. Together, these aspects illustrate the richness of computer technology and its unique potential to enhance the instructional environment. Previous research with school-aged children demonstrates learning gains for many areas including language arts, reading, mathematics, science, social studies, writing skills, and second-language acquisition

When Early Childhood Educators were asked about computers and the young children with whom they work, the teachers perceived computers to be a highly motivating alternative means for providing child-centered instructional opportunities. Computers were generally seen as providing an additional or alternative activity for children or as an independent learning tool rather than as a central means of instruction.

Educators reported being more comfortable integrating technology for the older preschoolers and school-aged children at their centres. One perceived benefit for older children was that early exposure and experience with computers could prepare children for future school and life demands. Having computers available in childcare centres was perceived as "levelling out the playing field for those who don’t have computers at home. ”

Although computers are becoming more prevalent, not all children have equal access to computers, and even among those with access, there remains a “digital divide” that is, some children have greater opportunities to use the many tools and applications available through computers and others have fewer of these potentially important learning opportunities. Simply having access to or being “on the computer,” however, is not enough to guarantee the best outcomes for young learners. As previously discussed, to maximize children’s experiences with computers, there must be appropriate guidance and supervision, as well as selection of appropriate hardware and software.

Computers and Early Language and Literacy Development

Is there evidence supporting the use of computers for developing language and literacy skills? The simple answer is yes.

There are several review papers and individual studies which report success in promoting reading and language skills, as well as the learning of a second language. Given the tremendous importance of reading to educational success, the vast majority of research conducted regarding computer assisted learning over the past three decades has examined issues related to learning to read. Overall, results for children already in school (including Kindergarten) are generally positive when computers are used to facilitate reading skills. It must be kept in mind, however, that much of what we know about computer applications as tools for facilitating language and/or literacy development has been tested with children in early grade school, in school rather than home contexts, or with children identified with learning challenges.

Research on the impact of computer instruction for very young learners and for the informal learning contexts where many very young children spend the majority of their time, such as in the home or in day care, is extremely limited. However, the available research does support learning gains in specific pre-reading skills such as letter name and letter sound recognition, identification and blending of phonological units (for example c-a-t is cat) as well as more global findings of reading success. Some software programs, however, have not consistently yielded positive outcomes when evaluated. Although computers hold great promise as an important instructional tool for developing reading skills in young children, more investigation is needed before firm conclusions can be made regarding computerized language and literacy training with young learners.

Computers and the Social Development of Young Children

When computers first became popular, there were concerns that computer use would negatively impact children’s social development. Specifically, some believed that computers might cause children to focus only on the computer and not interact or play with peers which would lead to a loss in social learning opportunities.

In the last 20 years an abundance of studies suggest that computer-based learning environments can actually promote social interactions among young learners and that the interactions that occur among children are positive. For example, when children share a computer, they often share ideas and skills by telling each other what to do to succeed in a game, and how to move the mouse. Children also learn to take turns on computers. In addition, children working on computers tend to be less distracted and more persistent than when working on non-computer-based tasks.

Wood, E. (2008). Caregiver Narrative: Computer Use by Toddlers and Preschoolers (30 – 60 Months). In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 7. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development