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preschool computers
Jessica Green and her daughter, Ceriyanna Green-Ross, explore an educational app together during a Tech Goes Home early childhood course in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Credit: Photo by Kelly McCarthy

BOSTON — The library in Boston’s Haynes Early Education Center is a bright, cheery space filled with well-stocked bookcases, tables ringed by small wooden chairs, art supplies, cushions for story time and dozens of laminated vocabulary words strung below an oversized paper alphabet. But one of the most important learning tools here is a small gray box lit by a blinking green LED, perched well above kid-height on a yellow wall by the door. It’s the Wi-Fi transponder that brings broadband Internet to the fingertips of about 175 small children — preschool through first-grade, mostly from low-income African American and Hispanic families.

Just a few years ago, preschools and kindergartens were largely no-go zones for technology — holdouts against the rising digital tide in our lives. But the absolutist resistance has been crumbling with surprising speed. Increasingly, parents and educators debate how, not if, we should mix technology and our youngest learners. The question is especially pressing in rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods like the one the Haynes serves, in which kids are less likely to have access to computers and broadband Internet at home.

Now, a new program at the Haynes and a handful of other centers teaches computer basics to parents and preschoolers together, enabling the parents to explore educational apps and computer-literacy skills alongside their children.

“The goal,” said Jamie Dunne-Duarte, the Haynes’s librarian, “is to help the parent get comfortable with the technology, so they can get involved and engage with their child’s use of the computer, to see it as a learning tool, instead of a pacifier or a babysitter.”

In one study, from 2012 to 2014, the number of preschool teachers with tablet computers in their classrooms nearly doubled — from 29 percent to 55 percent.

The initiative was launched in 2014 by Tech Goes Home (TGH), part of the nonprofit Open Air Boston, which works to expand Internet access in the city’s low-income neighborhoods. TGH trains teachers and administrators at local schools to lead the classes, in which parents are encouraged to ask their kids questions about what they’re doing and learning as they work on the computers. The goal is to bring technology to the pre-K crowd and help bridge the digital divide. In both efforts, parents are key.

Not All Screens Are Created Equal

On a recent afternoon, half a dozen parents sat at the red-topped tables of the Haynes’s library munching on popcorn, sipping bottled water and cradling new iPad minis as they perused educational apps vetted by the nonprofit Common Sense Media and shared online educational resources they’d researched themselves. The shouts of their children playing outside on the school’s jungle gym filtered in through the open windows. Then, halfway through the two-hour class, the library doors burst open and the kids rushed in, bee-lining to their parents’ devices.

The scene that unfolded would be familiar to any parent who has surrendered a smartphone or tablet to a young child and watched as tiny fingers swipe and tap with reckless abandon and surprisingly quick mastery. There’s an addictive quality to it that makes some parents uncomfortable, feeding the traditional resistance to giving young kids access to technology even as computer skills become increasingly essential in school and beyond.

preschool computers
Preschoolers explore educational apps at the Tech Goes Home early childhood course at the Haynes Early Education Center in Boston. Credit: Photo by Jamie Dunne-Duarte

Indeed, while some early childhood advocacy groups maintain that “screen time” has little to offer young kids besides shorter attention spans and a heightened obesity risk, several other experts have tweaked their media exposure recommendations for kids in recent years.

For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has long stipulated that children under two should be totally screen-free. In 2013, however, for older children, it softened its recommended limit of two hours of screen time per day by specifying that the limit pertained only to “entertainment screen time.”

“The goal is to help the parent get comfortable with the technology, so they can get involved and engage with their child’s use of the computer, to see it as a learning tool, instead of a pacifier or a babysitter.”

In May, at an education conference in Washington, D.C., Ellen Wartella, a Northwestern University professor who studies the effects of media on children, discussed a recent survey she led of about 1,000 preschool teachers, in a sampling that included schools serving a range of socioeconomic levels. It was a follow-up to a similar survey from two years earlier, and while the full results won’t be released until later this summer, Wartella revealed that from 2012 to 2014, the number of preschool teachers with tablet computers in their classrooms nearly doubled — from 29 percent to 55 percent. More than half of the teachers with tablets said they used the computers to help teach students, while three quarters of them said they used them for administrative tasks, such as emailing parents.

Related: An ‘enormous’ increase in classroom technology for the littlest learners

“There’s definitely a change going on,” Wartella added in a follow-up interview. “But there isn’t consensus on how to use these technologies in preschools, with young children, in developmentally appropriate ways.”

preschool computers
Soraya Harley’s four-year-old grandson, Anthony (foreground), traces letters on an iPad during a Tech Goes Home early childhood course in Boston. Credit: Photo by Jamie Dunne-Duarte

The notion of good versus bad screen time for young kids is central to TGH’s efforts.

“We don’t want to add screen time to a child’s day; we want to replace passive screen time with something that’s hopefully more effective,” said Theodora Higginson, co-director of TGH, which has enrolled nearly 100 families in its early childhood program. While headquartered in Boston, TGH operates in several cities, and the early childhood course is also being piloted in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Litchfield, Connecticut.

“We thought technology was a good tool for helping parents engage with their kids. It’s something fun and very specific that parents and kids could do together.”

After 15 hours of class spread over several weeks, parents get to keep the iPad they’ve used with their children for $50 (paid upfront as a registration fee). The nonprofit also helps parents find low-cost broadband for their homes, via the discounts for lower-income families that most carriers provide.

The apps TGH recommends cover everything from art to science, but the trainers say the parent-child interactions are just as important as the educational content itself.

“A big part of the class is role-modeling how parents can ask questions while their children use the computers,” said Dunne-Duarte. “You don’t just sit back and watch them. You get involved.”

As the kids at the Haynes explored the apps, their parents asked questions like, What are we about to do? What other words start with that sound? How did you even out the seesaw? What words do you think we’ll see when we click this letter H? and What should we try next?

The role of parents is key, because despite the recent proliferation of computers in preschools, parents can’t yet count on early childhood centers to take the lead with educational technology. “There aren’t enough curated software packages that can be easily adopted into a preschool curriculum,” Wartella said. “And early childhood teachers get very little professional development on using technology.”

Related: Can some video games get kids to play (and learn) outside more rather than less?

In 2012, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media distinguished between good and bad screen time in a joint position paper on the use of “Technology and Interactive Media as Tools” for kids under eight.

“Young children … are growing up at ease with digital devices that are rapidly becoming the tools of the culture at home, at school, at work, and in the community,” the 12-page statement acknowledged in an introduction. “With guidance, these various technology tools can be harnessed for learning and development; without guidance, usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

Sixteen specific principles followed, many of them stressing the benefits of interactivity, both between kids and computers and among kids, classmates and adult caregivers as they use the technology. In fact, research touting the benefits of “co-viewing” dates to the 1970s, when studies found that kids whose parents watched “Sesame Street with them learned more from it. Similar benefits have been found when students work on computer programs in groups rather than alone.

“There aren’t enough curated software packages that can be easily adopted into a preschool curriculum. And early childhood teachers get very little professional development on using technology.”

The co-viewing theory has been updated for the digital age to “joint media engagement” by education researchers with Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE), a multi-institutional learning center funded by the National Science Foundation. The main idea is that kids get a learning boost, both socially and academically, when parents engage with them, whether that’s exploring an iPad app, co-viewing “Dora the Explorer” or reading a book. However, in their 2011 report on joint media engagement, co-authored by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, the LIFE researchers noted that instead of promoting this social engagement, most educational software is designed “as if all users are isolated individuals.”

That’s still the case, even among the apps recommended by TGH, according to Eileen Peña, who is taking the TGH class at the Haynes with her five-year-old daughter, Aryana. “It’s our initiative. There’s usually nothing in the apps to prompt parental participation,” she said. “For most of them, I like to do a little bit extra with my daughter. I like to challenge her.”

Recent research suggests that kids growing up in low-income homes, especially those headed by single parents, receive fewer of these sorts of parental interactions than do their more affluent peers. For instance, among the materials that TGH asks teachers to read before leading an early childhood course is an article about the “word gap” between rich and poor children, whereby kids in the poorest families hear (and therefore learn) far fewer words from their caregivers during their first few years of life, possibly affecting the pace of brain development and literacy.

“We didn’t look at the technology as an end in and of itself,” said Deb Socia, a former executive director of TGH who oversaw the launch of their early childhood program. “We thought technology was a good tool for helping parents engage with their kids. It’s something fun and very specific that parents and kids could do together.”

Growing the Parental Computer Comfort Zone

While most parents are perfectly at ease conversing with their kids while reading an old-fashioned book, they may not feel as comfortable interacting with their children on a computer if they don’t have much experience with technology themselves.

“Myself, I’m not that computer smart,” said Soraya Harley, who took the TGH course at the Haynes with her four-year-old grandson, Anthony, for whom she’s the legal guardian. “Getting on these websites. This email. A lot of this stuff is kind of hard when you didn’t grow up in the computer age.”

Some of the TGH families have broadband at home and multiple computing devices, but many don’t. The digital divide between rich and poor in America is stubborn. According to a 2013 report by the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of households earning at least $75,000 had high-speed Internet at home, compared to 52 percent of households earning $30,000 or less. Broadband connectivity in the neighborhoods where TGH Chattanooga operates hovers around 20 percent, according to program manager Kelly McCarthy.

Related: Poor students often lack a home Internet connection. Is this FCC program a solution?

A 2013 study by Common Sense Media found that kids from affluent families are nearly twice as likely as their low-income peers to have played educational video games and software. At the same time, kids in lower-income households view more TV, including “background television” that’s not necessarily geared to kids or even being watched by anyone. Research has linked background television exposure to diminished verbal interactions between parents and children, along with kids’ shorter attention spans.

Slow adoption of computer technology is only partly due to money. Two years ago, for example, when an education foundation in Chattanooga prepared to launch a one-to-one device initiative in city schools, many parents resisted.

According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013 only 52 percent of households earning $30,000 or less had high-speed Internet at home, compared to 91 percent of households earning at least $75,000.

“The kids would go home with a Chromebook or an iPad,” McCarthy recalled, “and some parents would say, ‘I don’t know the first thing about that. I’m not comfortable with it. I can’t help you when you do work on it, and I’m not even sure it’s safe.’”

According to TGH surveys, about half of the adults who don’t go online say they “don’t think the Internet is relevant to them.”

To remedy that, a portion of the TGH early childhood program is focused squarely on the parents and the computer resources that they can use at home or on the job.

“We’ll look at tools for resume-writing, Google docs or budgeting tools like,” said Dunne-Duarte. “We want to gear the class so it’s beneficial to both parent and child.”

For the 2015-16 school year, Higginson hopes to enroll 100 more families in TGH early childhood courses. Partly because the first school to pilot the TGH early childhood program has since shut its doors for good, TGH staffers do not yet have much data on the impact of the course. They do have data on the course for older students on which it was modeled. About 70 percent of the parents who took that course said it was their first time participating in an activity at their child’s school, and 95 percent of them said they planned to participate more in the future. About 60 percent of the families had Internet at home when they enrolled in the course, while 90 percent had access thereafter. In follow-up surveys a year later, nearly two thirds of parents reported that their kids used their computers every day, and 85 percent of them used them to do their homework.

Some benefits are harder to quantify, notes Peña, who already had decent access to technology at home and at work before taking the course. She’s since devoted the TGH iPad entirely to educational apps, which her daughter, Aryana has mastered during library time at the Haynes.

“We’ll sit down and play with it together,” she said. “I ask her questions. And she’ll say, ‘Ok, mommy, this is what you do. You do this, you do this and you do this.’ I’m actually learning from her.”

This story was written for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Blended Learning.

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