How To Use Digital Media with Young Children

If you have a young learner in your house, you’re probably already gearing up for the fall, buying new backpacks and enjoying the last few weeks of summer. For those of you looking for advice on how to use digital media with young children at home or in school, we’ve collected this roundup of key messages from the past few months on our blog.

Each week the Fred Rogers Center blog brings together new voices in our community of media developers, educators, parents, and researchers to discuss the potential of digital media to support early learning and development.

Here’s some of what they’ve said:

Media can help young children learn.

Technology and interactive media can be effective tools for learning in early childhood programs, in libraries, museums, and other informal education settings, and at home with parents. This is particularly true when these tools are used intentionally and in ways that are appropriate for each child’s age, stage of development, and personal interests and needs. For more read our position statement with the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Media should be used in developmentally appropriate ways.

Children under age two should be using media with an adult. Babies ages 9 to 18 months, for example, may be engaged by very simple stories: a video or app that shows an animal walking through a field or a baby picking up a flower. Children over age two are more likely to learn from more complex narratives or apps that show cause and effect. Our senior fellow Ellen Wartella, who’s been studying children’s media for 30 years, has more advice in this post.

Don’t insert technology when a real-world experience will do.

Kids need to dig in the dirt, experience the natural world, and read actual books.

Technology should be used to enhance what’s already going on in kids lives and in their classrooms, not supplant it, says Roberta Schomburg, also a Rogers Center senior fellow and professor at Carlow University.

“Many people are concerned about digital technology replacing those things we know are important for children’s development. But if we continually think about balance, so we make sure we allow time for kids to be active and engage with other kids and play with building blocks and paint, and think about digital media as just one more set of materials for kids to engage with, then we’ll be OK.”

Time with adults still matters most.

Learning is most likely to occur when children are having warm, language-rich interaction with their adult caregivers, says Michael Robb, our director of education and research. When using media with children, parents and educators should always ask themselves whether this kind of interaction is also happening.

Learning is most likely to occur when children are having warm, language-rich interaction with their adult caregivers.

Promote Creativity. Touchscreen technology leaves room for children to actively contribute. 

Developmental psychologists tell us that creative play helps children learn to understand themselves and other people, and the world and their place in it. With children exposed to digital tools at younger ages, parents and caregivers need to ensure that digital tools enhance and don’t detract from this critical creative exploration. Chip Donohue, our senior fellow and director of the Technology in Early Childhood (TEC) Center at the Erikson Institute says newer interactive digital tools like the iPad often do a better job at encouraging active engagement than TV.

Brian Puerling, director of education technology at the Catherine Cook School in Chicago and advisor to Sesame Workshop says he’s increasingly seeing digital cameras, touch-screen mobile devices, projectors, and document cameras that, when integrated with the traditional classroom materials, can open doors to other meaningful and authentic experiences in early childhood classrooms.

Diversity matters.

Diversity means more than just race or gender, says Kevin Clark, media designer and professor of learning technologies at George Mason University. Adults should be choosing media for their children that show characters who act, talk, and communicate in a diversity of ways and whose lives reflect their real experiences. ”What they do and what is done to them are as important as how they look,” Clark says.

Pay attention to context.

Parents should pay attention to what’s going on in the home and family while the child is using media. Media scholar Daniel Anderson says having a television on in the background can interfere with babies’ and toddlers’ natural play. “The TV sports program may distract the child from constructive toy play,” he writes. “The parent updating Facebook may be unresponsive to the child’s social bids, and the teen game player is unavailable to read to his younger sibling.” He says when it comes to a healthy media diet for young children, content and context matter.

Finally, seek guidance from experts.

Our senior fellow David Kleeman says far more than simply turning on an egg timer, families and early educators need thoughtful guidance on how to use media with young children. Luckily there are many places to turn.

Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine recommend groups like Common Sense Media, which has online ratings and reviews for parents and educators, as well as app-organizing systems like Yogi Play that prod parents and educators to become critical thinkers about how to use and choose digital media for young children. They also recommend the Fred Rogers Center Early Learning Environment™ (Ele), a web-based support system in early literacy and digital media literacy for teachers, home-based child care providers, and families of children from birth to age 5.

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