With the internet offering a wealth of information and countless apps providing opportunities for enrichment and learning, technology has quickly established itself as a useful tool in the world of education—but it’s not the best method for very young children.
According to the experts, modern technology proves to be a hindrance, not a help, in the realm of early childhood development. It’s the reason preschools continue to use play-based lessons, encouraging social interaction, physical activity and hands-on experiences to help youngsters build a strong, vibrant understanding of the world around them.
“The point of education from birth to age five is to educate the whole person,” says Jessica Kemper, director of Woods Child Development Center in Severna Park. “We want to develop their body, their mind and their heart. What part does technology play in that? Not much.”
As Kemper points out, adults and older children might be able to glean information from what they see on a tablet or computer screen, but small children don’t. “Little kids learn best when there’s a person right in front of them, and there’s social interaction with give and take,” she explains. “You cannot give and take with a screen.”
Other local leaders in early childhood development agree. The sensory experience of using modern technology is irrelevant at best and detrimental at worst. “The research is pretty consistent at this point with the message it’s putting out,” says Mary Ostrowski, owner of Weems Creek Nursery School in Annapolis. “A child’s brain is developing quickly and is susceptible to all the stimuli around it.”
Educators are right to be cautious about using too many electronics in the classrooms. As technology has become more ubiquitous and taken over the lives of adults, children are being exposed to it at younger ages, and scientists and doctors are only just beginning to understand the full effects. A report, “Children’s Environmental Health in the Digital Era,” published in 2018 in the medical journal Children supports Kemper’s assertion that children can neither learn from screens nor apply what they see on a 2-dimensional screen to the 3-dimensional world around them.
And to Ostrowski’s point that a child’s brain is sensitive to stimuli, the report lists the many consequences of too much screen time at too young an age: decreased cognitive ability, decreased growth, increased body mass index, decreased vocabulary acquisition, poor school performance and addictive behavior.
That’s not to say children can’t have any screen time at all. If children find it entertaining, the educators agree that parents can use it at their discretion. But that means it’s all the more important for children to have unplugged hours when they’re in child care or preschool. “They get so much screen time outside of the time they are in our care, I hesitate to add any to my program,” says Ruthi Claytor, owner of Grannie Annie’s Child Care & Learning Center in Pasadena. As technology has become more affordable, Claytor has considered incorporating it, but she maintains play-based learning is more advantageous for children.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children between the ages of 2 and 5 be limited to using digital media for no longer than an hour a day, and during the other waking hours they should be encouraged to engage in activities that are meaningful to their health and development. As Ostrowski puts it, there needs to be balance for the children both at home and at school or in child care. “Be thoughtful of the overall amount of time in both environments,” she encourages.
Using Their Senses
Young children learn best by using all five of their senses, and preschool teachers encourage children to build their understanding of the world around them by actually experiencing it firsthand.
“To find out how things work, you have to get your hands on it,” Kemper says. “Children are very sensory driven. They want to smell it, taste it, touch it. They want to be in it up to their elbows. . . . You’re not going to get that from a screen.”
Ostrowski shares a story of a recent classroom lesson in which her pre-kindergarteners had the chance to taste a cranberry. She got to watch as each one of them reacted to its sour taste. “That’s an experience,” she says. “It gives them a connection to make later on. Being able to make connections is what builds your critical thinking toolbox.”
Physical movement is also important, and children who are hooked on screens spend less time getting exercise and developing the motor skills they need. Claytor believes that lack of physical activity is one of the reasons children engage in negative behavior. “When you spend hours sitting, playing a game or watching videos, you get out of balance and your brain finds a reason to make your body move,” she says. “So you pick a fight with your sister. . . . Without the tech, you are playing, and your body is moving organically, and your brain doesn’t need to find a reason to move.”
The final component of child development is social interaction. Children need to learn important lessons like waiting their turn, resolving conflict, managing their feelings and even expressing themselves with language come from interacting with another person, whether it’s their peer or a trusted adult. Videos can instruct children to share their toys, but they don’t register until they actually do it themselves. “Even Mr. Rogers telling you to be nice to friends isn’t the same as learning from an experience,” Kemper says.
Although preschool teachers and child care providers don’t incorporate technology into their activities, parents shouldn’t assume this means children need to live tech-free existences.
“Technology in and of itself is not evil, but it’s important to be intentional about why we’re using it,” says Ostrowski. “Parents know their kids and they know what is best for them and their family.”
Televisions, computers, tablets and even smartphones offer videos and games that small children might enjoy. Preschool and child care serve as opportunities for children to get away from screens and get the type of interaction and experience they need to develop their minds and bodies. “When we’re in a child care center or a preschool, our job is not to entertain them—our job is to teach them,” Kemper says. “If we’re going to teach them, then technology certainly is not the best tool.”
For Claytor, who is a mom to a 9- and 11-year-old, she tries to avoid too much screen time at home. “Frankly, my own daughters . . . are just plain nicer children without the technology,” she says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends creating designated unplugged spaces and times of day at home, and urges parents not to allow digital media to displace activities like sleep, exercise, play, reading aloud and social interactions.
By limiting technology, parents can continue the lessons that their teachers and care providers are implementing throughout the day.
“The bond between young children and their caregivers is so important,” Kemper says. “That’s the rock of their development [from] birth to five. Giving up that relationship to a screen isn’t helpful and doesn’t improve anything. Little children need the guidance and care of trusted adults, and you’re not going to get that from a screen.”
—Photo by Lee Kriel