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How young is too young? Mobile technologies and young children August 21, 2011

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Early Childhood Education, Engaging Learning Environments.
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 from Dr Joanne Orlando

Joanne Orlando examines the potential and disadvantages of young children engaging with mobile technologies as learning devices, concluding that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

What’s the latest trend parents are using to toilet train their young child? Letting them use your iPad while on the potty. That is, as long as he or she delivers the goods!

The introduction of iPads, mobile phones, tablets and laptops has seen children use new technology at a younger age than ever before. These mobile devices are perfectly matched to the lifestyle of a young child. They don’t need to sit still at a table or desk to use the device, they don’t need to negotiate a mouse and, the colours and movement they offer, at a mere touch, are irresistible. However, will these tech gizmos help the learning of young children, whether it be in basic hygiene tasks such as toilet training, teaching them to read, or being socially adept? Or, will it in fact hurt them?

Research shows that toddlers, pre-schoolers, even babies are embracing mobile devices. Latest figures show that 60% of children aged six months to two years (as well as 1 in 10 babies under 6 months) play with laptops, computers, mobiles and tablets. A study undertaken across Australia, New Zealand, United States, United Kingdom and Europe found that more two to five years olds are able to play games on a computer than tie their shoelaces or ride a bike. What’s more, a new Android-powered tablet aimed at babies from newborn to four years of age is in the final stages of production. The tablet is designed to promote interactive learning with various apps, including games, story books and music videos. Amazon has started taking pre-orders for the device. It seems newborns have more interesting things to do than just eating, sleeping and crying.

However, there continues to be a hot debate around very young children using this technology. I was in a café the other day and I saw a parent with her two children aged one and four. Each child was playing with their iPad while the mum had her coffee. Many of us in the café gave a lot of attention to this scene. Would it have stood out so much if the children were carrying drawing paper or picture books? Is that better for a child than learning to paint using an iPad app? On their way out, the one year old was placed back in her pram and continued to swipe and tap away while being pushed by mum.

Are we being sucked in to the rhetoric that these new innovations are actually good for children’s learning? A lot of hope has been placed in the ways technology can help children learn at school. The Australian government has spent millions in the last two years alone on technology in schools. Should we wait until a child is five or 6 years of age or older to be introduced to technology? It’s an important question to ask.

Children are very capable learners. They learn to talk, walk, read, sing, tap dance, play soccer, all before they have reached their third or fourth birthday! Their capacity for learning is equally outstanding when it comes to mobile technologies. They often know their way around their parent’s mobile better than their parent. I have a friend whose pre-schooler keeps figuring out the passcode lock to their smartphone.

If we think of young children in terms of their capacity to learn quickly and easily, the learning potential of mobile technologies is evident. There are hundreds of Apple and Android apps designed to develop young children’s literacy and numeracy. Children can match numbers, play with tangrams, play games based on their favourite story book, and engage with and even develop new stories of their own with the help of their parent. These apps offer immediate interactive responses, which is really exciting for both play and education.

Many worry that these devices will take over learning the basics. There are lots of ways to learn the alphabet, in fact the best way to learn the basics is to learn them in different ways. An effective ‘learning’ combination could be using pen and paper, playing board games, using different sized and coloured fonts to write on a laptop, looking at and talking about writing around the community, and reading an interactive story on the iPad. This combination allows them to learn in ways which take the best from the modern world. One might think learning the old-fashioned way is better, however technology provides learning opportunities that traditional ways of learning can’t provide. Moreover, technology is a significant feature of our contemporary life. Feeling competent and confident in using technology is a new basic that children now also need to learn.

The most damaging use of mobile devices is when they are used solely as a digital babysitter. Some parents are tapping into young children’s enthusiasm for these devices as a way of managing children’s behaviour. Research shows that iPhones and iPads are becoming the most popular pacifiers on the toy market. Giving a child your mobile every time you want them to be quiet can be as detrimental to a child’s development as giving them a lolly each time. Consistently demanding children disengage with the people they are with and the world around them and, if adults expect them to be quiet all the time, limits their opportunity to learn how to be confident people who can fully engage in our society. It teaches them that they are not important. They may be having fun using their iPad, but the message is subliminal.

Mobile technologies are a new and exciting means for young children to learn with. They are part of contemporary life and the lives of today’s young child. The real issue is not whether to use mobile devices, but rather, how we can engender a love of learning in children, helping them to learn knowledge useful in our current society and spending quality time with those who care about them.

Joanne Orlando is a Lecturer in early childhood education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She has a particular interest in 21st century learning technologies and their applications in formal and non-formal education. This article was also reprinted in the Sydney Morning Herald August 23rd edition under a different title.


1. Briz on Technology in the Classroom « mikebrizzi - November 30, 2011

[…] I’m not a professional on the subject. Not even close. In fact halfway between writing this blog I am tempted to change my argument because there is so much material available to support either side of the argument. If you’re looking for a fairly neutral article about the subject, Check out the article by Dr. Joanne Orlando :https://learning21c.wordpress.com/2011/08/21/how-young-is-too-young-mobile-technologies-and-young-chi… […]

2. How young is too young? Mobile technologies and young children | Portable Life | Scoop.it - March 20, 2013

[…] Dr. Joanne Orlando examines the potential and disadvantages of young children engaging with mobile technologies as learning devices, concluding that the positives far outweigh the negatives.  […]

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