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Toddlers and Tablets: Oh My!

Early learning is being influenced by technology in similar ways that PreK-12 and higher education are. The key, however, is that the ways in which we use technology with our youngest learners has to support them in their development into becoming a fully rounded person, and a clear delineation between what is educational versus what is entertaining must be considered. There are of course multiple uses for tablets and apps with toddlers, and we can take advantages of those to provide them with a sound educational foundation. Some important thoughts to keep in mind while doing so are:

  1. Apps are not substitutes for educators. At its very core, an app is a computer program and an educator is a person. Solid teaching will always require an educator who understands learners (regardless of their age) and creates quality-learning experiences for them. Although there are some very impressive and engaging apps out there that tailor instruction and content based on users’ responses, a skilled teacher is always needed to ensure the learning is meaningful. That is something I believe deeply and urge you to keep with you as you teach using apps.
  2. What type of content is your toddler engaging? Consider for a second the difference between an app that reads to a toddler and one that has a toddler identify different shapes. One app presents only content while the other app encourages digital interaction. We need to be mindful here that, although both types of apps have their purposes, we still need to talk with our children about the learning experiences they are having on the tablet. Simple questions that focus on the experiences that toddlers have while engaging the app will go a long way, and sample questions are: (1) Did you like that app or experience? Why or why not? (2) What was the story about? (3) What shapes did you tap? (4) Where have you seen those shapes before? (5) Did that story remind you of another story you read? The key is not only the experience toddlers are having on the tablet, but that they can also communicate the experience. That communication starts to build the foundation for further literacy development.
  3. Is the app entertaining or educating? Different apps have different purposes, and that is fine. As the educator, I highly recommend that research is done about the educational potential of all apps, not just ones labeled educational, but the ones that might be more focused on entertaining as well. Even if an app is geared more towards entertaining our toddlers, it can still have educational value if we ask them the right questions about their experience. In short, even if an app uses rich, vibrant, and colorful content to entertain our toddlers, that works as long as they can discuss their experience with it.

When thinking about teaching toddlers using apps, there is some debate whether that is preparing them for a technology-enhanced world or making them technology dependent. In response, one way for technology to be used in a way that mediates some of this tension is to talk with toddlers about the experience they’re having while using technology. That way, we can prepare them for both the digital and interpersonal worlds they will be entering.