Technology and Tots

Back in the day when I worked in a Reggio-inspired daycare program, children would ask questions and teachers would rush around on our breaks and after work to put together books, pictures and hands-on learning experiences to reflect the interests and inquiries of the children. Often, the programming took a few days to put together, and interest in the topic needed to be re-kindled in some cases. We didn’t have access to mobile technology with Google search engines and YouTube at our fingertips. We did the best we could with the resources available to us, which included the public library and books and manipulatives that we had purchased and stored in our homes “just in case” kids demonstrated an interest in life cycles, insects, etc. 
Parents are often upset by the presence of technology in classrooms. I fully understand their concerns, especially as Willow’s daddy and I have done the research and have limited the amount of screen time our daughter is exposed to. Concerns around the overuse of technology are legitimate. We don’t want to be raising a generation of children who are glued to endless YouTube streams and can’t sit still for more than two minutes without playing a highly stimulating video game. We don’t want kids glued to a screen all day instead of solving problems with real materials and people. We don’t want kids watching television instead of getting outside in the fresh air to move their bodies and learn about balance, cooperation, and managing risk. 
The difference between YouTube zombies with delayed language and impaired focus skills and kids who use tech as a learning tool is huge, and it often starts at home. The HOW of tech is the missing piece that most people don’t see. It’s easy to demonize technology and lump all device use into one vile category: something that should be avoided at all costs. The reality of the situation is that our children are going to be exposed to technology and an overabundance of information, whether or not we promote any kind of technology use in our homes.  
Most organizations are recommending complete abstinence from screens until the age of about 24 months. We tried to follow these guidelines, as the research on eye, brain, and speech development and screen time is pretty convincing for this age group. We don’t have “television” per se (just Netflix), so we aren’t the kind to people who have a TV running in the background all day on a news or weather channel. My partner and I often sit down to watch specific programs in the evening after Willow is asleep, so it wasn’t hard to avoid having her exposed to constant screen time as an infant and toddler. We did show her family photos on our phones and iPads, and allowed her to have FaceTime chats with long-distance relatives. 
Willow is now three years old, and she asks some really cool questions about the world around her. This morning, in the midst of a thunderstorm, she inquired as to what makes thunder. I could have easily provided a pat answer to her inquiry, such as “well, that’s just the clouds going bowling”, but I have never truly appreciated the cutesy answers that adults often give to legitimate questions posed in earnest by inquisitive children (especially as an inquisitive child myself), so I said, “That’s a great question. Let’s find out!”
I pulled out my phone and we did a Google search for “what is thunder for kids” and asked Willow to help me listen for the dominant consonant sounds in a few of the words as I typed “what… it starts with wuh… …wuh… what letter should I type to start that word? Can you find the w for me on the keyboard?” Once we typed our query, Google gave us a very brief and understandable explanation with a photo, and offered us a 3 minute video for kids on lightning and thunder, which we watched together and chatted about. In this short interaction, we were learning about letters and letter sounds, learning how to do research using simple search terms, and learning that our questions about the world are worthy of exploring and researching. We discovered some neat Science facts about light and sound energy, and our conversation continued long after the phone was returned to my pocket. 
Those who demonize technology use with children often believe that there can be nothing useful about having technology in the hands of children. They often tell me that screens are only used as electronic babysitters, as a way to keep kids quiet in a restaurant or as a way for a tired adult to avoid having to interact with children. There are definitely dangers surrounding technology use and screen time with young children, most of which occur when screen time is unsupervised and is used as a replacement for human interaction… but it is not a matter of black and white, tech or no tech. 
Appropriate technology use needs to be modelled. When kids see tech being used for communication and learning instead of simply as a way to “pass the time”, they learn that technology is an important tool. Appropriate technology use needs to be guided. When kids are invited to help us look up a recipe online for biscuits to make together, they are invested in the process and the product of their learning, and learn how to search for and use information that is relevant to them. When a parent says “our job is to find a cookie recipe, so we won’t click on the link for the cookie game or the Cookie Monster video”, the child learns about staying focused on the task at hand, and avoiding some of the many distractions that pop up in the world of the Internet (and in life). Likewise, stopping a YouTube video to discuss what we’ve seen, instead of allowing YouTube to endlessly play “related videos” allows for verbal processing, reflection, and true learning instead of the passive intake of more visual information that our brains can actually process in one sitting. 
Technology itself is not the problem. The way that we interact with technology is what makes it either purposeful or problematic. We can teach our kids to use tech as a valuable learning tool, or as a source of passive entertainment. The answer is not banning technology or devices from homes and classrooms, but in teaching both adults and children to use it responsibly for the betterment of themselves and others.