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Does Interaction with Devices Count as Hands-on Learning?

17 Mar 2016 by Vicki Kintner-Duffy

I confess.

I let my daughter watch TV. This is my 2-year old glued to (part of) an episode of Mr. Rogers (or as she calls him, Ra-Ra).


I know about the research. Children learn best from free play with creative and/or natural materials and through interactions with adults. Too much screen time can lead to poor sleep, poor learning performance, poor social skills, and poor health outcomes for children (and adults too). The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children before age 2, and no more than 1-2 hours a day for older children.

Nevertheless, teachers and children are inundated with technology. Children are immediately drawn to technology and often have access to smart phones and tablets. Teachers use apps for planning, assessment, and professional development. Websites, apps, videos, and TV programs are created specifically to engage children and teach them various social and academic skills. Education standards include phrases such as “technology literacy” and “21st century skills.” 

It is easy to get confused about how technology fits in a child’s life and within the classroom. What programs support children’s learning? How do we know what are appropriate limits for children? Does interaction with devices count as hands-on learning? How can we intentionally plan for effective “tech” moments?

I think Jane Brody with the NY Times said it best: “Technology is a poor substitute for personal interaction”. To me, this means that technology in and of itself is not evil and some interaction with devices (within developmentally appropriate limits) can be fun, engaging, and even meaningful for children**. However, it is not a substitute for actual teacher-child interaction. In fact, experts on children’s media maintain that children learn little from interacting with devices on their own, but can gain content and skills when an adult participates with them.

So what does all of this mean for teachers?

  • It is okay to include some screen time in the classroom. It is also okay not to include any screen time in the classroom.
  • If you do include screen time in the classroom, think about it in the same way you do other materials. Rather than turn in on for the child and then move onto another center, find time to sit with the child and talk about what is happening. Think about ways to include those CLASS Instructional Support dimensions with problem-solving questions, feedback loops, and parallel talk.
  • Find ways to extend the children’s learning with technology into other areas of the classroom. (Ex: If the children play a game about insects on the computer, plan an insect hunt outside on the playground, dig for insects at the sand table, or draw some insects in art center.)
  • Use the computer as a research tool. If you and the children don’t know the answer to a question, use a mix of books and websites to gain information on the topic. Involve the children in planning how to research, document, and evaluate this learning.
  • Take a look at the daily schedule and rethink how much time the children are spending with screens. Is it too much? How might you set more appropriate limits?

For some other ideas on how to make children’s media use more meaningful, check out these resources from Zero to Three and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What about your classroom? How do you ensure that effective interactions are included with technology use?

**Of course, some adaptive technologies and devices are necessary for children with special needs and may not be subject to the same limitations as other technology use. 


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