Many preschoolers and kindergartners born in 2006 have already seen Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart. They have watched daily television programs. They have used handheld devices such as Game Boy and Nintendo players. They have played Dora the Explorer, Leapfrog’s Leapster and Go Diego. Some have also used cell phones.
Although race, ethnicity, and class still account for a “digital divide,” that gap in access to home machines continues to close leaving most toddlers and kindergartners exposed to screen media in ways that no previous generation has been (Early_Media_Exposure–PDF). All before their first day in school.
With so many active, curious preschoolers and kindergartners attending Head Start, middle-class, and upscale private and public schools how does this vast amalgam of different settings respond to these technologically aware (but not always adept) three- to five year-olds?
In the late 1990s, I studied six preschools and five kindergartens that had computers for students. The, “good” preschools came in two packages. The first kind was anchored in the progressive goal of nourishing the personal well-being of each child and the belief that the growth of the “whole child” proceeds through developmental stages. This kind of “good” preschool had a daily program where children came together with the teacher a few times a day but mostly would chose to spend time individually or with a partner elsewhere in a large room with designated areas for playing with blocks, art materials, sand tables, a dress-up corner, reading area, etc. Distinctions between work and play were absent. Examples of such “good” schools were British primary schools in the 1960s, Bank Street College nursery schools (New York City), and the Bing Nursery School at Stanford University.
Another version of a “good” preschool and kindergarten tilted strongly toward the intellectual development and academic preparation for first grade. The goal was to get each child equipped with the knowledge and skills to succeed in school. Such a “good” school had a daily program in which the teacher structured the space and time to provide a mix of direct instruction, small group tasks, and individual work directed toward four and five year-olds acquiring reading, math, writing, and thinking skills. Play activities occurred during a small portion of the day with work tasks dominating the schedule. Examples of such programs were the Englemann-Bereiter preschool in the early 1960s, the Abecedarian project in North Carolina in the 1970s and other schools with scripted procedures and materials for teacher and student to follow.
On this continuum of “good” preschools and kindergartens in 1998-1999, I also documented hybrids of both kinds of schools occupying the middle ground.
What did I find in these eleven preschools and kindergartens with around 250 children after each school had installed at least one through five computers?
In all of these progressive and academic-driven schools including hybrids of both, I found that computers were used sparingly. Children in progressive-type schools including hybrids, chose to use the machines (often equipped with timers) for particular reading and math software and, when the bell sounded, would easily give up the computer to the next in line. In those academically-driven preschools and kindergartens, the computers were loaded with math and reading software aimed at teaching young children reading and math skills. Even here, teachers would direct individual students at the end of their whole group lessons or after they had completed assigned tasks to spend only 20-30 minutes for individual students.
I concluded that in the 11 sites I studied computers had become a “benign addition” to progressive, academic-driven programs, and hybrids. No program I examined had altered its ideology, teaching practices, or activities significantly to accommodate the computer.
That was then. What about now when three- and four year-olds come to preschool and kindergarten from “media saturated” homes with high-tech knowledge and skills that a dozen years ago young children lacked.
I have not formally studied any preschools and kindergartens in the past few years. I have kept up with some of the published literature on school access and use of computers (desktop and hand-held) for young children. The same ideological continuum of progressive to academic preparation still exists with plenty of hybrids hugging the middle except in 2010, there is a decided tilt in more settings toward getting children ready for the first grade.
Access to computers has continued and expanded slightly.There is also a general consensus that young children can and should use computers especially when teachers fully integrate the software into existing lessons. Few teachers, however, as best as I can tell, do create seamless lessons using using computers (See New Jewrsey Abbott preschools snapshot).
It appears, then, that children coming from “media-saturated” homes enter preschools and kindergartens where technology remains a “benign addition.“