Can Technology Be a Teaching Tool for Toddlers, Preschoolers?

February 28, 2013
Sarah Jackson
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES Digital Citizenship, Digital Literacy, Parents and Families

Early childhood education is getting some well-deserved attention in political circles this month after President Obama called for making “high-quality preschool available to every single child in America” in his State of the Union address.

Whether or not his plan becomes a reality, learning in the early years is vitally important, and we get lots of questions from parents and educators about whether digital media should be a part of that learning.

Parents and early childhood educators are often skeptical of using media tools with kids as young as age 2.

Preschool teachers worry that these tools take time away from the hands-on experiential learning, or time with adult caregivers that we know is the primary way kids of this age learn and grow.

Parents say they need the short breaks media provides so they can make dinner or a phone call.  But they want to make sure their toddlers don’t spend so much time plugged in that they miss out on backyard dirt-digging or fingerpainting.

There’s been an explosion of apps targeted to the preschool set, but parents are wondering: Can these new apps really be considered learning tools?  Which apps will exercise kids’ creative muscles? Can iPads help prepare them for kindergarten?

There are obviously no simple answers, and we’re grateful to have experts like those at the Fred Rogers Center to help us give advice to parents and teachers about developmentally appropriate media use.

Michael Robb, the center’s director of education and research, says healthy, age-appropriate use of media and technology, even with the youngest children, is possible.  It all depends on content and context.

Robb and his colleagues are building on Fred Rogers’ pioneering legacy and his belief in the positive potential of media to support the healthy social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development of young children.

They’ve developed the Early Learning Environment (Ele), an online space where adults can find high-quality digital resources
to support early literacy and other learning and development for children from birth to age 5.

Teachers and parents can browse free materials from around the web, including videos, games, ebooks, music, and other interactive tools from national organizations in early childhood development and early literacy.

The challenge for parents and teachers, Robb says, “is to select the videos, games, and devices that have a real, positive developmental impact—and use them in ways that promote growth.”

He offers these practical tips:

  • Keep it interactive. The way a digital tool is used is as important as the tool itself; adult-child interaction should be emphasized. Rather than putting on a television show or handing over your smartphone and walking away, create a dialogue. Sit and discuss what you are seeing, ask questions, encourage imaginative ways to explore similar subjects in the outside world.
  • Match use with age. Children’s needs change as they develop. Any media use with infants and toddlers should be an interactive experience with adults, such as reading an ebook together; older preschool children may enjoy exploring a touch screen or using video to record and view their play.
  • Have fun, stay engaged. Children’s media and technology are best when they support active, hands-on, creative, and authentic engagement with the people and world around them. Look for games, websites, and apps that encourage outdoor activity, healthy eating, critical thinking, and other real-world skills.
  • Promote digital literacy. By modeling appropriate use of digital media, adults can help children learn to use the wealth of tools at their disposal in smart, healthy ways that complement their growth and give them greater access to the opportunities of the digital age.

Our learning ratings are also designed to help parents and educators make informed decisions about the educational value of new technologies. Our trained team of experts rates and reviews the latest apps, games, and websites using research-based criteria. Parent and teachers can search for games, apps, and websites by title or category to see which ones are appropriate by age group. We also give details on the subjects and skills your child can learn by playing it, as well as its overall learning potential. Start searching here.


Ashley  Poidomani
Classroom teacher

The NAEYC Technology Positional Statement along with Fred Rogers Center are two wonderful resources for educators and teachers. I viewed both resources to gather information on using technology in a classroom. As a preschool teacher I introduced an app in the classroom last week. The children worked in pairs, which allowed for the children to interact with one another. The children worked together with their partner when “playing” the game. I enjoyed observing the children work with one another and succeeding in the game. I used a checklist to assess the children while they were “playing” the game. All of the children worked nicely with their partner and helped one another. I found the app to be a great addition to the classroom environment. The app provided the children the opportunity to practice letter recognition skills, counting, logical thinking, and problem solving skills. IPADS and apps are great addition however should be limited and never replace the teacher.