Children born this decade are undeniably digital natives; the iPad and smartphone are as familiar to them as pencils and paper were to their parents in their childhood years.
Statistics from the Growing Up in New Zealand longitudinal study illustrates just how ubiquitous media use is in the preschool years. Over three-quarters of four-year-olds in the study were using electronic media other than television on a ‘usual weekday’. When added to time spent watching TV, these children were in front of a screen an average of 2.1 hours per day, as reported by their mothers, up from 1.6 hours when they were two.
Although there are rules around screen time for most of these children, this figure exceeds Ministry of Health guidelines, which advocate no screen time at all for under-twos and a limit of one hour per day for children aged two to five.
These guidelines align with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which maintain, “…multiple developmental and health concerns continue to exist for young children using all forms of digital media to excess”.
So what are parents and teachers to do when faced with this kind of information on the one hand and urgings on the other about the need to equip children for the 21st century?
In the face of government policies promoting the integrated use of digital technologies in learning and a belief they can support language development and mathematical thinking, many early childhood education (ECE) centres are incorporating digital devices, such as iPads, into learning.
“Technology is all around children,” says Clare Wells, chief executive of New Zealand Kindergartens. “It’s a prominent feature in their lives every day so it’s not surprising technology is also used at kindergarten.”
She says children use technology in kindergartens as a tool to explore and make sense of their world – perhaps to research an area of interest with a teacher or to develop their knowledge and understanding.
Devices are also used to build skills and dispositions, says Wells, with children engaging in online activities that encourage concentration or perseverance or show them how to deal with emergencies and difficult situations.
“Teachers use their professional judgement and provide a range of opportunities and experiences for children to progress their learning, one of which will be through the use of technology.”
Bucking the trend
Mindful of the fact most children spend time on devices at home, some centres such as The Cottage Kindergarten in Waimauku have chosen to be screen-free. The private kindergarten, which has a clear philosophy focused on learning through play, recently surveyed parents to ensure a screen-free centre was what they wanted.
“A lot of professional learning is coming out around the use of technology and we were beginning to wonder if we were in the Dark Ages,” says managing teacher Sara Stewart. “But pretty much 100 per cent of parents said ‘no, [we don’t want devices]; that’s why we come to you’.”
While Playcentre doesn’t have a policy on the use of technology, most centres choose to be screen-free, with sessions focused on child-led free play.
Charlotte Thynne has a PhD in Neurophysiology and attends Playcentre in Nelson with her daughters. She believes children learn best when they have the time and the space to explore their environment and interact with adults and children when they want to.
“I think that, in a way, a device leads the child, with flashing things to be pressed and commands to be followed … it is almost the antithesis of child-led learning,” says Thynne.
In her opinion, digital devices in ECE “offer no benefits for children at best and are damaging at worse”.
Devices are also limited by the fact they can only stimulate two of the senses – sight and sound – “and over-stimulate them at that”. “Children want to experience and learn through all their senses, as we see in Playcentre when they eat the sand or the slime, smear it up their arms and mix up potions from the garden to be sniffed and observed,” she says.
Keryn O’Neill, senior researcher at Brainwave Trust Aotearoa, agrees that children don’t need devices in the early years for brain development and learning.
“Technology is changing, but what children need hasn’t changed,” she says. “Unstructured free play, real everyday experiences, interacting with adults, talking and playing with other children, that’s how children learn best.”
One of the main downsides of children spending too much time on devices is that they miss out on valuable time spent doing these things, says O’Neill. “Young children, in particular, need interaction with another human being, not a screen.”
Amount of time matters
But before you beat yourself up about handing your three-year-old your iPad for 15 minutes while you make a phone call, O’Neill says there’s a big difference between this kind of use and children spending a few hours a day in front of a screen. “Like most things in child development, the amount of time matters.”
Time spent in physical activity can also be compromised if too much time is spent in front of a screen, reports a 2016 University of Auckland study, which suggests ECE services could be doing more to monitor screen use and encourage children to be active.
PhD student Sarah Gerritsen found that children watched television ‘daily’ in two per cent of the centres she surveyed, and ‘weekly’ in 11 per cent, and used computers every day in 11 per cent and weekly in 22 per cent. Only 35 per cent of the centres had a written physical activity policy, and no centres had policies addressing screen use.
An advocate for the use of technology in education, primary school teacher Anna Tollestrup believes technology can play “a huge role” in enhancing learning and engaging children, particularly boys.
She says digital learning isn’t just about putting a device in front of a child and pushing the on button. “There are hours spent behind the scenes searching for the right technology for the desired outcome.”
Anna believes engaging children with technology in the early years of primary school helps prepare them for a fast-paced online world.
“Not only do we teach the fundamental skills … but coding, robotics and film making, the process of making something move. We do that from [the age of] five because it is fun, engaging and a necessary skill in tomorrow’s future-focused classrooms.”
However, Charlotte disagrees that children need to be exposed to digital technology at an early age to become proficient users. Using her 17-year-old sister and her friends as examples, she says, “They’re insanely technologically savvy and yet they were definitely not exposed to [devices] in ECE or primary.
“The use of devices will always come easily; it’s not like acquiring a second language where exposure from birth is the easiest way to learn.”