Computers for Young Children: Gold or “Fool’s Gold?”

by Linda Robinson

Since computers were first introduced to young children almost 20 years ago, there has been a certain amount of fear and controversy voiced over technology’s “harm” to this young population. In the 1980’s many critics thought computers would isolate children and affect their social skills in negative ways. Today the criticism is even more profound and, through the Internet, publications about computer use are reaching a wide audience. This article will review and compare two such publications, Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (Cordes & Miller, 1999) and Children and Computer Technology (2000), a recent issue of The Future of Children journal. Both publications make general statements and claims about child development and each takes a stand for or against computer use with young children. In reviewing these writings it is noted that, although research studies are cited to support some claims, many statements stand unsupported.

Despite all we have learned over the years about the positive effects of computers on young children, many are still skeptical about the benefits of technology. The most recent criticism has been voiced by a large coalition in early childhood known as the Alliance for Childhood. In their recent publication, Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood, the Alliance focuses on the negative effects they fear computers are having or will have on young children. Although they claim that research shows many negative effects, no actual studies related to their claims are cited in their publication (available as a pdf file at their web site, <www.allianceforchildhood.org>). Fool’s Gold makes several claims about computers and children. The Coordinator for the Alliance for Childhood begins by stating that the focus is “on children in early childhood and elementary education, for the data seem clear that computers offer few advantages in these years.”(p. 1, Cordes & Miller, 1999). In the Executive Summary, the editors, Colleen Cordes and Edward Miller, discuss three main questions stated as claims about computers and children.

The first question is “Do computers really motivate children to learn faster and better?” The editors provide an answer that they claim is based on “30 years of research on educational technology.” This statement itself is flawed since the technology that was available to children 30 years ago, which certainly was not on a wide spread scale, is not the same technology available today. The authors claim that the only link between computers and children’s learning has been found with drill and practice programs that have improved children’s academic scores on tests. Although drill and practice was the main type of software being developed in the 1980’s, there are many other types of software available today which offer constructivist, interactive experiences for young children. Most early childhood technology specialists would not recommend drill and practice software for young children and would not recommend isolated use of computers. The Alliance’s argument against computers also states that software appropriate for older students may not be appropriate for early childhood. This seems to be common sense, since no experienced educator would use the same books or other educational tools with all ages of children.

The second question asked by the Alliance is “Must five-year-olds be trained on computers today to get the high-paying jobs of tomorrow?” The authors answer this question with a statement about the health hazards and developmental problems that computers pose for children. They claim that computers are stunting children’s imaginative thinking. Again no research is cited to back up these statements. “Do computers really ‘connect’ children to the world?” is the third question. Again the authors discuss the damaging effects of “trivial games, inappropriate adult material, and aggressive advertising.” However, this is not the type of computer use seen in most early childhood classrooms. Instead, the authors are discussing the effects of Internet use on children using the World Wide Web by themselves, a practice not seen in developmentally appropriate classrooms. Another claim made by the Alliance is that overemphasizing technology can weaken bonds between teachers, students, and families. Again, appropriate technology practices encourage interaction between children and adults and promote family involvement.

Overall, the Alliance approaches technology from a negative view and concludes that it fails to “solve the problems of education.” Their publication seems to be based on the premise that technology use replaces teachers and will lead to limited experiences for children. The computer use is discussed in terms of applications for older students and not in terms of what is being used with or is now available for younger children. In a statement, “Children and Computers: A Call for Action,” released on September 12, 2000, the Alliance called for a “moratorium on the further introduction of computers in early childhood and elementary education.” They ask for a public discussion on critical issues related to children and computers. Early childhood educators would agree that further discussion and research are needed. In a more positive light, the other publication, Children and Computer Technology, (accessible on their website, <www.futureofchildren.org/cct/index.htm>) summarizes knowledge and research on the effects of computer use on child development, discusses whether technology can be an effective tool, and whether there are disparities among groups of people and computer use. This journal is a special issue of The Future of Children, published by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation which addresses issues related to young children’s development.

Articles in Children and Computer Technology discuss the positive results of computers when applications reinforce fundamental learning characteristics, which include active engagement, group participation, interactivity and feedback, and connections to real world contexts. When computer use is integrated into a constructivist approach, positive effects are seen for children.

The executive summary of Children and Computer Technology contains recommendations which include the following: • More money is needed for research. • Children should be encouraged to use computers in ways that encourage social interaction and stimulate desire for knowledge. • Parents should limit time children are on the computer and supervise the content. • Software companies should be challenged to examine learning experiences. • Media literacy training is needed to empower children to make good choices and to use computers to create, to design and to invent. • Computers should be used wisely to lay a foundation for lifelong learning. • Universal design features should be incorporated into school computers to provide access for all students. • USDE needs to make sure that all children have the same technology opportunities.

A comparison of Fools’ Gold and Children and Computer Technology shows that both publications express some of the same concerns with children’s use of computers; however, they each have a different tone. A major concern of both organizations is the “digital divide.” The Packard Foundation provides 1998 data on family computer use, stating that 91% of children in families with incomes over $75, 000 had access to a home computer, while only 22% of children in families with income less than $22,000 had access to a computer at home. The Foundation recommends that the government work with industry to provide opportunities for low income families to have computer access. It was also reported that schools in the higher socio-economic areas use computers in more creative ways. Training for teachers is the key to closing the digital divide. All early childhood teachers need more training on using computers appropriately with young children.

Health risks of computer use are discussed in both publications. Both admit that risks may be present if technology use is excessive and content is not monitored for young children. However, The Future of Children journal points out that excessive use of computers by young children is not typical. Exposure in school is relatively modest and home use amounted to an average of 27 minutes per day. Concerning physical injuries by children related to computer use, especially repetitive stress injury, there is very little research in this area. Evidence of physical risks is inferred from studies on adult use of computers.

Both publications do agree that more research is needed on children’s use of computers at school and home and that more teacher training on appropriate technology use is needed. Current research provides us with few clear answers to questions on technology.

What the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood Education has learned about computers and young children through research and model development is that it takes more than the computer itself to make technology an effective learning tool for young children. Good integration strategies and developmentally appropriate software with related off-computer materials are essential, along with a suitable environment that includes opportunities for more than one child to participate. Results of data collected during the past 10 years in five research projects at the Center show that young children, specifically those with disabilities, do gain skills in emergent literacy, problem solving, attention, social interaction, communication, and fine motor when they use computers and interactive software in developmentally appropriate activities (Hutinger, 1996, 2000). Adults who have been trained in choosing appropriate software, designing a suitable environment, and developing curriculum activities are a major key to children’s success. Since our data focus only on children who have been identified with a disability, it is imaginable that children in regular preschool programs would show at least similar, if not more, progress attributable in part to technology use.

The Center for Best Practices has used computers with young children for 18 years and has always regarded the computer as another learning tool, not to replace play materials or the guidance of a caring adult, either in the classroom or at home. The computer, as any other educational tool used in a developmentally appropriate manner, provides children with further opportunities to learn.

Today’s critics and supporters of technology should not be satisfied with statements made in publications for or against computer use in early childhood. Rather, all early childhood educators and advocates need to continuously explore new materials and strategies to further children’s development. Used appropriately, the computer provides children with opportunities to learn in different ways. Used inappropriately, the computer becomes a tool of fear and criticism. Critics and supporters would both agree that further research and training on appropriate activities is needed to dispel fears and to support positive or negative statements about technology in early childhood.

References

Behrmann, R. E. (Ed.). (2000). Children and computer technology. The Future of Children, 10(2).
Cordes, C., & Miller, E. (Eds.). (1999). Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. Alliance for Childhood. <www.alliancefor childhood.org/projects/computers/computers_reports_fools_gold_contents.htm>.
Hutinger, P. (Summer 1996). Computer applications in programs for young children with disabilities: Recurring themes. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 11(2), 105-114, 124.
Hutinger, P. (Fall 1999/Winter 2000). Young children with disabilities can exceed adult expectations when equipment, software, activities are appropriate. ACTTive Technology, 15(1).


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