My daughter Emily can work our iPod nano much better than I can. Emily has just turned one. My age shall not be revealed – suffice to say my years should equip me to handle intuitive new technology better than someone who has not yet mastered walking or talking.
Emily’s grasp of technology does not end there: she has taught herself how to turn on the television with the remote and operate the volume and channel selection. When opening the laptop, she says “Nana” because she associates the computer with skyping her grandmother in the UK.
And the most astonishing thing about all of this is that it isn’t astonishing. A quick poll of my baby-clad friends reveals they are all the same. Oh yes, Blake can put a DVD on by himself. Ruby likes to look at photos of herself on the digital camera. Oliver’s favourite apps are… and so it goes on.
There is a slight uneasiness accompanying the subject of toddlers and technology. Perhaps because of the niggly fear that iPod-proficient babies shall one day become console-addicted, social media-obsessed teens incapable of kicking a ball or conversing politely with others. What sparks such concerns? Surely it is possible to raise a child capable of being both technologically and socially adept.
We have long been conversant with the arguments against too much screen time for preschoolers, whether it be television, computer or another device. The screen encourages isolation, provides a substitute for more useful activities and over-stimulates developing brains. And these are not old wives’ tales (although the one about sitting too close will make your eyes square probably is): research published in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, found that children who were exposed to more screen time at preschool age were more likely by age 10 to be disengaged at school, get picked on by classmates, be overweight and eat an unhealthy diet. Other studies have found similar results, including research conducted in New Zealand.
However, the pace of advancing technology adds shades of grey to the anti-screen time debate. Technology is no longer synonymous with television; rather it encompasses a huge and diverse range of media. Devices are increasingly designed to interact with our daily lives rather than replace other activities with passive watching.
We only need to look to New Zealand’s early childcare centres for evidence of technology’s role in assisting children’s learning journeys. Technology is linked into the early childhood curriculum, Te Whāriki. The curriculum aims to connect people, places and things, and technology is a learning medium that offers this opportunity and experience.
One of New Zealand’s leading childcare organisations, Kidicorp agrees it is a necessary addition to the curriculum. “Without being able to conclude what the world will look like in the years beyond, it is important that children are exposed to the variety of ways that communication is happening in the world, and are able to be actively supported or guided to explore opportunities and possibilities that engage their curiosity and over time develop those dispositions for life-long learning,” says Clair Edgeler, Kidicorp’s national professional services manager.
Consequently, technology is used widely in Kidicorp centres by both teachers and children. Teachers use technology to capture digital images and videos that provide ‘visual life’ to observations and discoveries of children’s learning. Documentation such as this is shared with children and their families.
Kidicorp have also witnessed that children will use technology to communicate aspects of their home lives to their teachers and other children. “They are able to share their family experiences, identity and values with teachers through the use of technology which has a positive impact on children’s learning through strong links between home and the centre that increases children’s sense of belonging and wellbeing,” says Edgeler.
While Kidicorp agrees there are great benefits in children’s exposure to technology, it maintains it is always important their teachers are there to guide safe practices. This is supported through the ongoing review of centre and organisational policies, including the aspirations of parents/whānau. “We see technology in its many forms supporting opportunities for children to gain experience and explore different forms of communication, opportunities for literacy, creativity and self-assessment,” says Edgeler. Technology is also enabling children to make connections to the wider world through learning about people, places and things.
Indeed, many early childhood educators are now using technology as a tool for children to further explore their world, rather than as a substitute for learning and play. It’s not a case of technology replacing the playground, but integrating technology into the playground.
It’s easy to confuse the issue when we talk about “technology” as a catch-all term. The focus shouldn’t be on which side of the fence to sit, but on which technology is being used and whether its application is appropriate for the needs of young children. It’s all about quality. A child’s computer time could be solitary and sedentary or it could be interactive and educationally rich.
“We see technology in its many forms supporting opportunities for children to gain experience and explore different forms of communication, opportunities for literacy, creativity and self-assessment.” – Clair Edgeler
Edgeler agrees. “Centres need to be aware that some programmes are limited in their educational benefits and ideally programmes should provide opportunities for creativity and exploration rather than singular and limited learning objectives.”
Technology is so much ingrained in our lives – and destined to be even more so in our children’s – that it would be unnatural to ban it from their daily existence. That Emily is building a relationship, albeit virtually, with her English nana via Skype, only strengthens my belief that her exposure to technology is doing her more good than harm.