Issues in Digital Technology in Education/Computers in the Early Childhood Classroom
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The Integration of Computers in the Early Childhood Classroom
Early childhood is a time of significant discovery and development in all realms of life. Beginning with their cognitive worlds, and stretching as far as their physical and emotional worlds, children are growing and advancing at an exponential rate. At this age, children begin to increase their communication skills and acquire language rapidly. All of this emergent knowledge is gained through their senses during the exploration of their environment. This is readily evident as “children … are gaining control of their bodies and making things happen in a fascinating world of possibilities” (Haugland, 1999). The design of their learning environments greatly impacts their education. Although development occurs at a different pace for each individual child, the sooner they are exposed to a stimulating learning environment and given the necessary tools to learn, the more successful they will become.
Early Childhood Programs serve as facilitating environments for early learning through many avenues. In addition to the introduction and development of literacy and numeracy skills and a strong emphasis on the molding and honing of fine and gross motor skills, interaction and socialization are also key components to a successful Early Childhood Program. With so much going on in the Early Childhood Classroom, it makes one wonder where computers and computer games fit into this mix.
Over the past few decades we have seen an immense shift in the use of technology, computers in particular. Computers and computer games are ever evolving and simultaneously changing the world we live in. In our current fast-paced culture, computers have inevitably crossed the threshold of business and entered even the classrooms of the youngest children. Our educational landscape has thus become a digital one and children are exposed to computers at an earlier age than ever before. With this tremendous shift, how can computers and computer games be effectively integrated into the classroom? What can educators do to ensure that computers and computer games exert a positive impact and influence on the acquisition of fundamental skills in early education? Which games are best designed to assist children in their learning? Or, on the flipside, should computers be avoided altogether?
Some researchers have argued against the use of computers and computer games for young children claiming that “computers simply do not match their learning style” since children “learn through their bodies: their eyes, ears, mouths, hands, and legs” (Haugland, 1999). Although, there is truth in this statement, it is important “to realize that using computers with young children is a process of exploration and discovery” (Haugland, 1999). Computers should not be relied upon as the sole means of learning for children; they are not meant to replace experiential and hands-on learning. It is crucial for parents and educators alike to implement a balanced use of computers in the lives of young children. Computers and computer games should therefore be used in combination with traditional learning and exploration of the child’s natural and surrounding environment, and they should equally enhance and support their early learning.
In a 1992 study, Haugland uncovered that “three and four-year-old children who use computers with supporting activities that reinforce the major objectives of the programs have significantly greater developmental gains when compared to children without computer experiences in similar classrooms – gains in intelligence…non-verbal skills, structural knowledge, long-term memory, manual dexterity, verbal skills, problem solving, abstraction, and conceptual skills” (Haugland, 1999).
Despite the opinions of the critics, “there is an increasing consensus that computer games should be taken seriously as both learning and assessment tools” (Puttnam, 2006). Children thrive when they are actively engaged in fun and meaningful activities. This is why play occupies a central role in the early learning environment. “Creative play supports the foundation of later lateral thinking and a creative approach to scientific and cultural concepts” (Long-Breipoh, 2004). Learning through play occurs with exposure to activities in the real and natural world. This in turn promotes intellectual development and early mathematical skills.
Similarly, when children play computer games they are provided with genuine experiences for learning. Computers possess the power to “encourage debate, adaptation, analysis, and celebration. Their increasing presence in homes, classrooms, and public cultural institutions is testament to how they have become enmeshed in the fabric of the nation’s cultural identity” (Heppell, 2006). Most early childhood educators would agree that “children three and four years of age are developmentally ready to explore computers and they see the computer center as a valuable activity center for learning” (Haugland, 1999).
According to Papert, “it is not easy to implement a totally new tool for learning. For computers to be used successfully, teachers must be open to learning” (Papert as cited by Haugland, 1999). What then, is the teacher’s role in the implementation and introduction of computers and computer games in early childhood? Teachers play an integral role in provoking interest and increasing student’s computer-based knowledge. This may be new ground for some educators who feel as though they are being forced to rethink or alter their longstanding pedagogies. Nonetheless, teachers are required to reinforce the constructive use of computers and computer games in the early childhood setting. Educators should model and instruct the appropriate use of computers and games, they should monitor a child’s progress, and finally, they should assist students in extracting the most from each game to ensure that there has been a gain in their knowledge and skill. Computer games should not substitute the ability to think critically. It is vital to teach our students critical thinking skills and use the computer for what it essentially is, a tool.
That being said, computer games serve a multitude of purposes in early learning, and are effective in the sense that they are able to “cut across traditional subject boundaries as a practical and useful tool” (Davis & Shade, 1994). Computer games should not serve as a stand-in for traditional learning or experiences in the real world. Computer games in the early childhood classroom need to extend across and integrate various skills such as language, mathematics, and science. “Only when computers are integrated into the curriculum as a vital element for instruction and are applied to real problems for a real purpose, will children gain the most valuable computer skill – the ability to use computers as natural tools for learning” (Davis & Shade, 1994).
“Our students will learn from video games” (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, &Gee, 2004). In order for computer games to be effective, they need to be interactive and engaging. They should be “personally meaningful, experiential, age-appropriate, social, and epistemological all at the same time” (Shaffer et al 2004) Many early childhood computer games use popular-culture icons to prompt interest in their games. This is useful for children, as they are able to connect to the characters and learn through the narrative of the game being played. Computer games for early learners should take into account the variety of learning styles and preferences that exist. Additionally, they should make the players feel like “active agents” (Gee, 2005). Being an active agent means that the child would have control in their learning and in the outcome of events in the games being played.
Computer games are most valuable when they allow children to practice and apply the principles they have already learned in a new and meaningful context. This is readily evident as “they require engagement with complex decisions – exploring the effects of different choices and a multiplicity of variables” (Heppell, 2006).
It is essential that the games being used in the early childhood setting are developmentally appropriate. (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Computer games such as Reader Rabbit and A to Zap rely on the user’s literacy skills to advance from one level to the next, while mathematical programs like Monster Numbers take the user on a numerical journey across themes and concepts covered in the curriculum. Computer games possess the potential to attract even the most reluctant learner since they allow students to take risks while having fun and playing. “Computer games also offer safe situations in which to explore solutions to unique problems” (Heppell, 2006). The feedback and results while playing these games are instant and provide the child with a certain amount of control. Children thrive at games when they can master a challenge by problem solving and then advance to progressively harder skills while having fun. This creates profoundly useful methods and strategies for the internalization of fundamental skills; “video games….create new social and cultural worlds; worlds that help people learn by integrating thinking, social interaction, and technology, all in service of doing things they care about” (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, Gee, 2004).
In summary, education is being transformed. Computers have revolutionized the way that adults and children learn. “Education and games are literally starting to speak the same language” (Heppell, 2006). Computers have made their way into the early childhood classroom and are here to stay. As such, it is vital that children are playing developmentally appropriate games and that these games are being used to support and enhance their regular development. Computer games present more powerful ways to learn in the information and technology age, hence “the next challenge for game and school designers alike is to understand how to shape learning in terms of games, and how to integrate games and game-based learning environments into the predominant arena for learning: school” (Shaffer, Squire, Halverson, Gee, 2004). Ultimately, computer games in early childhood serve the purpose of offering a fun new way to learn. It is the responsibility of the educator in the early childhood classroom to ensure that computer games are being used as tools to contextualize and augment fundamental skills and to supplement and initiate new ways of thinking.
Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (Eds). (1997). Developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood programs. (Revised Edition). Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Davis, B., & Shade, D.(1994). Integrate, don’t isolate! Computers in the early childhood curriculum. ERIC Digest 376991. www.kidsource.com/kidsource/content2/integrate.computers.html
Ellis, H., Heppell, S., Kirriemuir, J., Krotoski, A. & McFarlane, A. (2006). Unlimited learning. Computer and video games in the learning landscape. Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association.
Gee, J. (2005). Learning by design: good video games as learning machines. Learning, 2 (1), 5-16. http://www.wwwords.co.uk/pdf/viewpdf.asp?j=elea&vol=2&issue=1&year=2005&article=2_Gee_ELEA_2_1_web&id=126.96.36.199
Haugland, S. W. (1999). What role should technology play in young children's learning? Young Children, 55(1), pp. 26 – 31.
Long-Breipohl, R. (2004). Computers in early childhood education. A jump start for the future. byronchild/Kindred, 9.
Shaffer, D., Squire, K., Halverson, R., & Gee, J. (2004). Video games and the future of learning. University of Wisconsin-Madison and Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Laboratory. http://www.academiccolab.org/resources/gappspaper1.pdf
Reader Rabbit, The Learning Company, http://www.learningcompany.com/
A to Zap. Sunburst Technology, http://store.sunburst.com/
Monster Numbers, Kaboose, http://funschool.kaboose.com/