When Young Children Use the Internet: A Report of Benefits for Families, Children, and Teachers


by Letha Clark

In the Beginning...
In October 1997, four teachers and the children in their classrooms--one early childhood, two kindergartens, and one first grade--joined in a project that was a cooperative effort with Macomb Projects. The project, TEChPLACEs (an acronym for Technology in Early Childhood Planning and Learning About Community Environments) focuses on the development of an Internet site for children that is largely the product of children. As a condition for participation in the project, each site was connected to the Internet and had e-mail capabilities providing opportunities for the children to send and receive e-mail.

The Internet site was designed in two parts. The first part,"All About Us" consists of web pages created and developed by the children and teachers in each of the classrooms. This site serves to introduce each group to the others through images, sound, and video of everyday occurrances and special events. The second part of the web site is "Our Community" and is accessed by way of an intranet between the four schools and Macomb Projects. The community is developed with child-crafted constructions representing businesses (like a vet's office) and places (like the post office) that the children in the classrooms consider important in a community. Each of the buildings and places are created and named by children and contain activities that correspond to that business or site.

When the project began, the teachers were slightly overwhelmed yet still willing to tackle the challenges. They were excited by the possibilities while being intimidated by the overall scope of the project. However, they embarked with enthusiasm on a project that asked them to explore and become familiar with the Internet and the use of e-mail and share that information with the children in their classroom. Of necessity, teachers had to learn a new language (the jargon of the Internet) and help the children in their classrooms become fluent in that language. They worked with their children to plan and develop their own web pages for the "All About Us" section of the Internet site. They became familiar with and used software to prepare and upload those web pages. They realized the importance and necessity of using new and unfamiliar technologies to capture and prepare images for classroom web pages. During this entire time, teachers also maintained journals documenting the processes they went through to develop their web pages. A review of those journals demonstrates that being involved in the project resulted in some unexpected outcomes for families, children, and teachers.

Families
One kindergarten was a half day program with more than 20 children in each class. The teacher was determined to involve both groups in the project because of the interest and involvement of the children and their parents. For her group, as well as in the other classrooms, the project became an important mechanism to strengthen the home-to-school connection. Children in all of the classrooms received e-mail messages from parents and families, some addressed to individual children and others addressed to the group. Messages contained information about parents' workplaces, bringing a new level of awareness to children about various careers. Some messages asked questions such as "How many children have pets at home?" which frequently resulted in an activity in which the children estimated the group's response and then graphed each child's actual response. Each classroom received "problems" of some type from parents or family members that needed solving. The result was an effort that engaged the children in the dynamics of solving a problem as a group.

While some children in each of the classrooms have computers at home, many do not. Even though several families had computers in the home, they did not necessarily have access to the Internet. The teachers have made the classroom computers available and provided time for parents to "check out" the Internet, experience the vastness and explore the possibilities it holds. Such experiences were the first opportunity for some parents to use a computer. For others it was their first chance to send e-mail messages. Some parents saw the value and importance of purchasing technology to extend the opportunities for learning into the home.

Children
The children participating in the project increased their level of communication and also demonstrated gains in language development. These occurrences were not surprising, but what was amazing was the children's acquisition of a "second language." Children of all ages and in every classroom became fluent in the vocabulary associated with technology, development of web pages, and surfing the Internet. They demonstrated their fluency in both the spoken and printed word. Two groups of children "flaunted" their expertise in their communications with school administrators. One administrator was impressed with the correct use of terminology, and he positively commented about those children's future potential. He mentioned his awareness of the way the children had included their families and members of their school community in their active involvement with TEChPLACEs.

All classrooms seem to have some children who are more comfortable as "watchers" and others who are better suited to the active role of "doers." The children in the classrooms involved in the project were no exception. The teachers reported incidents where children stepped out of the watcher role and into the doer role. These children had spent weeks observing others sending e-mail and navigating the TEChPLACEs web site. The teachers were amazed to observe the watchers' confidence in their abilities as they sat down in front of the computers, navigated through their web site, prepared e-mail messages (complete with the address of the recipient), and sent those messages with little or no assistance.

Interestingly, the older children involved in the project realized that some of the children in the other classrooms were younger and "don't know as much as we do." As a group, they discussed the differences between what they could do and what the preschoolers could do, and they decided that the e-mail messages to the youngest children should be uncomplicated and short. They intentionally phrased their e-mail messages in a way they thought appropriate for the preschoolers.

In each of the four classrooms, the children have been involved in the development of their web pages. They have discussed the background, color and font for the text, content for each page, connections between pages, and any sites to which they might be linked. The children put a significant amount of time and effort into the planning process and have included images and information they find meaningful. It follows then, that they like what they did and do not tire of reviewing the results, returning again and again to view their web pages and make suggestions for changes and additions. Having been involved in the process, they are extremely proud of the product. Each teacher has shared, at one time or another, how the children in her class decided that they wanted to "meet" the children from the other classrooms. As a result, they have become acquainted as they navigated through the web site and explored the pages the other groups produced. Of course, the children returned to the safety of their own pages, but it was with greater frequency that they became curious about the activities of the other children.

Before TEChPLACEs was introduced, the children in the four classrooms were familiar with computers and the software in their library. Even though this was true, changed attitudes among the children when using technology have emerged. Teachers attribute the changes to the children's involvement with TEChPLACEs.

The teachers saw children more involved in the process of negotiating. Instances where the children reached a consensus outnumbered the occasions when a child made demands. They saw more cooperation within groups of five or more children, both at the computer and in activities away from the computer. They also thought that the incorporation of TEChPLACEs into the curriculum helped many of the children self-regulate their computer use. As the different classes of children made determinations about their web site, they developed a democratic procedure for making decisions that affected their group. This behavior has spread to other areas in the classroom, and now a large percentage of the classroom decisions reflect a majority vote.

Teachers
When the teachers were first contacted to participate in the TEChPLACEs project and their level of knowledge and degree of comfort using technology was discussed, it was learned that within that small group of four individuals, some thought their skills were those of a neophyte and others considered their abilities to be close to expert. After a year of participation, all four teachers, even the experts, have become more confident and competent. By one teacher's own account, participation in the project has caused her to purchase a computer for her home, get private tutoring for word processing and graphics applications, and connect her computer to the Internet. All the teachers indicate that they have incorporated the computer more into the daily curriculum than they would have had it not been for their participation in TEChPLACEs.

One of the surprises of the project was the way in which the teachers adjusted their teaching styles. Once the teachers saw how the children used the TEChPLACEs web site, they recognized that their children were capable of much more than they had anticipated. They began to step back from direct instruction and provide opportunities for the children to control events. Because of the spontaneity often exhibited with the web site, the teachers became more flexible during all their classroom activities and not just those related to the computer and the use of technology. To a person, their teaching styles evolved into a more child-directed approach in which they became more inclined to use questioning techniques to guide children's thinking. They willingly relinquished some control and increased the opportunities for children to make their own choices.

Hesitant and reluctant at the beginning of the project, each teacher also became more willing to try and more adept at troubleshooting their own problems, both hardware and software. Open lines of communication between the TEChPLACEs staff at Macomb Projects and the teachers involved in the project supported their attempts to solve their own problems.

The teachers indicated that knowing the TEChPLACEs staff could be at their site in less than 30 minutes provided a "safety net" if they became too frustrated or if their own attempts proved futile. Their skills at troubleshooting improved to the point where fewer and fewer visits to the classrooms were necessary and most problems could be dealt with via e-mail or over the telephone.

Summary

Every year more children in early childhood classrooms have computers and an increasing collection of software titles from which to choose. Few children in early childhood classrooms have their own web site, and even fewer have one for which they have been encouraged to determine content or been actively involved in development. The TEChPLACEs project provided teachers the framework for children to be actively involved in the process of creating an Internet site and an intranet community.

Some unanticipated results were:
(1) parents and families became involved in the activities in their children's classrooms,
(2) children demonstrated a wide range of skills and abilities using technology that they transferred to other areas of their school lives, and
(3) teachers became more proficient in the use of technology and willingly adjusted their teaching styles to accommodate new learning opportunities.
More discussing, more negotiating, more agreeing, more guiding, more participating are all by products of a project that intended to bring together the children in four early childhood classrooms to create and develop an Internet site.

Take time to visit http://www.techplaces.wiu.edu and see for yourself what these children and their teachers have created.





close window