Powering on tablets, swiping screens, and navigating apps are skills most 5-year-olds now possess. In fact, many have navigated screens of one kind or another for years by the time they enter my kindergarten classroom. Pretending to text and Snapchat with classroom items is now commonplace. This shouldn't be surprising, since kids mimic the world around them -- a world now filled with technology. But as educators of young kids, it's important to ask ourselves: What kind of screen time is appropriate for our students, and how much is healthy?
Many have heard the startling news about the number of hours kids spend with screens each day. Last year, Common Sense Media released survey results showing that kids under the age of 8 consume nearly two hours of media daily. Each of those 120 minutes spent sitting is one minute a kid isn't exercising. Add to that the questionable social and emotional impact of some shows and video games, as well as findings that kids tend to consume less healthy food while watching TV, and that time can have a disproportionately negative impact on a kid's mental and physical health.
In the classroom, time spent with a device -- no matter how educational -- decreases student access to social interaction and play. Play is an essential way young kids learn lifelong skills like cooperation, empathy, problem-solving, and creativity. Screen time, for all its entertainment and educational allure, can easily take the place of other critical learning opportunities.
Technology and the screens that deliver it are here to stay, and that's not so bad when you consider how much good it can bring when used thoughtfully. We want our students to understand and feel comfortable with the best ways to use information, which requires the same direct instruction and practice as any worthwhile skill. It's up to us to ensure our students have the skills and habits necessary to succeed in an ever-changing future.
Here are my three recommendations for a balanced and thoughtful approach to learning media for preschool and early elementary educators:
Be mindful of the media you make available.
The number of video games and apps designed to keep our eyes fixed to a screen as long as possible (Flappy Bird, anyone?) are too numerous to list, but the number of high-quality, educational, and pro-social programs are growing all the time. Do a little bit of homework to help you decide which movie to stream or which app to download. Watching that movie or playing those new apps with kids is important to encourage an appetite for healthy media. Explain to kids the skills they're practicing while playing a game with them, then ask them to explain what they're learning to you or a partner.
Set ground rules for your students.
Keep in mind that many students will likely have TV or iPad time once they get home from school. Set screen time limits in the classroom and keep a specific schedule each day for tech use. In my classroom, I have a set time each day for screens. One of my five centers each morning involves working with a partner on an iPad. Do the students want more than 15 to 20 minutes with Endless Alphabet or Adding Apples? Of course they do! In fact, for the first month of school, kids ask daily if the iPads can come out during choice time. I reinforce that although the iPads are a fun way to learn, we have many other ways to learn, such as reading books and even playing with friends.
Be a media-use role model. (And help parents do the same.)
Much like the acquisition of language, appropriate screen use is learned in large part by watching adults. It's difficult to imagine kids developing restraint with their DS if the adults in their lives have a hard time keeping their phones in their pockets whenever a free moment presents itself (something I must consciously resist). In the classroom, it's important to talk with students about when, and how much, screen time is appropriate. Subtle reminders at back-to-school night or via a "teaching tips" section of a weekly newsletter are a good way to encourage parents to model healthy screen time use at home.