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Children and Computers

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Feb 17, 2011

Whether we use technology with young children--and if so, how-are critical issues facing early childhood educators and parents. This Digest discusses questions about when children should start using computers; developmentally appropriate computer activities in preschool, kindergarten, and early primary classrooms; benefits of computer use; integration of computers into classrooms; and teacher training. 

When to Introduce Children to Computers

Many researchers do not recommend that children under 3 years old use computers (e.g., Hohman, 1998). Computers simply do not match their learning style. Children younger than 3 learn through their bodies: their eyes, ears, mouths, hands, and legs. Although they may return over and over again to an activity, they are full of movement, changing focus frequently. Computers are not a good choice for the developmental skills these children are learning to master: crawling, walking, talking, and making friends. 

Developmentally Appropriate Computer Activities

Unfortunately, computers are used all too often in ways that are developmentally inappropriate. One study (U.S. Congress, 1995) found that while "schools are steadily increasing their access to new technologies . . . most teachers use these technologies in traditional ways, including drills in basic skills and instructional games" (p. 103). Clements (1994) makes a similar point, noting, "What we as early childhood educators are presently doing most often with computers is what research and NAEYC guidelines say we should be doing least often" (p. 33). 

Papert (1998) stresses that computers have an impact on children when the computer provides concrete experiences, children have free access and control the learning experience, children and teachers learn together, teachers encourage peer tutoring, and teachers use computers to teach powerful ideas. 

Developmentally appropriate ways to use computers with 3- and 4-year-olds are different from the ways we use computers in kindergarten and the primary grades. 

Computers and Preschoolers

Children 3 and 4 years of age are developmentally ready to explore computers, and most early childhood educators see the computer center as a valuable activity center for learning. Timing is crucial. Children need plenty of time to experiment and explore. Young children are comfortable clicking various options to see what is going to happen next. Teachers may want to intervene when children appear frustrated or when nothing seems to be happening. Frequently, just a quick word or two, even from across the room, reminds children what they need to do next to reach their desired goal. Providing children with minimal help teaches them they can operate the computer successfully. In addition, by observing what children are doing, the teacher can ask probing questions or propose problems to enhance and expand children's computer experiences. 

Computers for Kindergarteners and Early Primary Children

As children enter kindergarten and the primary grades, it is important that they continue to have access to a computer center with a library of developmentally appropriate software. Children need opportunities to make choices about some of their computer experiences. In addition, kindergarten or primary-grade teachers will want to use the computer for more directed activities that match their learning objectives. For example, to enhance language skills, children can compose a letter to a friend or relative using the template provided in ClarisWorks for Kids or similar software. 

Children could also work in small groups using software such as Scholastic's Magic School Bus Explores the Rainforest to compare two of the seven ecozones in the program. Using software such as Edmark's Kids' Desk: Internet Safe, other small groups can investigate these two ecozones on Internet Web sites selected by the teacher. The groups then merge to share their discoveries and write a report on the ecozones, illustrating each with pictures drawn by members of the group or downloaded from the Internet sites. 

Through exploring computer experiences, these children build memory skills, learn how to seek out information, use knowledge until they have a clear understanding from multiple sources, and integrate their knowledge of how each ecosystem functions. In the process, they learn to delegate responsibility, interact with others, solve problems, and cooperate to reach a goal. 

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