Using Technology Appropriately in the Preschool Classroom

By Ann S. Epstein, Senior Director Of Curriculum Development at HighScope

Teaching Strategies to Supporting the Appropriate
Use of Technology in the Classroom

The overriding message is that computers and other electronic equipment should take a back seat to children’s hands-on learning with manipulatives and direct social interaction. It is noteworthy that in reviewing anecdotes from the Child Observation Record (COR) and COR Advantage (HighScope & Red-e Set Grow, 2013) to illustrate this article, the author found very few in which children used technology in their play. Whether this reflects their choices about what to play with and/or teacher choices about what to record, it suggests that even when technology is readily available in the classroom, children and adults gravitate toward real, hands-on materials.
That said, incorporating technology in the classroom can provide an important experience for all children, particularly those whose family income or other factors limit access (Lee & Burkham, 2002). At the same time, be aware that even those with wide exposure at home happily use other objects to represent such devices during play; for example, a block may stand for a smart phone:

At work time in the house area, Fernando swipes his hand across a small wooden block and tells Allegra, “I’m calling the pizza guy. Do you want mushrooms or hot peppers?”

Programs need not give children working digital or mobile devices (disabled ones with batteries removed are okay). After all, we did not put working pushbutton phones in classrooms ten years ago, nor would we ever put a working stove in the house area because children pretend to cook. Young children enjoy using facsimiles of the real thing in ways that imitate actual adult use:

During planning time, Leila uses a battery-less camera to “take a picture” of the “art area.” When asked what she will do there, Leila answers, “Make something with the play dough.”

Finally, note that the strategies listed below refer to how teachers can support the children’s use of technology. This is a different issue than how adults themselves might use electronic devices to promote early learning, much as they might have used a camera in the past. For example, a teacher may take photos on a mobile device during work time and use them to facilitate recall by holding the device while children swipe the screen to look “backward” and “forward” at the sequence they followed to carry out a project. Or video recordings made by a teacher could be shared with students after a field trip, to help the children recall and build on their experiences. These and other ideas allow adults to take advantage of technology and familiarize children with it at the same time, while not expecting children to use it in inappropriate or unrealistic ways.

Teaching Strategies

To choose appropriate technology and mediate its use by young children, try the strategies listed below. (For further details and more ideas see Epstein, 2012, and Epstein & Hohmann, 2012):

  • Model safe and careful use of technology. Help children learn to use technology in ways that will neither hurt them nor damage equipment — the same care they take with other classroom materials.

    At work time in the block area, while exploring (battery-less) cameras, Mateo shakes one in frustration. “How does the lens open?” he asks. His teacher suggests he push different buttons to see what happens. He does and then says excitedly, “Watch! When I press this, it opens!”
  • Choose child-friendly hardware. Innovations make technology increasingly easier for young children to use. Choose devices that are appropriate for young children’s perceptual and physical capabilities. Encourage children who already know how to use the equipment to help their peers.

    At work time in the book area George uses the computer. He looks at Sue [his teacher] and says “Help.” When Sue comes over, he points to the screen. The program he wants to use is not open. Maria, who is at the other computer, says to George, “You have to click it.” She reaches over and opens the program for him. Later, Maria shows him how to click the “X” to close the program. Then George himself clicks on the next program he wants to play.
  • Select appropriate programs or applications. Emphasize interactive, open-ended learning, not drill and practice. Introduce a program or application to a few children at a time, as a small-group activity, before making it available at work time. For example, the following was observed the day after children explored drawing materials and a computer drawing program at small-group time:

    At work time at the computer, Leila uses the coloring program to create a flower and butterfly picture and print it out. She says, “My flower. My happy.”
  • Locate classroom technology to facilitate social exchanges. Allow space for children, as well as the adults playing with them, to use devices together. Classroom technology should be visible from other areas of the classroom so children can wander over and join in, as happens in this example:

  • At work time in the book area, Angel and Ellie sing along with the ABC song on the computer. When they play it again, Asa and Rufus come over and sing and dance too.
  • Encourage children to verbalize their thinking as they solve technology problems. Help children reflect on their solutions (e.g., How do I make it louder? How can I turn the puzzle piece to fit?). Be available so they do not get frustrated or discouraged when something is not working. Acknowledge their attempts to solve problems (including with humor), as in this example:
  • At work time in the book area, when the computer program stops working, Avalon calls to Christine [her teacher] for help and says, “Maybe we can put a curse on it.” She waves her hands over the computer and laughs. Christine laughs with her and observes, “That doesn’t seem to be working.” Avalon says, “Maybe if I turn it off and on again.” Christine encourages her to try her idea. Avalon does and when the program reboots, Avalon says “That did it!!” Christine responds, “You solved the problem.”
The use of technology with young children offers many opportunities for early learning, but we must proceed with caution as a slowly growing body of research helps us to make wise choices. Even as we discover the types of emerging interactive media and teaching strategies that work well in preschool and beyond, we should not forget the enduring truth that young children learn best through direct interaction with people and materials, in activities they choose and shape themselves, and which spur them to reflect on what they are doing and learning. Technology is one, but only one, piece of the early childhood curriculum. Use it with balance and with creativity.

About the Author

Dr. Ann S. Epstein is the Senior Director of Curriculum DevelopmentatHighScope Educational Research Foundation in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where she has worked since 1975. Her areas of expertise include curriculum development, professional development, research and program evaluation, and instrument development. Dr. Epstein has published numerous books and articles for professional and practitioner audiences, including The Intentional Teacher; The HighScope Preschool Curriculum; Essentials of Active Learning in Preschool; Tender Care and Early Learning; Me, You, Us: Social-Emotional Learning in Preschool; and Numbers Plus Preschool Mathematics Curriculum.

See page 3 for a definition of terms used in this article.

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