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Preschoolers in the Digital Sandbox

Tara Jeffs

Assistive Technology Specialist , Teacher Educator, MS Innovative Educator
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The sandbox of today has gone digital and is filled with dynamic touch screens that permeate the play area with brilliant colors, music and animation. These devices provide opportunities to increase engagement, participation and social interactions. Parents, educators and related service providers seek out activities that ensure young children can reach their potential. The brilliant colors and unique interface of today's technologies offer young learners the opportunity to explore and learn in brief-yet-powerful, on-demand learning intervals with increased focus and motivation.

Should we embrace such technology for young learners? A joint position statement by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning Children's Media at Saint Vincent College emphasized that it is essential to apply principles of development and learning when considering the use of cutting-edge technologies and new media for young learners 0-8 years of age. When technology integration is built upon solid developmental foundations, and both the challenges and the opportunities of technology are considered, then technology and media can potentially benefit every child.

Direct Instruction or Discovery Learning?

Because technology applications are flexible, they support both direct instruction and discovery learning, thus minimizing the great debate over pedagogy. As cited by a recent Slate article, two studies in the journal Cognition (one from MIT and another from UC Berkeley) suggest that exploration, inquiry, play and discovery are natural to young learners. Meanwhile, direct instruction can help children learn specific facts and skills.

Young children develop a sense of initiative and creativity through exploring and using a variety of tools -- such as crayons, markers, blocks and manipulatives -- to create things. Children develop creative movement through singing, dancing and using their bodies to represent ideas. Several technology applications help develop or extend initiative and creativity. They also blend real-world objective and digital activities:

Selecting Technology: Where to Begin?

When asked if I know of any good apps, I smile and nod, then explain that selecting apps can be very time consuming. So I often suggest that teachers first identify a learning task and goal. Do you want the app to introduce a topic or provide extended practice? Do the features of the app align with the strengths and challenges of the learner? Is price an issue? A survey conducted by the NPD Group found that 88 percent of the apps used on devices were free.

Streamline your search by using these four powerful databases for finding educational apps:

  • The APPitic directory lists more than 3,000 apps for education, organized by theme, preschool content area, disability, Bloom's Taxonomy stage, Multiple Intelligences and Challenge-Based Learning.
  • Common Sense Media provides reviews for apps, videos, television, games, books and more.
  • Tools for Life AppFinder searches for apps by disability, multiple disabilities, price range and device type. Be sure to check out the link to "Our Other Favorite Apps".
  • Special Needs Apps searches for apps in the categories of communication, social skills, life skills and behavior, just to name a few.

Whether you are using apps, computer software or interactive websites, look at the elements of motivation for learning. The following characteristics are crucial for obtaining and sustaining interest and extended play for young children:

  • Developmentally appropriate content: not so easy that it is mastered quickly, and not so hard that it becomes frustrating or feels impossible.
  • Fresh content: the app updates as the user plays (i.e. is multi-leveled or has stages).
  • Wait time: not too long and not too short between levels or games.
  • Humorous activities: having fun and laughing are part of the digital experience -- the sillier the better for some of our early learners.
  • Incentives: provides a reason to play and explore (i.e., stickers, levels or collections).
  • Goals: children and parents should agree that there is a reason or goal in mind to motivate further play.
  • Socialization: offers parental/adult involvement or playmate opportunities.

For more information on good app design and technology, read Is there an app for that? Should we let young children use technology? Carly Shuler's 2009 report supports the use of technology with young children, because it affords differentiated, autonomous and individualized learning experiences.

Please share your experiences and thoughts about using technology with young children.

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Tara Jeffs

Assistive Technology Specialist , Teacher Educator, MS Innovative Educator

Comments (8) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Melody's picture
Special education teacher from D.C.

It is amazing how many free resources exist! My dilemma is finding the time to explore all the available resources... I appreciate blogs like this because it helps target my limited research time. Thanks for this information!

Annmarie R's picture

Children should design with actual Legos, and learn the basics of physics by playing with actual water. Just because something is free doesn't mean it's helpful.
I vote NO.

Tara Jeffs's picture
Tara Jeffs
Assistive Technology Specialist , Teacher Educator, MS Innovative Educator

Annmarie- you are so right! We need multiple pathways and opportunities to experience learning! That is one reason I shared a few examples of the apps that blend the digital interface with the concrete manipulatives. Nothing wrong with playing with real Legos but some children may not be able to access them due to fine motor skills or physical disabilities. For some children you are taking an interest such as Legos and providing a challenging learning environment stretching their skills. In any case, real Legos or digital ones the key is the interaction of working, thinking and problem-solving with another person. This person could be a parent, sibling or buddy!

Tara Jeffs's picture
Tara Jeffs
Assistive Technology Specialist , Teacher Educator, MS Innovative Educator

I was amazed of all the free apps as well! You are right, it still takes time to preview, select, and build a meaningful activity! Have fun!

Katrina's picture
PreK4 Teacher from Maryland

My school has a mobile iPad lab and the students use them in some way every day. We use them for small reading group, we use them during Math to practice addition and subtraction. There is an app that was once called Rocket Math (the name has since changed) that the class loves. They have to earn money to build a rocket. In order to earn money, they have to solve math problems. I have the students use manipulatives to get the answers. It makes Math so much more fun. It also teaches them how to work together, share and problem solve.

Abby Hallstrom's picture
Abby Hallstrom
Kindergarten teacher from Columbus, Ohio

As a kindergarten teacher and mommy to two young boys I find technology to be a valuable tool for learning and exploring. Technology is vastly appearing in all aspects of life and is all around us. Having the tools and understanding to properly use technology is important and fundamental.
I do agree that children should learn and develop through tactile play and exploration but also integrating the technology option will aid in opening the child's mind to new learning and allowing the child to learn in another form. All children are different and teaching child a new topic should be differentiated no matter if they are in school or are beginning their learning journey.
I think it is neat that a child can build with legos tactilely and then take it a step further and experience a new way of building through technology. It allows for further ways of thinking and new ways of thinking.
I also enjoy the resources that were provided to specifically narrow down a search for a an app or program based on what the child needs or what you want to teach to the children. This will help minimize the frustration at times of long searching sessions for apps geared to a very specific skill.
I enjoyed reading this blog post and the valuable resources it provided from technology use not only for my classroom but for my boys as well.

Arturo De la Mora's picture

Really it's a great experience for me to read these posts which help me to learn something new and interesting. Thanks for your explanation.

Ms. Singer's picture

I am so thankful for this post! I am currently taking a class where we're discussing the impact technology has on classrooms! As a preschool teacher, I'm challenged to find ways to introduce and integrate technology within the classroom. I downloaded and explored the Mibbilo app and I'm excited to incorporate it into my small group plans! Excellent resources, I'll be exploring more of them for sure!

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