As we approach the year 2000, teachers are at an important crossroads regarding the role computers will play in young children's lives. Two events support the importance of establishing a clear vision about the future of technology in young children's lives. In 1994, President Clinton signed the Goals 2000 Educate America Act (PL 103-227). It established eight educational goals and directed the Secretary of Education, in cooperation with other agencies, to develop a long-range plan to encourage the use of technology to improve teaching and learning. In 1996, NAEYC adopted a Position Statement on Technology and Young Children: Ages Three to Eight. This document, published in the September 1996 issue of Young Children, states, "Early childhood educators have a responsibility to critically examine the impact of technology on children and be prepared to use technology to benefit children" (NAEYC, 1996, p. 11). The position statement emphasizes the importance of teachers using computers in developmentally appropriate ways. If computers are going to be used in early childhood classrooms, it is important that they be used in developmentally appropriate ways.
Computers are a learning resource and should meet the same high standards of all the equipment, materials, and resources we provide young children. To use computers in developmentally appropriate ways, five components emerge as important: computer placement, software selection, teacher interaction, supporting activities, and teacher training/support.
Before the children enter the classroom, teachers make an important decision regarding how computers will be used in their classroom. Computer placement has a dramatic impact on when and even if children will use the computer. Research (Haugland, 1989) has shown that when computers are sectioned off with dividers and placed in a quiet, isolated location, children do not experience the developmental gains they do when computers are integrated into the classroom. Furthermore, the computer is used less often and the classroom tends to consist of two groups of children: users and non-users. Children seem to view the computers as intimidating, different, or special, rather than one of the many resources they can use to learn about the world.
What is the best placement for computers in the classroom? Select a central location and arrange the computers so the monitors can be seen by the children from diverse points throughout the classroom. Position the computers and then move to various centers and check at a child's height to ensure the monitors are visible from most of the classroom. Computer accessibility is important for several reasons. First, children can easily determine when the computer is available. Second, children can interact with those who are using the computer, even though they are involved in other activities. This interaction encourages children to learn from each other, provides opportunities for peer teaching, and supports language development. Research has shown that children value peer interaction while using computers and that the social effects are "overwhelmingly positive" (Rhee & Bharnagri, 1991; Bergin, Ford, & Hess, 1993; and Clements, 1994). Research has also shown that computers provide valuable support to young children's language development (Clements, 1994). Thus, when computers are placed in a central location, they support both social interaction and children's language development. In addition, it is much more likely that computer activities will become integrated into the overall curriculum and that teachers will reap the full benefits of including computers in their classroom.
The most important decision a teacher makes regarding computers is software selection. The software children use determines to a large degree whether computer experiences are developmentally appropriate. When children use developmentally appropriate software, research has shown the learning outcomes are significantly different than when children use non-developmental software.
Haugland (1992) assessed the effect of developmental and nondevelopmental software on children's cognition, creativity, and self-esteem. Three classrooms of four-year-old children were exposed to computers for one hour, three days weekly, during self-selected activity time. In a fourth classroom, children received no computer exposure. Of the three classrooms exposed to computers, one classroom was exposed to nondevelopmental software (drill and practice), another to developmental software, and the third to developmental software reinforced with supplemental activities. Children were assessed using the Behavioral Academic Self-Esteem, the Detroit Test of Learning Aptitude, Pre-Primary, and the Multidimensional Stimulus Frequency Measure.
All the classes with computer exposure had significantly greater gains in self-esteem. Children using nondevelopmental software showed significant losses in creativity; their scores dropped 50 percent. This was not true of children with no computer exposure or of those using developmental software. Clearly, nondevelopmental software has a detrimental effect on children's creative abilities. This should be of concern to anyone using drill and practice software with young children.
Those children exposed to developmental software had significant gains in intelligence, non-verbal skills, structural knowledge, long-term memory, and complex manual dexterity. Clearly, in these classrooms the type of software young children used had a dramatic effect on their development.
The Haugland Developmental Scale is a tool for identifying developmentally appropriate software. Software is evaluated using ten criteria. These include: age appropriateness; the ability of the child to remain in control; the clarity of the instructions; increasing difficulty levels; the ability for the child to work independently; non-violent content; the process orientation of the program; whether the program models the real world; technical features; and transformations. An anti-bias deduction is calculated to ensure that software reflects the diversity of our society. Software scoring 7.0 or above is considered developmentally appropriate. Currently, about 160 programs have been identified as being developmentally appropriate for young children. Unfortunately, this represents only about 20 percent of the software currently being marketed for use by young children (Haugland & Wright, 1997).
How can teachers or early childhood professionals determine which software is developmentally appropriate? There are four options. First, they can evaluate software using the Haugland Developmental Scale. To administer this scale, it is important to review the descriptions for each criterion and follow the Guidelines for Internal Consistency described in Young Children and Technology: A World of Discovery (Haugland & Wright, 1997).
Second, teachers can select software from the 150 developmentally appropriate software programs described in the same text. Descriptions include publishers, developmental ratings, cost, available platforms, recommended ages, a software overview, and the program's strengths and weaknesses. A content index enables teachers to identify software to meet specific learning objectives.
A third option is to use software which is awarded the Developmental Software Award. This award is presented yearly to the best software for children ages 3-8 and 7-12 in the following categories: creativity, language, math and science, multicultural, multipurpose, problem solving, and thematic focus. The awards are presented at the Annual Conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children and reviewed in the Early Childhood Education Journal.
A fourth option is to use the software reviews on the Children and Technology: A World of Discovery home page. Located on the World Wide Web, the site features three developmental software programs monthly. The address for the site is http://economics.semo.edu/kidscomp. Whatever options teachers select, it is important to ensure that software available to young children is developmentally appropriate.
Adults play an essential role when computers are used successfully with young children. The first step is introducing children to the computers in their classroom. Providing children with computer direction ensures that all children will have positive beginning computer experiences. Some children will approach the computers eagerly, ready to explore. They may have had previous computer experience at home, or they may just feel confident and excited about this new resource. Other children will be much more hesitant or even intimidated by this big new machine in their classroom. Without direction and support, these children may never approach the computer. Thus it is important that everyone has beginning direction to ensure that children later make an informed decision about whether they want to use the computer for learning.
Initial computer instruction can occur either in small groups or individually. Children should be encouraged to use the computer, but never forced. When working in small groups, make certain that all children have "hands-on" opportunities during the training sessions. An aide or parent volunteer may be recruited to provide this initial training. While this training will initially take time, the benefits will become apparent throughout the school year: Children will need less assistance later and most of the children will be using the computer on a regular basis as a useful tool.
Expect that initially more children will want to use the computer than time allows. Research supports this "novelty effect" (Lipinski et al., 1986). Be assured that the effect is similar to any time teachers bring a new and exciting resource into the classroom, whether it be a computer, a carpentry bench, or a theater stage.
It is important for the teacher to have a prearranged plan for who will get training and when. Throughout the year, a system for taking turns is also important. A sign-in sheet to indicate when children want computer time is an effective tool. Children sign up for a time to use the computer and then select another activity. When a computer is available, they are called. This enables children to avoid spending their time waiting, and prevents them from hurrying children who are already using the computer. And if they become engrossed in another activity, they can have the option to wait until later or even until the following day to use the computer.
After initial training, individual differences and age will dictate how much help children will need at the computer. Three-year-olds will need more assistance than older children. (I suggest three years as the youngest age children should use computers in the classroom, because of factors such as attention span, motor skills, and other developmental needs of two-year-olds.)
In addition, as children explore the computer, you will find some to be more process-oriented and others more product-oriented. Process-oriented children are quick to try alternatives, do not get easily frustrated, and will usually experiment until they master their goal. Usually a simple suggestion ("Have you thought of...") or a question ("What would happen if...?") is all the child needs to proceed.
Product-oriented children usually have a goal in mind. They are much quicker to seek help and appreciate more modeling of how a program operates. Whether children are process- or product-oriented, teachers need to provide guidance, helping a child learn how to make a program function rather than doing it for the child. With guidance, children build competence.
A utility program is a tremendous asset to the classroom, reducing the amount of assistance children need to access software. Using a program such as Kid Desk (from Edmark), the teacher installs all the software available to the classroom. When children turn on the computer, Kid Desk displays icons of their software choices. This means children do not have to navigate any management files and also that they cannot access adult files.
Remember that computer assistance does not always need to come from adults. Peers can provide valuable assistance to each other. When children help each other learn, they also build important social skills.
Activities in the classroom provide important support to computer experiences. In the Haugland (1992) research, only when supplemental activities were available to reinforce the major objectives of software did children show significant gains in conceptual skills, verbal skills, problem solving, and abstraction. The supplemental activities in this study were manipulative, art, and language activities.
Teachers can use two avenues to ensure that activities support children's computer experiences. First, they can incorporate into their lesson plans a couple of activities every day that support the computer software. A wide variety of activities are possible. For example, a flannel board of the weather reinforces Sammy's Science House (from Edmark); dramatic play props including airplanes, a ticket counter, and brochures, reinforce Let's Explore the Airport With Buzzy (from Humongous); and marbles, spinners, and dice reinforce Math Keys: Unlocking Probability (from The Learning Company). It is important that throughout the year diverse activities support the software available at the computer.
The other approach is selecting software which complements or reinforces the theme or web that is used as a curriculum focus for planning. The teacher (probably using a content guide) selects software that integrates with the content already planned for the classroom. For example, a winter animals theme or web is reinforced with Alaskan Trek (from Soleil Software, Inc.), while Blocks in Motion (from Don Johnson) is selected to complement a unit on shapes.
When using this approach, teachers will want to include a drawing and word processing program (or one program that combines both) to be available throughout the year. Also, it is important that software continues to be available after the curriculum unit is completed. Children will undoubtedly want to return to their favorites, and will need time to explore and build competence with the software. Generally, programs need to be available for at least a couple of months.
Don't be concerned if all the curriculum units don't have matching software. What is important is that generally software is reinforced through the curriculum units in the classroom.
Teacher Training and Support
For teachers to use computers effectively with young children, access to training is very important (NAEYC, 1996). While many computer veterans have taught themselves through trial and error what works with young children and computers, this can be very time consuming and frustrating.
Workshops, seminars, and on-site training are all important. Teachers can make training most effective by asking questions and honestly sharing their feelings and experiences. Everyone using computers with young children has learned from others and continues to discover daily what works and what does not work with young children.
Networking with other teachers and early childhood professionals may provide valuable support (Haugland and Wright, 1997). Teachers often share common concerns and questions. Their experiences can provide valuable insights to using computers successfully with young children. The home page (http://economics.semo.edu/kidscomp) has two networking options: teacher talk and dialogue with the authors. Teacher talk gives teachers an opportunity to share their discoveries, ideas, and feelings. Dialogue with the authors provides an opportunity to ask questions and have them answered by professionals in the field.
Experiences with computers, like all the other materials, equipment, and resources we provide young children, need to be developmentally appropriate. When computer experiences match children's developmental needs, they provide a valuable, unique learning resource. Developmentally appropriate software provides children a world they are eager to manipulate, experiment with, and discover. As teachers integrate computers into their classrooms, they begin a journey with children, exploring together how children learn and discover the world.
Dr. Susan Haugland is a professor in the Department of Human Environmental Studies at Southern Missouri State University.
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lements, D.H. (1994). The uniqueness of the computer as a learning tool: Insights from research and practice. In Young children: Active learners in a technological age. Eds. J.L. Wright and D.D. Shade, 43-44. Washington, DC: NAEYC.
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