ED offers guidance on technology use in early learning

The Education Department published a policy brief on technology use in early childhood settings for children up to age 8, in which they recommend that adults set limits for young children’s technology use. They also encouraged “diverse” experiences both digital and traditionally, and to foster in-person interactions.

The Policy Brief on Early Learning and Use of Technology, released in October, provides “guiding principles” for early educators and families on appropriate uses of technology, including watching television, playing digital games, using video chats or apps to communicate, or using digital tools to create content. The brief focuses primarily on advice for children ages 2-8.

Authored by Joan Lee, a ConnectEd fellow, with input from teams at the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the brief is intended to serve as a “call to action” for researchers, technology developers, and state and local leaders to ensure technology is advanced in ways that promote young children’s healthy development and learning, they said.

The brief advises early educators and state and local policymakers to “better understand the importance of connectivity and providing appropriate technology for early learners, [and] the importance of training and supporting early educators to best use technology in early learning settings.”

The brief also informs stakeholders about legal requirements for children with disabilities as defined by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and individuals with disabilities as defined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

As a word of caution, however, the brief stressed that technologies should never displace the role of “unstructured, unplugged, interactive, and creative play that research shows [are] the best way children learn.”


The agency recognized the wide array of options available to caregivers and educators today — apps, digital books, games, and video chatting software, to name a few — and said as new technologies emerge, the following “guiding principles” should apply:

• Technology can be a tool for learning when used appropriately. Integrate technology into the learning program and use in rotation with other learning tools such as art materials, writing materials, play materials, and books. Technology should give kids a chance for self-expression without replacing other classroom learning materials, the brief said.

• Technology should be used to increase access to learning opportunities for all children. Guide and model appropriate technology uses. Use it, for example, to introduce children to cultures and places outside their community, and increase the amount of reference information beyond what’s available in print, the brief recommended.

• Technology may be used to strengthen relationships among parents, families, early educators, and young children. For example, digital portfolios that document student work can be shared with families more often and more informally than is possible in traditional school-based conferences, the brief said. Moreover, technology can be used to connect distant relatives or those in which health prevents them from in-person interactions. Technology should not be used to replace meaningful face-to-face interactions, according to the brief.

• Technology is more effective for learning when adults and peers interact or co-view with young children. “While technology such as tablets and smartphones are designed to be handled and lend themselves to individualized instead of shared experiences,” the paper recommends that adults are involved with children when they are using devices.

The agency recommended educators and parents stay abreast of new research through Common Sense Media, Fred Rogers Center, Joan Ganz Cooney Center, National Association for the Education of Young Children, and Zero to Three, whose work in this field is echoed throughout the policy brief.

Susan Friedman, senior director for strategy and development for the NAEYC, said in an interview that ED’s policy brief “reflects some of the things that are important, and that we highlighted in our [2012] position statement.”

What is unique about ED’s policy brief is its emphasis on “unstructured and structured play,” during which children have exposure to different types of play, including those where teachers are guiding play, play with peers, and independent play, the brief explained.

Unstructured play is important because it helps children process what they are learning every day and develop social skills with peers and adults, it states. When technology is introduced in early settings, however, it could take the place of important social interactions and outdoor activities that are critical for their growth, the brief noted.

Friedman agreed, saying that interpersonal relationships are paramount in early learning, especially as it relates to reading skills, language acquisition, and social-emotional development.

“Some studies [show] that children do not learn language from a screen; children learn language from interactions with adults and children — real-life people,” Friedman said. “I think that teachers need a lot more best-practice examples on using media and technology that supports children’s learning, where they are active learners.”

Learn more about the Future of Ed Tech Early Learning session track at LRP’s National Future of Education Technology Conference

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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