Most parents and educators would agree that computers are a necessary part of education these days. But the integration of computers into the preschool classroom is a continuing source of debate.
"Computers are everywhere. These kids need to get experience and exposure," says Jane Turnbull, owner and director of North Creek School in Bothell. "Having computer skills is sort of like having a pencil."
Turnbull has included computers in her preschool curriculum since the 1980s. "It's another way to individualize for kids with different interests," Turnbull says. "As with anything, it's about keeping a balance between many opportunities."
In a study conducted in 2001, University of South Carolina researchers reported that learning computer skills gives preschoolers who might not excel socially or academically a chance to be good at something else their peers respect. That study also showed how computer use can encourage cooperation and collaboration among preschoolers.
Chris Grow, one of North Creek's preschool teachers, sees benefits from "indirect learning and application of other skills learned in the classroom;" for example, added motivation to learn lowercase letters.
In a report written by Susan W. Haugland, a professor emeritus in child development, "3- and 4-year-old children who use computers with supporting activities that reinforce the major [classroom] objectives ... have significantly greater developmental gains when compared to children without computer experiences in similar classrooms." These gains included improved intelligence, nonverbal skills, structural knowledge, long-term memory, manual dexterity, verbal skills, problem solving, abstraction and conceptual skills, according to the Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education report.
Other research has shown that children with developmental and physical disabilities can especially benefit from computer use. TeachTown, a Seattle-based autism-research company, has found that children with autism learn better with a computer, when it is combined with off-computer activities with parents or teachers. TeachTown offers an autism-treatment program based on its findings.
"The kids with autism had better language skills and socialization with a parent while using the computer," says Dr. Chris Whalen, TeachTown's founder and chief science officer, and a preschooler's mom. "They had more smiling and looking at the parent, and they had a dramatic decrease in inappropriate behavior and language."
The Expressive Arts Outreach Project, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Center for Best Practices in Early Childhood, reports that many children with physical disabilities can use the computer to participate in activities that would otherwise be difficult or impossible, such as drawing or writing.
There are drawbacks to computer use, says Briana Bennitt, executive director of the Three Cedars Waldorf School in Bellevue. Three Cedars waits until about age 12 to introduce computers. "It has to do with brain development and motor skills. Kids around age 12 have the ability to separate fantasy from reality, but at age 5, it's all real to them," Bennitt says.
It's too soon for preschoolers to learn computer skills, she adds. "Whatever our 5-year-olds would be learning now would be obsolete soon," she says. "It's more important to train imagination and creative thinking."
She points to work by the Alliance for Childhood, a Maryland-based, non-profit partnership of educators, researchers, health professionals, and other advocates for children. According to the Alliance, "young children are not emotionally, socially, morally or intellectually prepared to be pinned down to the constraining logical abstractions that computers require. This sedentary approach to learning is also unhealthy for their developing senses and growing bodies."
Supporters of computers in preschools agree that it is critical to use them appropriately.
"Computers are a very small part of the preschool experience," Grow says. "Getting a good balance is important. Social activities, inside activities, outside activities, sensory experiences -- it all has to be there."
"There's a down side to using anything to excess," Whalen adds. "At TeachTown, we really push 'off-PC' activities."
The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends the following guidelines:
- Choose age-appropriate computer activities.
- Supervise and participate in the child's computer use.
- Ensure children work together at the computer.
- Use computers as one of many options to support learning.
- Select software that promotes positive social values.
Julie Kumasaka is a technical editor and occasional freelance writer. She lives in Everett with her husband and their 5-year-old daughter.
- University of South Carolina study: Freeman, N., & Somerindyke, J. (2001). "Social Play at the Computer: Preschoolers Scaffold and Support Peers' Computer Competence." Information Technology in Childhood Education Annual 2001(1), 203-213.
- Article and references: "Computers and Young Children" by Susan W. Haugland
- Study: "Final Report: The Expressive Arts Outreach Project (2000-2003)"
- Report: "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood" by the Alliance for Childhood
- Position statement: "Technology and Young Children - Ages 3 through 8" by the National Association for the Education of Young Children
- Study: "Computer Use in Preschools: Directors' Reports of the State of the Practice"
Tips for parents of preschoolers
- Obtain a computer for your child. An older computer is fine provided it is Internet and word processing capable.
- Sit down with your child when he or she is using the computer.
- Know what they are using the computer for and let them teach you how to use the different programs.
- Help guide your child through homework on the computer.
Originally published int the June, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.