Early Learners, Ed Tech, and Active Learning

What does active learning look like for early learners?

A preschooler sits in front of a screen motionless, eyes fixed on a scene where characters are running a pizza shop and slicing up pies in various proportions for customers. Another pre-schooler is tapping away energetically on a tablet as a variety of noises emerge and animated shapes move across the screen in response to the child’s actions.

Andrea w K iPads” by Laurie Sullivan licensed under CC BY 2.0

Which of these situations represents active learning, and which is nothing more than passive consumption? It may sound counterintuitive, but each example could fall in either category. Neuroscience research shows that active learning can look like the motionless child in the first example or the energetic child in the second. But so can passive consumption. We have to dig deeper to know for sure which is which.

Much of the earlier research regarding media and young children focused on television viewing, which led many adults to assume that all screen use is passive. On the other hand, with the abundance of new handheld technologies and apps aimed at children, it can seem like a child who is pushing a lot of buttons is learning, when that is not always the case.

What does “active use of technology” mean?

In a new policy brief published jointly by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, we articulate an important nuance that has been largely overlooked: the “active” in “active use of technology” we are referring to is what is happening in the mind of the child. Active use for young children occurs when they use technologies in generative ways, that is, when they are generating insights, associations between new and existing knowledge, or creating their own content. This encourages more active cognitive processing that leads to deeper, longer lasting learning. An app that holds a child’s attention with clicking and swiping but doesn’t lead to this kind of deep generative learning may be considered interactive, but would not be considered a source of active learning.

Just as clicking and swiping can be deceiving, so can sitting still. For young children, there is so much to absorb and process in the world around them that they can be learning actively, even while appearing transfixed. This happens to adults, too. For instance, think back to the last time you were fully engrossed by a video, perhaps it was nature or history documentary. You probably sat motionless, completely focused. To others, you may have looked like you were passively viewing the program, but actually your attention was fully engaged, your mind was gathering all sorts of insights, and your brain was making new connections. You were actively learning.

Excellently designed media and apps encourages active use of technology. This is why Ready to Learn programs funded by the U.S. Department of Education have been such a powerful teaching tool for early learners.¹ They are research-based and are proven² to help kids learn deeply and actively.

Unfortunately, much of the technology aimed at preschoolers does not have this kind of research behind it. It may engage them or distract them, but only at a surface level, say by switching the scenes very quickly. That kind of program is still passive and not helping a child learn. In fact, research shows that it may be harming them.³ Interactivity is similarly nuanced. Pushing lots of buttons may represent little more that repetitive tactile engagement and not lead to deep learning. When an app is research based and well designed, and the interaction is meaningful and truly responsive to the child’s developmental level, needs, and interests, then it can engender active use and purposeful learning. This is especially true when the app provides the child with a sense of creative control, for instance, when the child is using the app to make music, art or tell a story.

Co-viewing and engaging technology with an adult is best

Whenever young children are watching media or creating with technology, research shows that it is best for early learners when they are doing so with adults. As an adult, it is not always easy to know what media or app is going to lead to the deep cognitive processing we want for our children. This is why it is so important for adults to participate in using technology with children. An adult can guide the child to engage more deeply with the content before, during, and afterwards to make it more meaningful and, importantly, to connect with the child, and foster the human relationship.

Don’t forget: Physical activity and unstructured play are essential

This leads to a couple of caveats:

  • Yes, too much sitting is still bad for children, even if what they are watching is potentially good for them. Research has shown that watching too much television contributes to obesity.⁴ In our brief, we recommend time limits aligned to the new AAP guidelines, and break them down by age range to be developmentally appropriate. We also recommend using technology actively in a way that encourages physical activity. For instance, an adult and a child could use an app that identifies animals and their habitats while taking a walk around the neighborhood.
  • Even though technology often captures the attention and engagement of children, families and early educators should be aware that technology use should never displace the role of unstructured, unplugged, active, and creative play that research shows is the best way children learn. In fact, unstructured playtime is more important for brain development in young children than any type of media use.⁵

Our vision

It is our vision that all young children will have adults in their lives who are well-informed about how to use technology to support learning and that all young children will have opportunities to learn, explore, play, and communicate through a multitude of approaches, including the active use of technology. We encourage you to review the full policy brief to learn more.

Joseph South is Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education.


1 Northwestern University, School of Communications, Center on Media and Human Development. (2016) The ready to learn program. Retrieved from http://cmhd.northwestern.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/RTL-Policy-Brief-2010-2015-Wartella-et-al-FINAL-March-2016.pdf

2 Fisch, S., & Truglio, R. (Eds.). (2001). The Early Window Project: Sesame Street Prepares Children for School. In “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Sesame Street (pp. 97–114). Mahwah: Erlbaum.

3 Christakis, D. A., Zimmerman, F. J., DiGiuseppe, D. L., & McCarty, C. A. (2004). Early television exposure and subsequent attentional problems in children. Pediatrics, 113(4), 708–713.

4 American Academy of Pediatrics, Council on Communications and Media. (2011) Children, adolescents, obesity and the media. Pediatrics. 10.1542/peds, page 1066.

Viner, R.M. & Cole, T.J. (2005) Television viewing in early childhood predicts adult body mass index. J Pediatr. 147(4), pages 429–435.

Anderson, S.E. & Whitaker, R.C. (2010) Household routines and obesity in US preschool-aged children. Pediatrics. 125(3), pages 420–428.

5 Ginsburg, Kenneth. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. AAP. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182

The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.

The Office of Educational Technology (OET) provides leadership for maximizing technology's contribution to improving education at all levels.