Technology and Early Learning: Part TwoBuilding Blocks for a Nourishing Digital Diet

The more I think about it, the more I love the analogy of a “diet” when considering children’s digital media consumption. Just as calories from the most wholesome foods nourish and strengthen our bodies, the right mix of high quality, engaging digital content can nurture intellectual growth and spark curiosity.

So what does a balanced digital diet for young children look like? And how do we assess the appropriateness, quantity and quality of digital channels and tools - from games and apps to eBooks - especially when there are so many choices on the menu?

Some media - for example pedagogically sound, research-based education apps - are naturally more nourishing than others. And just like food, not all digital content should be consumed at the same rate. Increasingly, specialists from pediatricians to educators are providing essential information and guiding principles to inform our choices about digital content consumption for children.

Regardless of a diet’s particular nature—whether a protein-light Mediterranean Diet or the protein-dense Atkins Diet—nutritionists generally draw upon the five basic food groups to ensure balance. In the same way, I find it helpful to organize digital content for kids into five “building blocks,” each one providing a different learning experience or outcome.

1) Educational Media

This includes digital tools designed to support a specific learning path or engage children in a particular curriculum. Educational media also helps children acquire knowledge and practice skills in order to gain mastery, and inspire further exploration of concepts or topics. Keep in mind that if digital media claims to have educational value, it should be backed by vetted research so take some time to research the media’s development. Great examples are Curious George and the Firefighters  (Ages 4+, eBook) and Endless Alphabet  (Ages 5 and under, App).

2) Practice and Skill Development Tools

These are really a subset of Educational Media (with all the same benefits described above), but because many parents and teachers are interested in tools that support specific skill development, they are worth considering separately. Today, there are a wide variety of digital tools for kids of all ages and abilities, that target individual skills and needs, whether spelling, hand-eye coordination or vocabulary. I’d recommend apps like Slice Fraction  (Ages 6-8, App) and Cursive Writing Wizard  (Ages 6-8, App).

3) Creative Media

This building block provides dynamic, interactive experiences around music, art, videos, architecture and more. Of course, technology is not a replacement for the hands-on knowledge that children gain from painting, building, making and playing music. However, the digital arena gives children opportunities to stretch themselves in a fun environment and save iterations of their creations digitally. Get your child’s creative juices flowing with tools like Minecraft (Ages 8+, Web, Desktop, Tablet) and Toca Band (Ages 5 and under, App).

4) Entertainment Media

The proverb “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” is as true for young children as it is for adults.  Entertainment can stimulate the imagination and provide inspiration for a child’s hopes and dreams, ultimately supporting learning goals. Playful stories, apps and games introduce children to adventure, the drama of human interaction, relationships, conflict resolution, and often, areas of life that can capture a child’s interest for a lifetime, providing great fulfillment. Have some fun with LEGO’s The Hobbit (Ages 8+, Video Game Consoles) or Little Red Riding Hood (Ages 6-8, eBook).

5) Data Collection Tools

This building block is for teachers, parents or any adult working with young children. Data collection apps and programs allow us to collect data so that, as caregivers, we can ascertain areas where a child needs extra support and where they are excelling. With this information, caregivers can rearrange the other building blocks to create a nourishing digital diet that is personal, balanced and flexible. For example, HMH’s own Curiosityville helps teachers and parents keep track of kids’ progress and they play in the program’s interactive environment.

Innovative digital tools have great potential, but like many tools, they are complex. We need to think carefully about how, when and why we are using them to enhance our children’s learning and growth. By considering which building blocks meet your goals, you will find it easier to balance options and choose tools for your individual child’s age, interests and needs.

And it’s worth noting that each building block is often better suited to certain forms of media. For example, games (which may be available via an app or in other forms) may provide better opportunities for cognitive skill development, while a nature video may be the perfect choice to get your child thinking about the environment.  Apps are flexible, mobile, and interactive, providing families with resources that are engaging and accessible at a moment’s notice, while both eBooks and videos offer caregivers opportunities to share the digital experience by reading aloud together or co-viewing content.

To help evaluate specific digital tools, Claudia Haines (author, librarian and media mentor for young people) has created a fantastic rubric to help you understand the power and impact of every digital tool. The following sites also offer quality recommendations for eBooks, apps, videos and games, along with recommendations on how to ensure that screen time is also a valuable shared experience with your child.

And don’t forget to consult your local librarians! They can be a bridge between the best of the digital world and your family. With these resources and some menu planning, you’ll be sure to provide your child with a healthy, balanced digital diet.

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Susan Magsamen is the Senior Vice President of Early Learning at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, a member of the Educational Advisory Board for the Goddard School, senior advisor to The Science of Learning Institute and Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.