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Technology and learning in the early years

Don Edgar

VCAA Curriculum Branch Conference, 11 November, 2008

You may well ask: Why should children in the early years have any exposure to technologies?

One answer is to ask: How many of you remember the character called The Fonz in the family TV show Happy Days? He seemed to be a bit of a lair, slicked back hair and 'cool' attitude towards adults, school and sex. But you may not recall that when The Fonz went to a library and took out books on his library card, the American Library Association recorded a 400% increase in the issue and use of library cards by children and teenagers. Such is the untapped power of modeling behavior through effective media.

We need to consider the media in early childhood development

  • Because it's there and is an unavoidable part of their family and social context
  • Because it has enormous potential to enhance their learning about the world
  • Because they need to learn how to access, understand and control it as a core part of human competence in the modern world, and
  • Because if they are not exposed and taught how to use it, they will be disadvantaged, victims of the growing digital divide.

There are those who argue young children should watch no television at all, should be kept away from computer games, the internet, mobile phones, even radio. In my view, they are spitting into the wind.

  • The American Pediatricians wants no TV for children under 2
  • France and British Ofcom agree - study into Teletubbies & In the Night Garden

 A recent US National Institutes of Health review (2008) of 28 years of studies linking adolescent health and media use found the average time spent watching media - 45 hours per week (compared with 17 hours with parents & 30 hrs at school)

  • 80% + studies found a  link between children's screen time & obesity, smoking at an early age, drug use, early alcohol use and early sexual behavior
  • 60% + studies found a link with poor academic outcomes, low academic achievement and early attention problems
  • One study found a positive link between the  internet (certain types of websites) & better school performance, but there are  few studies yet on internet, video games & cellphones.

The key problem is that of correlation versus causation & lack of controls in such research for other likely factors (low SES, family problems, parental education, low self-esteem, peers and neighborhood context)affecting both screen time and later 'outcomes'.

Most of us would probably agree with the idea that time spent glued to the computer or television screen should be limited, except that the evidence of 'harm' is very thin. Even the data on such young children's exposure to television shows they spend most of their time sleeping, or in interaction with their Mum, or in random play in their cots, not watching TV. And even for 2-6 year-olds, the data on which the American pediatricians base their alarmist claims indicates that American children spend more time on average playing games, both inside and outside, than they do watching TV. The extremes are always used to justify moral panic.

 So, why expose children to any technology at all?  The first answer is -

1. Because it's there and is an unavoidable part of their family and social context

  • A third of 3-4 year-olds watch TV for 9+ hours per week, average 2 hours a day
  • Another third are 'low' TV viewers (-4 ½ hours)
  • Mother at home - more TV watching, not less
  • Over half turn TV on by themselves
  • 70% of parents are happy with that
  • 9 out of 10 children aged 7-8 have access to a computer at home (10% in own bedroom)

                                                                                    (LSAC, 2008)

As well, we need to know where young children spend most of their time. It's no use having a National Early Years Curriculum Framework which ignores the main setting of early childhood development - the family home. Just look at the following figures, extrapolated from COAG's estimates of children in non-family child care settings.

Slide on 'Where are they?'

- most young children spend most of their time at home, not in formal child care settings.

Nor are children totally passive 'victims' of the media:

  • Physical exercise - 87 minutes daily
  • Read a story/talked or sung to - 78 mins.
  • 'Other play' - 70 minutes

But many families apply no controls on their children's viewing at all. Indeed, in 61% of families 'background TV' is on all day, exposing children to adult content. And Australia's regulatory body ACMA found children aged 0-4 spend 5 hours 48 mins per day on media use (watching free TV, 154 mins; subscription TV, 194 mins)

My second answer to Why expose young children to media technology at all? Is -

2. Learning potential :

  • Because it has enormous potential to enhance their learning about the world - often unrecognised and under-utilised


  • Brain development in the early years - wiring & rewiring
  • Social & emotional development
  • Language development
  • Physical wellbeing & motor development
  • Cognition and general knowledge
  • Approaches to learning itself
  • Content is the key
  • Computer games - engagement, effort, mastery & scientific method
  • New forms of social interaction and activity

Earlier this week, the federal Minister for Small Business, Craig Emerson, wrote in The Australian that (as Albert Einstein said) 'imagination is more important than knowledge'. Just as the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment of the 1700s spread new ideas that lifted living standards, the New Growth theorists in economics are once again discovering the critical power of imagination and creativity in human development. There is little point in teaching and testing for an understanding of already established knowledge if there is not, at the same time, encouragement of creativity in our young people, the development of pools of creative talent that will take humanity forward.

If you look carefully, you will find it is technology and the new media, not just books and intellectual discussions in academe that are driving this surge in creativity and imagination for today's young people. Radio is still a potent educational force in Third World countries, but the mobile phone is fast becoming a major tool of enlightenment. As access to the internet grows, the spread of ideas - the true engine of growth and change - becomes even more rapid.

And it is in early childhood that the foundations of curiosity, imagination and an exploring mind are laid.

I want to remind you of the fact that most of an individual's brain power is generated in the first years of life, especially between birth and age 3, but certainly up to the age of 8. The wealth of stimulating experience, reinforcement and strengthening of brain synapses, the extension of synthesizing links and new pathways are the determinants of later learning capacity, complex thought and expression.

Slide: Children and 'the smarts'

  • word smart
  • number smart and reasoning smart
  • picture smart
  • body smart (physical coordination/kinaesthetic know-how)
  • music smart
  • self-smart
  • people smart
  • nature smart
  • food smart
  • health smart
  • street smart
  • media smart
  • i.e. the whole child, knowing their way around in the world

It was Howard Gardner and others who pointed out the dangerous narrowness of current definitions of intelligence as measured by IQ tests. Instead, they argued, the brain is capable of developing multiple intelligences in the early years and every child needs to be given a chance to operate across all forms of intelligence, not just cognitive forms as in language and mathematics. Such intelligences develop in different pathways of the brain, at different speeds and stages, yet they are inter-connected: for example, musical and bodily/kinaesthetic intelligences affect mathematical ability; interpersonal and self-understanding influence competence in many human spheres of activity.

But the key to all early childhood learning is curiosity and exploration. It is only where such qualities are encouraged that new experiences are gained, learnings reinforced, new ideas stimulated, questions raised and new pathways of learning explored.

In the jargon, this is often called 'play-based learning', but that's too vague and often leads to unguided, unstructured play rather than to a carefully planned series of curriculum experiences in early childhood settings. The skilled kindergarten teacher of course plans a rich classroom environment and uses every experience to encourage a love of learning, a curiosity about the world and a respect for the vast array of human ideas and practices. But too often, they ignore the power of the media, distrusting what is, indeed, bad content, the distortions of commercial advertising, the shallow treatment of ideas and forgetting that the media (poor as it often is) is the source of much of a child's imaginative experience and the source of much of their knowledge and understanding of the world around them. How could it be otherwise when a third of 4 year-olds are watching television for more than nine hours a week, and another third are watching four and a half hours? Worse, when Mum is at home they are watching more television, not less. Media are an unavoidable part of family life.  

Television can be a wonderful story-teller.  The benefits that flow to children from good storytelling are many and television's learning outcomes need to be considered as part of the 0-8 curriculum. Children have always been drawn to drama over factual kids' programming. (SPAA, 2008)

  • Children's future at school and work is enhanced if they learn to read well. Most importantly, stories are the glue that binds us together as a community; they give children a shared purpose, a roadmap for their lives and teach them about their feelings, their tribe, their culture, their place in the world. That is why Australian and local programming is important for children.
  • When done well, television programs can stimulate a child's imagination and open up the infinite opportunities that life presents. Like good books, good television programs can extend their understanding of their world. Stories are particularly effective in helping children develop emotionally, try out roles not yet possible in the real world. Television can expand their world of play and take them places they could not imagine, help them experience troubling emotions vicariously.
  • Fairytales where children cope with fearful situations have been used for centuries for this purpose and the Disney Company, Dreamworld and Pixar  have tapped into this store through their animated films with family entertainment - but sometimes the stories produced for mass consumption around the world have become so bland they have lost their original purpose.
  • Preschoolers love humour. They need to hear wonderfully funny and richly imaginative stories and play inventive games to help stimulate their imaginations. Programs for them should solicit laughter and enjoyment without degenerating into corny situations or patronizing them.
  • This 0-5 age group is moving from a self-centred view of the world to a more social outlook, so observing the experience of others in stories on television can enhance their understanding of their world.  Preschoolers are also forming their personal style, their sense of identity within their family, in a sex role, outside the family and within an ethnic or racial group. Television programming feeds into this emerging social self and can be used to present a wide range of role models and images that show different cultures, styles and environments.
  • Toddlers move from being amoral to being 'moral absolutists' with a rigid sense of right and wrong. Not until close to pre-school age do they begin to understand the consequences of their actions. They can interpret violent conclusions to stories as a signal that the 'goodies' have the right to eliminate the 'baddies'. They are on a journey to discovering how to connect emotions and motivations of characters to their actions. A program can be open-ended and lead to a discussion about valid rules and solutions.
  • Good programming can teach valuable lessons about living in a community. Children need to learn that they are part of a group; they can't always win and life is not just a competition, that trying and effort are admirable in themselves. They need to see human endeavour at its best, not just the side that produces conflict. 

All these life lessons can be conveyed through stories on film, video, DVDs and television. The important thing for parents to understand, during the early years of their children's development, is that stories do matter and should be selected with care. This takes time and effort. We have come to regard television as a babysitter and we rely on others - the ABC, the commercial networks, the regulator (ACMA) and the censor - to classify and decide for us what children should be allowed to see. The classification system is a guide but if we simply leave children in front of television while we do other things we need to remember we don't know what the programs are teaching them.


Parents and teachers need to consider:

  • Television is a wonderful resource and there are things television can teach visually and dramatically that will enrich and extend the concept development of pre-school and the early primary school child. They will learn more effectively if you discuss and share their viewing.
  • You can't watch and discuss everything the children view, but any time spent sharing these media messages is of value.
  • We waste our children's brain power, which is surging in those early years, if we allow their time to be spent viewing programs of inconsequence with a commercial purpose.


Just as parents should choose good books or effective toys, they should choose good television programs. We recommend parents take a very active role in their children's programming choices, viewing with them whenever possible, discussing storylines, characters, their actions and behaviour and lessons to be learned.  We know from research, the learning will be more effective when a parent or teacher scaffolds, or builds, on the learning within a program.

 Computerised games.

There is a growing body of evidence that demonstrates games are effective and valuable tools for learning. Games have an enthusiastic following with children from a very early age and across all ages.  (For a parent's guide to video games see Jeannie Novak and Luis Levy, Play the Game, Thompson Course Technology 2008, (

Because most teachers and policy-makers don't play games, they are not aware of just how sophisticated young learners' iterative strategies can become. There is a science to game playing. No one tells the kids the rules; they figure them out by playing. They seek information and piece together data from many places. They make decisions quickly which have clear consequences. They become experts at multi-tasking and parallel processing and learn to collaborate with others over a range of networks. Game players can acquire these skills at a very early age. Four and 5 year olds are known to play such games as The Sims (the most popular computer game ever made, which is essentially a 'living dollhouse') and Roller Coaster Tycoon  where the basic goal is to create a successful theme park.

In the early years children naturally love to learn as they love to play and appropriate video and computer games can combine these experiences very effectively.

0-8 year olds are learning many cognitive skills which could be assisted by games :
  - to attend and concentrate
- to associate words and symbols with objects
- to perceive and discriminate
- to identify similarity and difference
- to classify objects
- to see order or relationships
- to develop concepts, e.g. space, size, shape
- to explore and be curious
- to manipulate
- to use creative imagination                                    

Mark Prensky (2006) shows in his book 'Don't bother me Mum, I'm learning!' how games help cognitive development in progressively complex ways.

Games teach children about:

  • cause and effect relationships
  • long term winning versus short term gains
  • creating order from seeming chaos
  • second order consequences
  • complex system behaviours
  • counter-intuitive results
  • using obstacles as motivation
  • the value of persistence.                                              (Prensky, 2006)

So far there has been little attempt to integrate game-playing into the classroom.  This will need to change. Games can be used with positive results to assist learning from 3-8.

Pre-schoolers are inducted into many forms of technology before they can read, write or even talk clearly, particularly if they have older siblings. Three year-olds can learn to manipulate a mouse and should be encouraged to do so.  For this generation a computer is nothing special; it is simply another tool in their environment which they will need to master.  There is no research with pre-schoolers which documents their capabilities with technology and the potential for learning games can engender. 

Moreover, we learn only a little from current academic research because it has been too narrowly focused. It ignores the most powerful demonstration of the influence of media - the way in which advertising has produced a huge market in children's toys, games, characters and spin-off products which even very young children demand their parents buy for them. For example, in the five domains of child development examined by Children Now (2006) findings are at times surprising and useful, other studies trivial and contradictory.

  1. Social and emotional development.
    • Children who use the computer show superior spoken communication and cooperation, can play better within a set of rules, share leadership roles on the computer, take turns, and initiate interactions.
    • Computer use does not, for the majority, isolate children from others but helps connect them with others. Computer activity is intrinsically motivating and produces a longer attention span, enhances self-concept and attitudes to learning because it insists on mastery from level to level, and only in some cases is linked to an increase in aggressive behavior.
  1. Language development
  • The research on interactive technology use shows children learn to use more complex speech patterns and higher levels of verbal communication because they tend to narrate what they are doing as they play. They have better phonological awareness, tell more sophisticated stories and have better writing skills. Interactive story books allow children to control the story and ask for help (and get it).
  1. Physical wellbeing and motor development
  • There is little research here, and concerns about addictive time use and physical hazards such as eye strain, obesity, radiation and muscular-skeletal problems, are all reflective of high-end users rather than the majority of children whose daily physical play activity equals and often exceeds their use of media technology.
  • The major effect seems to be on physical (in)activity and food habits, leading to the current alarming figures on overweight and obesity. Yet ACMA says there is not enough evidence that television advertising has such an influence: they only need to look at the $     billion market in   ????
  • There is evidence that computer use helps disabled children develop better motor skills and opens up a wider world for them socially. (For examples of using media for therapy, dexterity, hand-eye coordination and social contact see Novak & Levy, 2008)
  1. Cognition and general knowledge
  • The research findings in this area are mixed, showing greater interest and engagement but not necessarily better verbal or visual learning.
  • Programs such as Barney & Friends, Sesame Street, Blue's Clues, Dora the Explorer, etc. claim to combine over 100 potential teaching elements and enhance children's performance in social skills, imagination, singing and dancing through active engagement with program content. Cognitive gains included numbers, letters and vocabulary; social learning such as taking turns, sharing, cooperation; physical improvements in small and large motor skills; and emotional lessons in dealing with anger, disappointment, feeling sad/happy.
  • Programs such as Blue's Clues have learning objectives rooted in child development theory. In contrast, programs focused on selling toys, with a mere pretence of educational theory, will be far less successful in enhancing child development goals. You have to wonder about the ABC's Bananas in Pyjamas and the fofty-year-old program Play School.
  • Repeated research emphasizes the point that children learn most when their parents or other adults 'mediate' what they are seeing or doing, whether that is on the TV screen or in the kindergarten classroom.
  • If the software is developmentally appropriate, there are gains for pre-schoolers in intelligence scores, nonverbal skills, manual dexterity and long-term memory and there are better learning gains from home use of interactive technology compared with limited use at school.
  • Despite mothers' belief that watching educational TV programs will enhance their children's cognitive development, there is little research evidence to support it, in part because there are so few programs designed specifically for these early years. Many claims that programs are 'educational' rest, in any case, on narrow definitions of learning, such as knowing the letters of the alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors.
  1. Approaches to learning.
  • The computer is inherently adaptable to different learning styles, but there is as yet little evidence of that adaptability being harnessed in the cause of more individually appropriate learning.
  • Computers seem to be a powerful compensatory tool for disabled children, supporting independent functioning and promoting a virtual play environment for children with special needs. In this area, interactive computer use opens up opportunities for social contact and learning.
  • As well, the computer gives children access in ways not possible in the real world, through virtual tours of historic sites, geographical landmarks, art galleries, the whole world of information available on the internet. Indeed, the key concern here is more the plethora of (often unreliable) information and the need for parents and teachers to act as guides in the critical use and interpretation of knowledge.
  • Clearly, if programs stimulate the child's curiosity (whether through documentaries, or news, or drama) they will have an ongoing impact on learning styles.
  • One crucial proviso is that families who see technology as useful are better able to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the technology.
  • Several studies have demonstrated the strong link between Sesame Street and children's readiness for kindergarten, regardless of socio-economic status, and those effects can last well into high school performance. And, in more recent years, Sesame Street has gone beyond the basics of number and the alphabet to incorporate elements of Howard Gardner's 'multiple intelligences'.

The evidence is that quality TV programs and games can be designed for 3-8 year-olds and understood by them at different levels, the younger ones taking in messages that match their level of cognitive development, older children interpreting them at a more sophisticated level. Moreover, children will watch good programs repeatedly, and keep watching them as they grow older, learning different things each time, precisely because they can engage with quality content  in increasingly sophisticated ways. The young brain's plasticity, its capacity to learn through repetition and reinforcement, the forging of new connections, make good media experiences a potent learning and developmental tool.

The main point about learning via the media is much the same as for any other mode of learning: assistance (from a parent, carer or teacher) needs to be 'scaffolded' (in Vygotsky's terms, targeted at the learner's 'Zone of Proximal Development' - the difference between the child's actual level of development and the level they could achieve with the assistance of a more competent adult or peer.) Technology makes it possible to design programs that are not only appropriate to a particular age group, but also to different developmental levels within that age group. Pre-schoolers' learning needs to be rooted in their real-life, personal experiences, should not be too abstract given their underdeveloped reasoning skills, should feature real children in program action and open up opportunities for collaborative play with other children, and be responsive to their developmental needs.

A third reason to include media in early childhood development and learning is media literacy as a critical skill.

3. Media literacy is crucial:

  • Because they need to learn how to access, understand and control technology as a core part of human competence in the modern world

Ability to

  • Access the media - almost universal
  • Functional literacy - how to use technology - learn without formal instruction
  • Understand the media - advertising & consumer persuasion; reality vs representation; reliability of information (internet); facts vs opinion; managing emotional responses to violence, sex, news
  • Being better informed citizens - values
  • Create their own productions - the 'creative republic'

But it's the content  that really matters!

In our longer paper for the VCAA, we argue for a broader definition of media literacy than the ususal model used in media literacy courses: as accessing, understanding, using and creating media for learning. It's not just about having technical skills, being protected from nasty advertisers or making any old video for YouTube.

Finally, my fourth answer to the question Why expose young children at all? Is

The Digital Divide:

  • Because if they are not exposed and taught how to use it, they will be disadvantaged, victims of the growing digital divide.
  • Lo income - more TV time, less computer time, less reading, no fast cable internet
  • Regional and ethnic differences in access & usage
  • Parental attitudes to media & learning
  • Parents' ability to help, guide, communicate
  • Big gap re. the new 'participatory culture', creative commons, links with peers (age 8-18, 40% have own material on internet, 1 in 3 a page on a social networking site

To summarise,

  • The evidential base is shaky, but we cannot and should not ignore the power and potential for good rather than harm from modern technology. No early childhood curriculum framework can ignore what goes on in the home in the pre-school years. It is their major learning environment and it one saturated with media whether we like it or not.
  • Just a final word or two about the opponents to technology.

The Steiner-Waldorf approach to children's education, which has the worthy goals of using the arts and physical activities such as music to humanise and educate the whole child - head, heart and hands -  so they can (by themselves) impart meaning to their lives, confuses such aims with an anti-materialist stance. Steiner's 'anthroposophy' holds that man is born into a sub-human state and 'excessive modernism' lets loose 'Luciferous forces' that cause illness in later life. The job of education is to awaken their inner nature to 'the starry worlds in the soul and spirit' and Steiner schools strongly discourage use of electronic media, especially television and computers, because of the physical effects on the developing child, questionable media content, and because using such technology hampers development of the child's imagination. Claims without evidence.

Some writers lump such theories together with the Kodaly concept of music teaching and the Laban techniques of movement and dance. There is a similar opposition to mechanisation, an insistence on real experience, on physicality as the pathway to wider understanding and on helping children find their own meaning and emotional truth. Yet Kodaly used the tape recorder to help students identify patterns in sound, and Laban talks about acting technology and the technical analysis of dance and choreography. So we have to be cautious about what we mean by using technology in early childhood education.

The views of technology opponents could be dismissed as troglodyte or Luddite, a head-in-the-sand approach that used to apply equally to letting kids read comic books or go to the movies. But they are dressed up in educational theories which have superficial appeal - the whole child needs a fully rounded education, let the physical body develop first before the intellect, encourage activity not passivity, protect the child from unwholesome messages from a crassly commercial media machine. We could all agree, but where is the evidence for such propositions?

In stark contrast, the Montessori approach to early childhood education holds that the classroom should be a reflection of the home, the community and the wider world. Realistically, its advocates have acknowledged that media technology is an increasingly significant feature of every child's home, community and the wider society. So they adopt a proactive stance, not a head in the sand one. (See Boyd, Barbara F., 'Assistive technology for every child', Proquest, Montessori Life, Articles at BNET, 2008) Just as literacy is the foundation for academic learning, computer literacy is considered a critical skill for all young children. Montessori teachers are urged to use technology as both a resource for learning and as a tool for effective teaching.

In a high technology society, they must integrate technology in all its forms into the Montessori classroom and curriculum areas. Assistive technology is especially useful for children with disabilities, enabling them to express ideas, draw pictures, link the spoken word to the written word (through Dragon Speaking Naturally), manipulate on the screen basic mathematical concepts and visit websites on places physically out of reach.

Montessori teachers are being actively trained in how to use computers, digital cameras, tape recorders, good quality television programs and search engines to enhance their teaching of  language, mathematics, history, geography, science and other areas, through interactive tools such as BigKeys, drawing software, IntelliTools, Kidspiration, Boardwalk, Go Talk, the Discovery Channel, This-Professional and Eyewitness Children's Encyclopedia. There is a wealth of material available and it is getting more sophisticated every day.

Two problems - most teachers are unaware, unskilled or afraid of technology; and today's children are way ahead of them in media literacy and computer skills. We have to, therefore:

  • Regulate TV content
  • Utilise media within the early years curriculum and guide that use effectively
  • Train and re-train teachers and other early childhood professionals so they are both media literate and ahead of the children they teach.