Learning Together: A Parent Perspective on the Early Learning and Educational Technology Brief

Office of Ed Tech
Jan 17, 2017 · 5 min read
“I am thankful for my T.V.” — Photo credit: Joan Lee

It was no surprise to me to find this entry from my husband’s second grade school journal. As parents of two young children (ages 2.5 and 6 months), we discuss frequently how and when to introduce our children to technology. He is of the “I watched plenty of T.V. and I turned out fine” camp, and I lean towards the “We should err on the side of caution and minimize exposure to our kids” camp.

I suspect we are not the only parents having this discussion.

In the Early Learning and Educational Technology Brief, the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services set a vision where all young children will have opportunities to learn, explore, play, and communicate through a multitude of approaches, including the use of technology. Both Departments also acknowledge, however, that not all technology is designed in a way that is appropriate for children or leads to meaningful learning. In our household, this means that we can’t have a technology free-for-all or a technology blackout for the kids.

To help families with personal decisions about technology use, the Departments provided guiding principles on how children, even from a young age, can interact with technology appropriately. These guiding principles reflect recent research and were crafted with the guidance of experts in the field of early childhood technology use and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The following are some recommendations embedded within the brief:

What are some ways children can use technology that are developmentally appropriate?

When children use technology, it should be used 1) as a tool for learning 2) to increase opportunities to explore and interact with the world and/or 3) to strengthen relationships. Families are also encouraged to promote the active use of technology, rather than passive use. For a great explanation of active versus passive use for young children, read “Early Learners, Ed Tech, and Active Learning.”

What are some things families can do to ensure children are using technology appropriately?

Watch or play with children as they use technology.

Technology is more effective for learning when adults and peers interact or co-view with young children. Children under the age of 2 are generally discouraged from watching media or using technology alone because they learn more quickly through interactions with the real world than they do through media use. Technology can also be a great tool to to strengthen relationships particularly when loved ones are at a distance (for instance, video-chatting with family and friends). Even when infants are too young to process these kinds of virtual interactions, this use of technology can support adults bonding with the children.

In my family, on weekdays we primarily use technology to video chat with family. My husband is usually still at work during dinnertime, so while I am preparing dinner, my older child is often video-chatting with grandparents. On weekends, we have a more relaxed approach where my husband might watch a show my older child will enjoy while I play with the baby.

Guiding Principle #3 — Technology may be used to strengthen relationships among parents, families, early educators, and young children. From the Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief.

Parents may also begin to introduce quality content to children starting at 18 months, provided they watch the content together. For children over the age of 2, take some time to either observe or play with your child as they engage with technology and ask yourself some questions:

  1. How does the content help my child learn, engage, express, imagine, or explore?
  2. What kinds of social interactions (such as conversations with parents or peers) are happening before, during, and after the use of the technology?
  3. What does your child need right now to enhance his or her growth and development? Does the technology support those needs?

Spend some time researching and reviewing what children watch and use.

Ideally, parents should preview all content before children consume it. Realistically, this may not always happen. Even more important, parents should watch and play with children when they are interacting with technology, especially when children are young, to ensure developmentally appropriate content and to increase what children learn during these interactions. Of course, families should also put in place safety measures to protect their children’s privacy and well-being, which the brief also addresses. Resources available to parents include Common Sense Media where you can find reviews on tv shows and apps that consider the quality of educational content, many of which are written by educators. Know What’s Inside is another resource that allows parents to find apps that have no in-app purchases or links to social networks or advertising, and can be used without internet (a bonus for long plane rides!).

Set limits and encourage a diversity of experiences both digital and unplugged.

Playtime with friends and family and physical and outdoor activities are essential social interactions for a child’s development — technology and media should not take the place of these kinds of interactions. Sometimes technology can even encourage physical activity. Friends of ours, for example, use a yoga app to do yoga together as a family with their young son. For children ages 2–5, one hour of technology use is appropriate per day, inclusive of time spent at home, across devices, and in early learning settings. For school-age children, parents should set limits they feel are appropriate for their own children, taking into consideration the differences between passive and active technology use, as well as the benefits of using technology with an adult versus using it alone. The American Academy of Pediatrics developed an interactive Family Media Plan Tool on HealthyChildren.org that can help support families with this process.

My husband and I still have active discussions on the role of technology in our children’s lives. We know that technology is powerful, and want to be sure our children benefit, while protecting them from overuse or passive consumption that takes away from other enriching experiences. These conversations come up every time we want to introduce something new, and, for the foreseeable future, it seems that the only constant will be the fact that we will have to talk through what’s right for our kids together.

For more information and to read the research behind these suggestions, the full policy brief can be found at https://tech.ed.gov/earlylearning/

Joan Lee is a ConnectED fellow with the Office of Educational Technology.

Office of Ed Tech

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

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