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Using Digital Media to Support Early Learning

There are legitimate concerns about young kids’ screen use, but that time can be used to promote literacy, science, and math learning.

February 2, 2021
Preschooler completes letter lesson on a tablet
MMG1 / Alamy Stock Photo

Young children experience learning across a variety of physical contexts—at home and in school, but also at the grocery store and the neighborhood park. And digital media—apps, videos, games, and songs—are engaging and entertaining, providing another context that can be leveraged for learning.

Young children typically spend about two hours a day using digital media, and this has only increased since Covid-19 restrictions began. Rather than fretting about this time, teachers and parents can instead ensure that it is spent well. This begins with intentionally designed, quality educational media—there are quality apps across content areas, including literacy, science, and math.

Research has highlighted many of the ways adults can use digital media to enhance children’s learning. Digital media are a particularly good resource for remote learning, as screen sharing during video conferencing and two-player apps provide fun—yet educational—interactions.

We present here some practical ways that teachers and parents can encourage learning using digital media, including key literacy skills for preschoolers such as vocabulary, letter/sound recognition, and discourse skills like turn-taking.

Using Digital Media for Early Learning Experiences

Do some prep work: There are loads of digital media out there, and not all of them are high quality. Spend some time with a good repository, like Common Sense Media or the American Library Association’s Notable Children’s Digital Media list to identify resources that target the skills and content you want to focus on in fun and interesting ways. An interactive app like PBS Kids’ Play and Learn Science can engage reluctant pre-readers, encouraging them to read through activities like making different kinds of shadows using the sun or a flashlight, or dressing up for different kinds of weather.

Engage in the media together: While children can learn a lot from watching a video or playing a game, guiding their attention increases the impact of these interactions. You can home in on new vocabulary or concepts, restate phrases, or use open-ended questions to extend children’s learning or make connections to things they already know. For example, using the Droplets app, you can look up new vocabulary words in different languages. This helps expand the child’s growing pool of active vocabulary, as well as the background knowledge they have to draw on for future activities.

Find literacy opportunities in everyday activities: Words and letters are everywhere—literacy isn’t confined to books. You can point out letters on the way to the park or use new vocabulary when you encounter familiar objects in digital media. For example, if kids are animal lovers, try Molly of Denali’s Alaskan Adventure and help them make their own animal notebooks, documenting what Molly sees as she travels around Alaska or what they see outside the window.

Encourage parents to be involved and recognize their expertise: Parents are children’s first teachers and know best what their children can do and where they struggle. Send your activities home for parents to do. For example, recommend an app such as Map Adventures, which allows two players to navigate maps and visit landmarks together. This offers parents a role in playing with the app, and allows them to model game-play for their young child. If you are talking about weather and observing the sun and clouds with children, encourage parents and kids to keep a Shadows Journal where they can document what they are seeing. Another recommendation is the early science Plants Journal app, which involves having children use the camera tool on a tablet or phone to document plant growth.

You can also ask parents to suggest digital media their children enjoy and invite them into the classroom to show how they engage their children with those media in culturally appropriate ways.

Encourage families to use their native languages: Many early language and literacy skills transfer across languages. In addition, making connections to children’s background knowledge will make new concepts and words stick better. Some resources for young children, like Peep and the Big Wide World, include all videos, games, and parent and teacher supports in both Spanish and English. Songs in particular are a great way to help children learn new vocabulary. Ask families for the names of their favorite songs in their home language and search for recordings online.

Ask open-ended questions and make sure kids get a turn: Children learn turn-taking and conversational skills through modeling, and teachers and parents can use shared video viewing or game play as a time to practice conversational turn-taking. After seeing something interesting, ask about it and then wait for a response. At the next interesting moment in the video or game, encourage children to ask you a question and then wait for your response. Be sure to pause after asking a question to provide enough time for kids to think about their answer. You can even turn it into a game by timing the pauses to see who “wins” by being a good conversational partner.

Build on children’s interests: Children learn better when media connect to their interests and experiences. Build their informational text skills by having them participate in an online search for digital media that focuses on something they’re interested in. If the kids say they want to read about baby lizards, you can find photos, drawings, videos, and stories about this subject from Google, YouTube, or your local library’s online listings.

Parents and educators are often concerned about young children’s consumption of digital media. As with any diet, though, moderation and choosing the right ingredients make all the difference. The tips we present here can help educators and parents make sure that the time children spend with digital media is productive and maximizes their learning.

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  • Technology Integration
  • Pre-K

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