Once the domain of chalkboards and sandpits, early childhood learning has now evolved with the digital age to incorporate tablets and other devices. How can educators respond and what are the pros and cons of the new technologies?
For children aged three and above, technology can be a pathway towards success and high achievement. However, there are also risks to manage that require a proactive approach from both educators and parents.
A 20-year research project showed that the more mental stimulation a child receives around the age of four, the more developed the parts of their brains dedicated to cognition and language will be in future decades. Such mental stimulation could include books and educational toys, as well as new technologies.
Other potential benefits from technology include improved hand-eye coordination, better language skills, enhanced visual attention, greater problem-solving and dynamic spatial skills. For example, by reading eBooks, children can learn new words and their correct pronunciation, while multimedia presentations can expose children to different cultures and environments.
Infants and toddlers often enjoy looking at digital photographs and videos of themselves and family members and these images can be used by educators to promote opportunities for collaborative language development, according to advocacy group Early Childhood Australia (ECA).
Young children can also use digital technologies for purposeful communication with adults, such as sending photos and emails. Research shows that using digital technologies for video communication can be socially beneficial for young children, such as using “Line” to communicate between Australia and Japan.
Another example might be using “Siri” – a voice-controlled, virtual assistant – to help build a child’s curiosity. The simple question “Siri, what time is school tomorrow” can help encourage assertiveness and leadership in young children, including speech pathology.
Tablets such as iPads give children direct feedback and outcome control, with responsive signals that encourage success and accomplishment, based on “hands on” touch screen media.
Educators can create opportunities for children to use digital technologies collaboratively, such as creating content, developing ideas and documenting learning. For example, two or more children could use a digital microscope to examine natural materials found in the environment, then share their observations on a display screen, facilitating discussion with others.
Educators also have the opportunity to document children’s learning using digital photographs and videos, with such content easily shared with parents via social media or other platforms.
ECA suggests digital technologies can also be used to promote physical activity, such as using virtual game devices that require whole-body movement (such as a dance step game on an electronic dance mat), or using wearable technologies to measure physical activity.
Children can also use digital technologies to promote different postures, such as crawling and moving around on their hands and knees when playing with technologies such as robots.
While digital technologies have many benefits for early childhood learning, educators and parents need to pursue a balanced approach.
The Australian Government warns against excessive sitting and long periods of sedentary time such as screen viewing, suggesting that such time should be limited to no more than one hour per day for children aged two years and older. It is important that screen-based digital technology use does not replace periods of active physical movement.
Researchers also warn against children’s sleep being interrupted by digital technologies. There is strong evidence that having digital screens available in sleeping spaces can result in poorer quality and reduced sleep for young children.
Children’s wellbeing can also be affected by digital games and activities. When children experience frustration or disappointment within a game, or are invited to move onto another activity, this can lead to challenging behaviours, according to research.
In such situations, young children can benefit from educators setting timeframes for technology usage as well as providing emotional support, the ECA says.
Educators also need to be mindful of online safety, such as using filters and setting restrictions on devices and networks used in early childhood education to promote safe experiences. It is important for educators to help children develop an understanding of the internet, based on proactive adult supervision.
A 2018 survey led by Curtin University professor Dr Juliana Zabatiero found that Australian children were spending an average of 86 minutes per day on devices, led by TV and followed by tablet, mobile phone and desktop or laptop computer. For early childhood learning, the figure was 41 minutes, dominated by TV, followed by tablets.
Early childhood services are “increasingly integrating technologies into play-based learning,” Dr Zabatiero found, with the survey showing the main usage was for games (37 per cent), educational (23 per cent), videos (21 per cent) and general (19 per cent).
Nationally, Australian schools have one computer for every student compared to the OECD average of one for every five students, ensuring students are prepared in how to learn, train and live in a digital world.
Stressing the importance of exposing young children to digital technologies, U.S.-based academic Dr Chip Donohue said: “The digital age is moving far too fast to say, ‘I choose to not engage.’
“These are tools of the children’s world, these are tools of their culture, these are tools that will be critical for their school readiness and success.”
If you are preparing to send your child to Australia for study, you can be confident that your child will have access to the latest educational technologies to ensure they are ready for the challenges of the digital age.