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

Computer technology is becoming increasingly prevalent in early childhood education environments (Ko, 2002; Specht, Wood & Willoughby 2002; US Census Bureau, 2005) and in the homes of very young children (Calvert et al., 2005a). It is therefore critical for our society to understand as much as possible about how toddlers and preschoolers interact with computers and about the interactions between computer use and their development of various skills and abilities. An understanding of both the current and the recommended roles of parents and caregivers in toddler and preschooler computer use helps to complete the picture.

How Toddlers and Preschoolers Interact with Computers

Exposure to computers can begin very early in life. Timing for first exposure has been the target of some debate with agencies such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (2001) recommending that children as young as two or less not be exposed to electronic screens, while some researchers suggest that this global recommendation may be too conservative (Anderson & Pempek, 2005; Wartella, Vandewater & Rideout, 2005).

Regardless of the age of first exposure, there are important supports that need to be considered when initiating very young children to the use of computers in order to facilitate their ability to use the technology. For example, 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 (Calvert et al., 2005a). With practice, these young children can learn to work on the computer without sitting on an adult’s lap, although there will be continued need for assistance with the mouse and keyboard tasks. 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 three years of age (Calvert et al., 2005a). Many children, however, do not have rich media experiences early in life. For these children, similar to their early-exposed peers, adults and peers can facilitate acquisition of computer skills by providing supports when these children are acquiring the basic skills. Over time this support can be gradually reduced. 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 (Calvert, Strong & Gallagher, 2005b). 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 (Espinosa, et al., 2006).

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 offers the potential for unique learning opportunities. Unlike traditional explicit instructional formats, computers software typically employs a “game-like” format which allows toddlers and preschoolers to be exposed to developmentally appropriate social and cognitive information (e.g., letters, reading, arithmetic, turn-taking) through play (e.g., Bergin, Ford & Hess, 1993; Calvert et al., 2005a; Gee, 2008; Wood, et al., 2004). Previous research with school-aged children demonstrates learning gains for diverse areas including language arts, reading, math, science, social studies, writing skills and second-language acquisition (Sivin-Kachala & Bialo, 2000; Kulik, 2003). Overall, findings indicate that computers can facilitate social, cognitive, and play development among very young learners when (as previously mentioned) the technology is handled with appropriate supervision and support, and when software and hardware meets developmental abilities and needs (e.g., Kelly & Shorger, 2001; Ko, 2002; Muller & Perlmutter, 1985; Narrol, 1997; Podmore, 1981; Sandberg, 2002; Schofield, 1995).

Systematic reviews of computer-assisted instruction suggest that there are small but positive effects beyond those found in traditional instruction (Blok et al., 2002; Torgerson & Elbourne, 2002). Computers are a highly prized and motivating activity for many young children and this encourages children to attend to and engage in the learning process (Willoughby & Wood, 2008). Educational outcomes are highly contingent on the quality of the software. The speed, colour, and dynamic presentation attract children’s attention and motivate them to persist at tasks for extended periods (Wood et al., 2008). Software design provides opportunities for individualized instruction and independent learning along with an ability to do something and see an immediate effect. Together, these aspects illustrate the richness of computer technology and its unique potential to enhance the instructional environment.

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 (Livingstone, 2006; Willoughby & Wood, 2008). Simply having access to or being “on” the computer, however, is not enough to guarantee the best outcomes for young learners (Espinosa et al., 2006). To maximize children’s experiences with computers, there must be appropriate guidance and supervision, as well as selection of appropriate hardware and software (Insert link to Parent and Caregiver Contributions to Early Childhood Computer Use)

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 reading and language skills, as well as second language acquisition. It must be kept in mind, however, that much of the literature regarding computer applications as tools for facilitating language and/or literacy development has only been tested in older children (i.e., early grade school aged samples), in school contexts (e.g., Abrami et.al., 2008; Cole & Hilliard, 2006) or those with special learning challenges (e.g., Olofsson, 1992; Wentink, Van Bon & Schreuder, 1997). Given the tremendous importance of reading to subsequent success in the educational system, the vast majority of research conducted regarding computer assisted learning over the past three decades examines issues related to reading (see Blok et al., for a review). Overall, results for children already in school (including Kindergarten) are generally positive when computers are used to facilitate reading skills.

The impact of computer instruction for very young learners differs as a function of age and nd learning context. Research to date has focused primarily on children attending school ( in junior or senior kindergarten or older. Our understanding of the experiences of toddlers or very young preschoolers and for the informal learning contexts where many very young children spend the majority of their time, such as those found in the home or in day care, is extremely limited. However, available research supports learning gains in specific pre-reading skills such as letter name and letter sound recognition (Connell & Witt, 2004), identification and blending of phonological units (Puolakanaho, 2003) as well as more global findings of reading success (Calvert et al., 2005a; Lefever-Davis & Pearman, 2005). Some software programs, however, have not consistently yielded positive outcomes (e.g., Paterson, et al., 2003). Although computers hold great promise as an important instructional tool for developing reading skills in young children, the limited number of studies reinforces the need for more investigation before firm conclusions can be made regarding language and literacy training with young learners.

Computers and the Social Development of Young Children

Initially there were concerns that computer use would negatively impact social development. In the last 20 years an abundance of observational studies have suggested that computer-based learning environments facilitate social interactions among young learners (e.g., Bergin, Ford, & Hess, 1993; Fitzpatrick & Hardman, 2000; Podmore, 1991; Schofield, 1995). In general, social interactions that occur when playing with computers in learning contexts are positive, for example, promoting more active sharing and turn-taking on computer-based tasks than non-computer-based tasks (Muller & Perlmutter, 1985). In addition, children working on computers tend to be less distracted and more persistent than when working on non-computer-based tasks such as attribute block tasks (Finlayson & Cook, 1998). Their interactions also are more task-related and collaborative (e.g., Hawkins et al., 1982; Muller & Perlmutter, 1985; Podmore, 1991; Scanlon, Issroff, & Murphy, 1999; Underwood & Underwood, 1999). For example, children attend to other children’s actions, work together, and offer instructions or guidance in order to complete the computer activity.

Some research with children 7-12 years of age suggests that there are gender differences in social interactions when children work together on a computer. Specifically, several studies have found that girls participate more actively in a computer context when in same-sex versus mixed-sex groups (e.g., Fitzpatrick & Hardman, 1994; Light, Littleton, Bale, Joiner, & Messer, 2000; Underwood et al., 1994; Underwood, Underwood & Wood, 2000). Girls have been found to be submissive and more likely to be critiqued in mixed-sex groups than when working alone or in all-girl groups (AAUW, 2000; Fitzpatrick & Hardman, 2000), whereas boys in mixed-sex groups have been found to monopolize the computer as well as discussions (Hooper, 2003; Reis, 1998; Underwood et al., 2000). Recent work with preschoolers suggests that the opposite might be true for these young learners (Willoughby et al, in press; Wood, 2004). Preschoolers engage in more collaborative behaviors and collaborative verbalizations in mixed-sex groups than in the same-sex groups. It is likely that a mixed-sex grouping with preschoolers encouraged less distraction and off-task behavior, and therefore, resulted in more collaborative behaviors and verbalizations.

Parent and Caregiver Contributions to Early Childhood Computer Use

Much of what we know about implementing computers as part of children’s learning environment is extrapolated from our extensive knowledge of other media, most notably television and print. That literature clearly suggests that involvement of care-providers will play an important role in maximizing children’s experiences with computers. Parent and caregivers play important roles both by mediating the computer experience for young children and by providing and introducing age- and ability-appropriate technology.

Mediating Computer Experiences for Young Children

Similar to shared-reading and shared television viewing, shared computer experiences may allow the kind of active parental involvement and discussion that is necessary to mediate how children come to understand the information they experience as well as making the children more savvy media consumers (Gentile & Walsh, 2002). 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 (Livingstone, 2006). Public locations also allow parents to engage in greater supervision of activities (Gentile & Walsh, 2002).

When asked to provide their views on computer use through surveys and focus groups, teachers perceived computers to be a highly motivating alternative means for providing instructional opportunities that satisfied the general constraints of a child-centered approach (see Wood et al., 2008 for a summary). Computers were generally depicted as providing an additional or alternative activity for children or as an independent learning tool rather than as a central means of instruction. Educators are more comfortable with integrating technology for the older preschoolers and school-aged children at their centres (e.g., Wood et al., 2008). 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 "(evening) out the playing field for those who don't have computers at home," and hence, as remedying some of the potential effects of the digital divide.

Providing and Introducing Appropriate Technology

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

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 the 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 is appropriate for a specific user (King & Alloway, 1992, Wood et al., 2004). Novice users, especially very young novices such as toddlers or preschoolers, often experience motoric and spatial challenges when interacting with input devices (Scaife & Bond, 1991; Thomas & Milan, 1987). 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) (e.g., Thomas & Milan, 1987; Wood et al., 2004). Although input devices have been devised for children as young as 9 months of age (Wartella, Vendewater & Rideout, 2005), few have been tested experimentally. Of those that have been studied, testing has been conducted with children usually three years of age and older. For this group of 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 modified mouse is most effective (Wood et al., 2004).

Selecting Software

There are two forms of computer use addressed in the literature; the Internet and software 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 learning and 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 (Calvert, Strong & Gallagher, 2005b).

Selecting appropriate software is a challenge. There is no government body that screens the 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 often do not use ratings to help them to select software for their children, nor do some understand what the ratings mean (Gentile & Walsh, 2002). Only age-appropriate content (with respect to issues such as violence) is rated 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 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 promoted as educational (Gee, 2008). What qualities might be important for preschool software? Important criteria for good software have been consistently reiterated in the literature (e.g., Clements, 2008; Gee, 2008; Haughland & Shade, 1988). Specifically, good software involves active participation where the child initiates, directs and is engaged in activities. The software ought to present a real world task, one that is concrete and understood by the child and be geared to the developmental level of the child. Because toddlers and preschoolers are nonreaders, spoken directions are essential. Also because of memory limitations, directions should be simple and easy to understand, and graphics/icons should accompany choices in order to make options clear to the children. 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. Ideally, the software will adjust the level of difficulty as the child plays (i.e., move through levels from easy to difficult based on success at the preceding level). It is important that children learn through discovery rather than being drilled in specific skills. The act of using the software should be engaging for students. In other words, the activities leading to the goal should be more important than the goal itself. Finally, software should provide children with many opportunities to test alternative responses. It is important that children use a trial and error approach because through resolving errors children build on their knowledge.

Eileen Wood (2008). Research Review: Computer Use by Toddlers and Preschoolers. In L.M. Phillips (Ed.), Handbook of language and literacy development: A Roadmap from 0 – 60 Months. [online], pp. 1 - 6. London, ON: Canadian Language and Literacy Research Network. Available at: Handbook of language and literacy development