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As Easy as E-C-E: Retaining the “Early Childhood Essentials” with Technology in Early Childhood Education

By HighScope | August 5, 2019

An excerpt from HighScope’s Journal for Early Educators: The Active Learner

It has been a little more than five years since the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center (FRC) for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College put forward a joint position statement titled Technology and Interactive Media as Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth Through Age 8 (2012). In those five short years, the field of early childhood education has witnessed an overwhelming curiosity, some clear conclusions, and some warranted caution from early childhood practitioners and the research and policy initiatives surrounding developmentally appropriate use of technology.

In those five years, there have been no fewer than 12 major policy pieces or position statements around the topic (see Donohue & Schomburg [2017] for a fairly complete list), including one from High-Scope (2015). We see growing consensus from these sources around what matters most when it comes to technology and interactive media in early childhood. What matters consistently includes early childhood essentials such as solitary and shared experiences; relationships; creativity, curiosity, joy, delight, and wonder; inquiry, exploration, surprise, and discovery; unstructured imaginative play; hands-on learning and loose parts; outdoor play and nature; and sustained attention and deep engagement.

The Prevalence of Technology in Early Childhood

In 2017, Paciga and Donohue published a review of the research and practice pieces in the early childhood literature in which technology or media were involved, providing a bird’s-eye synthesis of nearly 600 published pieces of literature addressing this issue. The findings are telling. Some of the most consistent data we have on technology and early childhood documents its pervasiveness in young children’s lives — nearly all children 0–8 years have access to a smartphone in their homes, and 42 percent of children in that same age group have their own tablets (Rideout, 2017).

While the documentation of this pervasiveness is more prominent in the research on home use, the data also offers a glimpse of technology adoption and use in early childhood centers. The majority of early childhood educators reported having access to computers, digital cameras, and tablets in their settings (Blackwell et al., 2015). Preschool teachers frequently use these technologies for documentation and assessment purposes, and more than half of the teachers participating in the survey in the Blackwell et al. study indicated they, at least sometimes, utilize the technology in a range of instructional contexts (i.e., whole group, small group, pairs, individual), suggesting that the early childhood essential of balancing solitary and shared experiences is there on the surface level, at least. 

Leveraging Technology for the Essentials of Early Childhood

The essentials of early childhood education highlight the importance of shared experience, unstructured imaginative play, deep engagement, and many other creative endeavors. What the research on early childhood technology use shows, however, is a trend toward consumption of media, rather than a focus on play and exploration. The Blackwell et al. (2015) study suggests that technologies are commonly utilized for creation activities and for book reading; however, Paciga and Donohue’s analysis suggested that much of the literature focuses on the child’s reading or viewing digital materials, rather than on creating, communicating, or collaborating. When technology is used for creation or collaboration, we see children playing with one another, exploring the technology as a tool to express meanings important to them, frequently expressing joy, and showing deep engagement, among other early childhood essentials.

In one study that examined the digital play and composing practices of kindergarten children when creating stories using a digital puppet application, many of the early childhood essentials were retained (Wohlwend, 2015). Wohlwend noted deep engagement and hands-on learning as children engaged in “coordinated storying, digital literacy learning, multimodal production, and play negotiation” (p. 155). Digital stories such as these become part of literacy “playshops” (Wohlwend, 2011) in which children can create stories on their own terms using child-friendly technologies and media narratives they know.

In other research (e.g., Rowe, Miller, & Pacheco [2014]), children were invited to use touchscreen tablets to take classroom photos, draw pictures, record audio narration, and write/type text. The children also brought digital cameras home to take pictures of their families’ favorite activities and then used these to compose ebooks at school. The researchers supported the children’s ebook creation process with explanation, direct instruction, labeling, spelling support, affirmations, questions, invitations, choices, and responsiveness. When the ebooks were completed, the researchers re-read the child-authored ebooks with the child authors, and children could choose to read their peers’ ebooks in the library center.

Rowe and colleagues documented that bilingual preschool children utilized their heritage languages and English to compose dual language ebooks, and they documented significant growth in children’s emergent writing skills in terms of spelling, message length, and message content. Here, we see the early childhood essentials of relationships. These were fostered between researcher and children and among children themselves, as classmates learned about peers’ homes through the ebooks.

Read more in The Active Learner.

Katie Paciga, Ph.D, is an associate professor of education at Columbia College Chicago. Katie’s research interests focus on the developmentally appropriate use of digital tools for language and literacy learning in the early childhood years.

Jennifer Garrette Lisy, Ph.D, is an adjunct professor of education for Mount Vernon Nazarene University. Her research focuses on early childhood writing and technology.

Mary Quest is a senior instructor at Erikson Institute and is completing her PhD there. Mary’s research interests include professional identity development and pathways to professionalization across early childhood settings.

Originally published by: Paciga, Katie, Jennifer Garrette Lisy, and Mary Quest  “As Easy as E-C-E: Retaining the ‘Early Childhood Essentials’ With Technology in Early Childhood Education” The Active Learner. 2.1 (2018): 4-9, 36.

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HighScope Educational Research Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, research, development, training, and public outreach organization with headquarters in Ypsilanti, Michigan. HighScope’s mission is to lift lives through education. We are a diverse team of researchers, educators, and passionate professionals who have one thing in common — we share the conviction that all children deserve the highest quality education. We envision a world in which all educational settings use active, participatory learning so everyone has a chance to succeed in life and contribute to society. Visit our website at highscope.org for more information.