Early Learning and Technology

By Jen Lindbeck

Whenever technology is mentioned in a gathering of early learning professionals or service providers, I often find my opinion differs from my colleagues. The conversation typically focuses on the importance of hands on learning and play and the lack of evidence that technology aids learning in the early years. If I am feeling brave, I might raise my hand and say: Technology is here to stay and when used appropriately, can be an incredibly dynamic tool for learning. As educators we have a responsibility to inform parents and our students on how they can effectively use technology and avoid its abuse. Again, it is not going away, and, in fact, will just become more prevalent so we should use it to our advantage.

Then I usually sink down in my chair. The pot has been stirred.

The truth is that children DO learn best through hands on, play based learning. The research, up to this point, has indicated that children age two and under should avoid technology while their brains are in this critical stage of development. And yet, even though there is typically agreement on that point, a new study has just been published from the University of Connecticut and the University of Washington that demonstrates that infants learn from on-screen instruction when paired with another infant (as opposed to viewing the lesson alone).

It’s scandalous really.

Technology Use

Let’s go back to my earlier statement about the prevalence of technology. Research shows that 83% of children aged six months to six years use technology for recreation, school work, or reading. Technology is such a critical part of our society that technology and computational literacies are considered the new literacies (Parette, Quesenberry, & Blum, 2010) and as such there are distinct implications regarding 21st century learning and kindergarten readiness. Students entering kindergarten need to have a certain set of prerequisite skills to succeed in the changing landscape of education. Given the prevalence of technology, there is a need to develop a different set of skills for early learners. 

The National Institute for Literacy explains that young children need “opportunities to develop the early technology-handling skills associated with early digital literacy that are akin to the “book-handling” skills associated with early literacy development” (NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, 2012)

Does Technology Integration Improve Academic Skills?


We know that even the youngest of children are exposed to technology, but the question remains: Does technology integration improve academic skills like literacy, math, social emotional, and cognitive development in young children? There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that it can. Here is just one example:

A group of researchers (Schryer, et al, 2015) investigated the use of animated storytelling in a study of 51 preschool students between the ages of three through five in a child care center. The purpose of the study was to test a pilot, research based animated book reading intervention developed to promote emergent literacy. The students were given a 15-minute, interactive book reading DVD lesson over a five-week period. During each lesson, a host character directly speaks to the children and invites them in to the learning environment, encourages them to read along, prompts for responses, allows time for replies, and makes connections to learning concepts.

The results? The children who were exposed to the animated storytelling lessons experienced significant gains on all standardized tests at posttest compared to the control group (who were given standard literacy instruction without the animated storytelling lessons). Specifically, children in the experimental group scored 40.52% higher on the posttest than the control group on the vocabulary assessment and 52.84% higher on alphabet knowledge. The experimental group increased scores on print concept assessments by 170.71% from pretest compared to 15.94% for the control group. Posttest scores also showed significant gains in rhyming skills for the experimental group compared to the control group.

One of the primary concerns about technology is its lack of social interactivity. However, many of the research studies use qualitative data that indicates technology is a social endeavor (including the University of Connecticut and University of Washington study mentioned earlier) with children chatting, laughing, problem solving, and sharing tips for navigation.

I am certainly not advocating that technology replace hands on learning or that young children should zone out on television for hours of their day. What I am advocating for is an honest look at technology as a useful tool for learning. That means that technology integration in the home, in the classroom, and beyond is thoughtful, carefully selected, developmentally appropriate and used in alignment with best practices.

Technology Tips


Here are a few tech tips based on best practices to get you started:

  • Choose your technology carefully – both hardware and software.

All technology is not created equal. Your preschooler’s fine motor skills are still developing, so hardware should accommodate these burgeoning skills. For example, tiny buttons will be difficult and frustrating for a young child to operate. Software programs should be appropriate to the child’s developmental stage and be relatable to the child. There is a transfer of learning that needs to take place where the child can relate what they view on the screen to real life (Zero to Three, 2018). Technology experiences should “allow children opportunities to discover, make choices and realize the impact of those choices, as well as to explore, imagine, and problem solve” (Israelson, 2015, p.17; Neumann & Neumann, 2014).

  • Visit the NAEYC website for resources on technology use as well as suggestions for apps and other programs.

  • Zero to Three has a decision making tool called E-AIMS, that can help guide you as you select digital media for your kiddos.

  • Limit its use.

The NAEYC and Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media (2012) recommend that students in half-day preschool programs spend no more than 30 minutes per day exposed to screen time and 60 minutes for those children in full-day preschool programs. American Pediatrics recommends, in general, no more than 60 minutes of screen time for children between the ages of two and six.

  • Technology should be an interactive, social experience.

Instead of handing your child the iPad and telling him or her to play a game, sit next to each other on the couch

and play the game together. Point out features, use descriptive words, encourage problem solving by asking open ended questions. In the classroom, computer skills should be taught and scaffolded in the same way any other skill would be taught. Allow two or three students to work at a computer and set clear expectations to prevent conflict.

Digital media is just a tool and certainly not the be all end all of instruction for young children. However, technology is here to stay, so it’s important to stay engaged in the conversation especially as the research continues to provide new insights. If you are interested in delving deep into the research, see the Research on Technology Integration at the bottom of the page.

Jen Lindbeck has a M.Ed., Early Childhood Education, Curriculum and Instruction from Arizona State University and is the Early Learning Resource Coordinator for United Way of Skagit County.


American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use. (2016). Retrieved from https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/American-Academy-of-Pediatrics-Announces-New-Recommendations-for-Childrens-Media-Use.aspx

NAEYC & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media. (2012). Technology and Interactive Media as             Tools in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8. Retrieved February 17, 2017, from.

Parette, H. P., Quesenberry, A. C., & Blum, C. (2010). Missing the boat with technology usage in early childhood settings: A 21st century view of developmentally appropriate practice. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(5), 335-343. doi:10.1007/s10643-009-0352-x.

Zero to Three (2018, October 25). What the Research Says About the Impact of Media on Children Aged 0-3 Years Old. Retrieved from https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/2536-what-the-research-says-about-the-impact-of-media-on-children-aged-0-3-years-old.

Research on Technology Integration

Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “Educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3-34. doi:10.1177/152910061556972.

Israelson, M. H. (2015). The app map: A tool for systematic evaluation of apps for early literacy learning. The Reading Teacher, 69(3), 339-349. doi:10.1002/trtr.1414.

Llorente, C., Pasnik, S., Moorthy, S., Hupert, N., Rosenfeld, D., & Gerard, S. (2015). Preschool Teachers Can Use a PBS      KIDS Transmedia … Retrieved October 24, 2018, from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED562360.pdf.

Neumann, M. (2018). Using tablets and apps to enhance emergent literacy skills in young children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 42, 239-246.

Neumann, M. M., & Neumann, D. L. (2014). Touch screen tablets and emergent literacy. Early Childhood Education Journal, 42(4), 231-239. Doi:10.1007/s10643-013-0608-3.

Schryer, E., Sloat, E., & Letourneau, N. (2015). Effects of an Animated Book Reading Intervention on Emergent Literacy Skill Development. Journal of Early Intervention, 37(2), 155-171. doi:10.1177/1053815115598842.


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