CC Credit: Jody Roberts
The public library has become a destination for many families to engage their children in early learning. Whether they come for story time, library material, or access to early literacy computers/tablets, these families are trusting the expertise of youth librarians at public libraries with their children's development. One of the things library professionals need to do is educate parents on technology use for children.
The biggest concern about incorporating technology into the life of a preschooler is that the child is not developmentally prepared to digest digital media and/or that too much screen time can be harmful to their early learning. In her article "Too Soon for Technology?" from the July 2014 School Library Journal, Annie Murphy Paul suggests that librarians and caregivers be more discerning when selecting technology for young children. She cites the American Society of Pediatrics as suggesting that children under age 2 should have no screen time and older children should be limited to 2 hours. The page that recommends this is talking specifically about television, but I think we can extrapolate most kinds of computing and gaming from the term 'screen time.' Children under 2 should have little to no screen time because it distracts from developing basic motor skills and impairs their understanding of physical objects/space. Children older than 2 can develop poor fitness/health habits in addition to impairing their ability to process physical surroundings if they are exposed to too much screen time.
Thinking about this, I have a few suggestions for libraries and parents. Firstly, I would recommend putting time limits on early learning stations for both computers and tablets. You may already have time limits due to popularity, but it would also help to put up signage to educate parents about reducing screen time to improve mental and physical health. Make sure there are play areas with physical toys nearby to encourage active play. Things like puppet theaters and felt boards are good examples. When you do pick apps or games for the child to play, make sure they are engaging and require decision making like matching, reading, drawing, and writing.
While screen time needs to be limited, there are many ways to incorporate technology into early learning that is not related to the sedentary activity that most parents fear. Librarians and parents should embrace technology to help do other activities. Story time programs, for instance, often have music. Why not get high tech and embed the digital music file in a PowerPoint that displays the lyrics for the parents? This way parents will see the lyrics and get more involved, making the child enjoy the activity at a higher level. Why not give your kid a pedometer and challenge them to take so many steps? They can practice counting and get exercise. Or, you could use an app to help identify different kinds of plants on a nature walk. There are tons of ways you could use technology to aide early learning.
Need ideas? Here are some examples for using technology for each of the 5 reading readiness practices. Librarians, feel free to steal and tell this to your parents.
Talking to your child does not normally require much in the way of technology. It's just something you do every day. You ask your child questions and listen to their answers. You talk about the objects in the world around you and about how you feel. A fun way to incorporate technology in talking would be to record your conversation with your child and play it back. Show them how to use your phone or the recorder and let them set up the recording (if possible). Once you play it back, talk about the talking. Do they sound weird on the recording? We always think our own voices sound weird on recordings. Why do think that is? This would encourage critical thinking.
I think a fun thing to do here is to set up a karaoke station. YouTube has many karaoke versions of Disney songs and so forth. You can practice reading the lyrics together on the screen or if you aren't there yet, you will at least have some nice background music as you belt out "Let it Go!" Repeat as necessary.
I know we discussed avoiding screen time, but the occasional eBook or TumbleBook (interactive eBook, often with sound and a read-along feature) is a perfect example of the good, engaging kind of screen time. Make sure to use the same principles of dialogic reading for eBooks as you do for print. Discuss the illustrations and ask questions as you go.
Writing is super important in early learning. Children get the idea of how letters and numbers are formed by physically writing them out on paper. It's also important that children learn how to type, because, moving forward, the QWERTY keyboard still seems to be the dominate method for communication. Have your child right out their name and then have them find the letters on a keyboard (or a drawing of a keyboard). It might even been a fun activity to have them write in all the letters on an empty keyboard worksheet.
Playing is when a child puts into action what they've learned. It's their job, as kids, to take what they discover about the world and test out theories through play. It means movement; it means creativity. A fun idea could be to ask your child to come up with a puppet show while you record it on video. You can watch the show afterward and talk about the characters and the plot. Ask them where they got the idea and correct any misconceptions.
Incorporating technology in early learning is important because our children are growing up in a technology rich world that is constantly updating and expanding. It's good to know the limits of screen time and to make sure children are engaged in other activities, but that doesn't mean that we should throw out our modern devices. I feel some librarians and parents go a little too far here, taking pride in their willful ignorance today's technology. Not me. I'm always trying to better my understanding of these tools, because that's what they are- tools. They help us on our journey to understand the world and better ourselves. Let's just make sure we are using them wisely, especially as we foster the early learning of the next generation.