Technology and Small Children

Nancy Carlsson-Paige has recently written a very smart piece on small children’s use of and exposure to technology in The Washington Post: Is technology sapping children’s creativity? Carlsson-Paige thoughtfully lays out what we know to be true about the ways in which young children learn through real, hands-on experiences. She explains a bit about play and its value, then contrasts this with an example of the rote “learning” offered by many of the so-called educational software options.

For example, a child could get right answers on simple addition problems: 3 + 2 = 5 and 2 + 4 = 6 by repeatedly playing an electronic math game, but still not grasp the underlying concepts of number.

This reminds me of information that was presented in a class I once took on teaching math to young children (aged 0-8). We looked at the concept of number and how even very young children explore this concept in real ways. For example, the infants and toddlers that I currently work with understand the concept of “more” and “none”, especially as it relates to food. I once observed an infant (about seven months old) who always wanted to hold two similar items, one in each hand (realizing, without realizing, the idea of “two”). When he would hold just one (a cylindrical block, for example), he would seek a second of similar size and shape. Babies who “multi-task” by carrying three items — one in each hand and another in their mouth — could be said to be exploring early math concepts in a very real way. Studies have looked at the math concepts of children in cultures where they peddle goods on the street at young ages. Although the children may not be able to sit down and solve equations with written numbers, their concept of what we consider to be math can be highly sophisticated.

I once worked with a financially disadvantaged family who made “sharing” a very high priority for their three-year-old and repeatedly expressed concern to me that he able able to “share” and to understanding “sharing”. When I explained on behalf of our developmental preschool program that our expectation for three-year-olds does not necessarily include the adult-directed concept of “sharing”, his mother explained, “He knows to share. He has to. When we buy a bag of chips, we share. When we have a bottle of water, we share. We do not have enough that each person will have their own, so he shares.” I imagine this child and the millions like him have the potential for great understandings of fractions and percentages, if that learning is applied in such a meaningful context.

This is the real-world learning that matters to young children. Even when they cannot resist the glow of the screen, the fact is that their learning takes place in their doing. They are beautifully wired for full-body, head-to-toe immersion in the messy, awesome business of exploring the world and discovering how things work and fit and matter and why. We shortchange their true potential when we allow it mellow in front of the soft glow of technology. And what are we doing — what example are we setting — with their social and emotional development?

Screens can occupy, distract, and entertain children for sure; the appealing game or show really “works” in the short term. But harmful habits set in early on both sides: for the child, learning to look outside of oneself for happiness or distraction in tough times; for parents, learning to rely on screens instead of our own ingenuity to soothe and occupy kids.

My husband works in technology professionally and revels in it for his own entertainment. We’re a gadget household, unapologetically plugged in to our smartphones and tablets. Amidst all the glories of the modern age, I regularly observe that what my husband enjoys most of all, in true geek fashion, is figuring out and understanding how things workhands on. This is the kind of engagement I wish for children with technology, and which I despair over as technology becomes increasingly dumbed-down. As our engagement with devices becomes simpler, we worship with increasing frequency before the screens, swiping and clicking and numbly, blindly, passing our time in groggy disconnection. Granted, I drive a car without a deep knowledge of the workings of the internal combustion engine, but my dad made sure I knew how to change a tire, check and change the oil, and jump a battery. I can identify all of the vital components under the hood. I think it is reasonable (if not, perhaps, realistic) to expect the same of computer users.

This brings us back to the vital act of play.

And it’s not only concepts that children are learning as they play, they are learning how to learn: to take initiative, to ask questions, to create and solve their own problems. Open-ended materials such as blocks, play dough, art and building materials, sand and water encourage children to play creatively and in depth. Neuroscience tells us that as children play this way, connections and pathways in the brain become activated and then solidify.

As adults, technology does often make our lives easier and even richer. But what does it do for our children if we don’t get them under the hood? Today we know that skills they require for future success include curiosity, initiative, and problem-solving. There are wonderful ways to promote those skills well away from technology, but must we eschew it altogether? I believe there can be a thoughtful balance. Some of the skills that I most admire in my husband and that have been most beneficial to him in his career are his ability to think through problems, one step at a time, with deep engagement and persistence. Any elementary school teacher can tell you this kind of thinking seems to be a dying art, whose loss we regularly lament. The children who are going to build the great technologies of our future are going to need these skills. They need hands-on tasks like puzzles and playdough and blocks. They need Lego. They need open spaces and trees. They need the opportunity to learn about technology from the ground up: from parts to programming, if that’s your dish. Handing them a iPad and the latest greatest math app isn’t going to build the brain they’ll need in a few decades.

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