Moving away from passive use of technology by young children podcast

Moving away from passive use of technology by young children [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we welcome Gail Lovely, Independent Early Learning Specialist. Gail joins us to discuss how to move children away from passive technology use and focus on the wiser uses of tech – interactive and collaborative. This is a social undertaking, not a solitary one.

Gail began her career in early education and has continued in this area for more than 40 years. She believes that young children are magical beings and that getting them off to a good start is incredibly impactful throughout their lives. Technologies can play a role in their development if used in creative, active learning opportunities.

Gail used a robot in the first classroom she ever worked in and found it provided a common language, goal and brought everyone together. It is not about the technology, it is about the learners. Helping adults provide the best learning experiences they can for children is something Gail is passionate about and technology is part of this as an equalizer.

Not too long ago, no one believed that young children could use technology. Now we see children using technology almost everywhere. When using technology in an early years classroom, directly address concerns in advance. Assure parents it does not promote antisocial behavior. You can’t live on isolated technology use, it is a tool for connection.

When we think about technology, we have to think beyond idle, passive uses to active uses such as animal size research, photo sharing, collaborative games, etc. It is a window of access for children to see things that are real as opposed to illustrations or clip art. It also provides tools that are difficult to provide in any other way such as language translation.

One of the saddest things I ever saw was a child watching videos on a phone at Disney World. What if we flipped that and the child was taking their own photos or videos? They won’t be great, but they won’t care. They can see the memory through that photo, it does not have to be perfect. We can engage them in the moment doing this simple thing and then revisit that experience.

Gail Lovely

When children hear themselves talking or singing, they become encouraged to write what they said and capture it for themselves. Digital photos and videos are very powerful if we remember to go back to them as a learning experience for children.

Gail’s recommended resources

Podcast episode transcript

Gail LOVELY:

You have a very different conversation because they get to stop and reflect. They’re not in the business of building. They have a moment to stop and look and have those conversations. And that doesn’t require a lot of tech and it doesn’t require a lot of tech expertize. But we can have that now.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Gail, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

LOVELY:

Thank you, Ron!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We are delighted to have with us today Gail Lovely. She is an independent early learning specialist. We’re going to chat with her about technology use in the classroom with young children, something that many of us are aware of, have talked about, have had conversations about. Maybe you are using technology in the classroom. Looking forward to chatting with Gail about that today. Gail, before we do that, let’s learn a little bit about you and how you began using technology with young learners.

LOVELY:

Thanks, Ron. Well, I began using technology with young learners almost 40 years ago. I was quite an odd duck in an early part of educational technology. I was teaching in an inner-city Los Angeles school. If you do your math, this is in the 1980s. And my classroom size was 37 children. And it was a challenge, language-wise, as well as in sheer numbers.

And in kind of ignorance and need to solve a problem, I found myself acquiring a robot that would move on the floor. And even though it was technically difficult, it gave us a common language so that all of my six- and seven-year-olds were working very hard to learn the language of the robot. And that really brought us all together with a common language and a common goal.

And it changed everything. It changed the classroom climate; it changed the kind of act of learning we were doing; and it changed my life, as well. It was a challenge but I think I really learned that it’s not about the technology. It’s about the children and the learners and what we are doing, not so much what the tech was doing. So that was kind of the basis of how I got started.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Very cool. I was wondering where you were going with that, in terms of technology in the eighties. There wasn’t that much digital technology going on then. Very cool. And what are you up to now? So, you had this early experience, which sounded like it was a formative one for you how. How have you taken that and expanded on it over the years in your work?

LOVELY:

Well, so having no training to do that, I did go back to school and got a master’s in educational computing from Pepperdine University in their first class, which was 1984. But what that led me to was really my life work, which is I really think that what I’m about is helping adults provide the very best learning experiences they can that are playful and meaningful. And technology is the root of that because it’s both an equalizer, but also a lifter of ideas and thoughts and everyone can contribute.

And so that was kind of where I got started. I worked in classrooms and schools and county offices and nonprofits and education companies. But I’ve always returned back to educators and what we can do together and how I can help them through webinars or conferences. Or I do some tech summits, ask consultants, everything I can to help us adults get past our kind of assumptions about technology and use it to the best that we can.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, let’s touch on that: assumptions about technology. What are some of the assumptions that you hear or feel are common among educators and teachers?

LOVELY:

Well, in the beginning of my work, nobody believed that young children could even use technology. Now, we’ve kind of gotten to the other end of the spectrum, where, through the pandemic and through other things, we see little children using technology almost everywhere. And so I think that that’s part of that change.

I think some of the assumptions around that are there are some positive things and some negative things. And some of that comes from our adult lens. We see adults who are sitting at the dinner table in a restaurant and they’re all on their phones. And we think, “Well, where’s the society in that? Where’s the social part of that?” And we make assumptions about that’s what will happen with children.

Or some feel like they bring their work home because they bring their technology home and they never can get away with it. And so we make assumptions about home use and school use with little ones, as well. So, I think that there’s some lessons to be paid attention to. Some things are accurate and some things are not. Some things that can be solved, some things are things we’re still going to work on.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yes, it sounds like almost a key part is just not trying to avoid the generalizations that might exist. And that’s so fascinating, your point that it’s almost done a complete flip from the early days of your career where folks didn’t think children could even use technology, to the complete opposite now, which just goes to show you in a lifetime how much things can change.

And here we are today, 2022. And we have certain assumptions about technology and young children’s use of technology. What are some of the, I guess, points of consulting and advice that you share with folks in your network about using technology in the early years with younger children?

LOVELY:

I think that it’s really important to kind of directly address some of the concerns. Some of the concerns are that if children are using tech, then it’s an anti-social behavior. And that’s an assumption made by behavior by adults. I had the pleasure of working with a school recently – well, a couple of years ago, right before COVID – where every three-year-old in the preschool had their own iPad. And some people were like, “That’s a horrible idea, isolating the children.”

And what really happened was, the iPad was just a tool that they were using in groups. Even though they each had their own, they would sit together and talk and play and do things and then set the iPad aside when they didn’t want to use it. And it became very much more normal to use it only when it was something they wanted to do or needed to do, as opposed to being really attached to it.

It’s kind of like when we as adults model good, balanced tech behaviors, then children learn from what we do. I sometimes use the analogy of candy: you give your children candy, they’re happy. But are they healthy? And it’s the same kind of thing with technology, that you can’t live on a diet of candy and you can’t live on isolated technologies, either.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s an interesting way to describe it, as a tool for achieving other things like socialization or connecting with other children in the class. And one of the things you mentioned earlier, which I thought was interesting, you used the word “equalizer”. Can you talk a little bit about what you meant by that?

LOVELY:

Sure. I think that when we think about technology, we can think about it not just as idle watching a video or passive uses, but more active uses and bringing things in. So, for example, I was working with some five-year-olds and they were really fascinated with animals, as lots of five-year-olds are.

And when we started, as I started chatting with them, I realized that many of them had no size comparison for animals because they’d only seen them in books or on their parents phone, or they had never seen it in a live video or in a setting where they could imagine how big an elephant is, as an example. And that that by bringing in the real world and showing them people and elephants or elephants next to a car or whatever, bringing that in from simple online sources opened up their world to so many things.

As a child growing up in Southern California, I didn’t see trees change color. And I really struggled as a kid to try to understand what they were talking about. And yet every year in the fall, there would be this unit where we talked about fall. And the trees weren’t changing where I lived, it didn’t happen. So, I think that it’s that kind of window to things that really gives access to children to see things that are real, as opposed to only clip art and illustrations which are powerful, but to also see the real world. So, that’s kind of one of those equalizers.

The other thing it does is it can provide tools that are difficult to provide in any other way. A school I worked at was a school that was working to save the Cherokee language. And so the children there had technology through a big grant. And they actually eventually harnessed the wisdom of their elders in the area to do voiceovers for student-created books and for adult-created books in Cherokee. Because there’s not a single book on transportation – “This is a track, this is a steamroller,” whatever, that was in Cherokee. So, it gave them access to that, the same kind of book another child would have in another place, but in the language they were working with. Does that help?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, it’s actually super interesting, especially this last example about the Cherokee language. It’s almost like the dichotomy of something that you think of as being the opposite of innovation and technology with an indigenous language. But we’re leveraging technology and the positive benefits of that to support with that. And that’s really cool. And it’s a great kind of way to bring it back to the assumptions point, too, where if we are living by those assumptions and applying them generally to technology, we’re missing out on lots of great opportunities like the ones you’ve described here as examples.

LOVELY:

And it doesn’t, Ron, have to be a big leap. So, almost every teacher of young children, as children draw pictures or paint pictures and then tell them about it or describe it or share it in some way. And most of that happens in the classroom in real time. But it’s only one step more to make that a class book that has the same crayon-drawn or tempera-painted pictures and the children’s voices talking about it.

Because then we get this chance to go back and kind of use it as a time machine and go back and the children get to go back and hear what they said about their painting or their picture, or they get to hear what their friend says about them and have conversations. It’s a uniter, not a divider when we use it in that sort of way. But that’s not a big leap from what teachers are already doing. It doesn’t have to be throwing out the things we know and love.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and what I like about a lot of the things you’re talking about with technology, as well, is you’re using a lot of the same principles that folks who are very close to early literacy use with books, which is it’s about what your relationship with books and with reading is so important. Do you think of yourself as a reader?

And similarly, you’re applying some concepts here with technology, which is, as a young learner, how do you think about technology? Do you think about it as a tool? Do you see it as a tool that’s helping you connect with people, learn about the world? Or as a device that you sit behind and watch YouTube for 3 hours in a row? Like, those are two very different perspectives on the same thing.

LOVELY:

And I’m a realist. I know that every parent – I’ll talk as a parent – has those times where it’s like, “I’ll do anything to get 20 minutes to cook dinner,” or to whatever, “and I’m going to give my child my phone or whatever tech tool I have, a TV, and let them be passive participants, sit and watch.” It’s the most expensive pacifier ever invented and it’s powerful and it works.

I mean, the saddest thing I ever saw, one of the saddest things I ever saw at Disney World, were kids in strollers watching YouTube videos instead of interacting at all with Disney World. And here’s how we can enhance that: What if the child, instead of watching YouTube videos, was taking videos or photographs? Now, they won’t be great photographs of little ones. They don’t care. Research is very clear: if they have a blurry picture of their birthday party that they took, they can tell you, they can see the party through that blurred picture. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

And so we can engage them in the things they already are doing with very simple, little things. And then the magic is – and we don’t do this very well as adults – is to go back and revisit that experience through those images or videos. My phone is full of photographs and every once in a while I’ll go back and look at them. But they’re trapped in my phone and I admit it. But we can have that. Those conversations are really powerful.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, in that resonates I think with our audience of early-childhood educators, too, because that process of revisiting learning experiences with young children is known to be very effective in their development.

LOVELY:

Well, John Dewey said something – and I’ll butcher this quote, I’m sure – about we don’t learn by doing, but we learn by reflecting on doing. And that when we show a child their block structure in an image an hour later, 5 minutes later or two days later, you have a very different conversation because they get to stop and reflect. They’re not in the business of building. They have a moment to stop and look and have those conversations. And that doesn’t require a lot of tech and it doesn’t require a lot of tech expertize, but we can have that now.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s one of our favorite activities with our kids, too, actually, because sometimes they they’ll see the iPad or something. They’ll say, “Hey, can I watch a show?” And we’ll say, “No, but we can look at pictures together.” And we do that and they love it and we love it, too. It’s so great.

LOVELY:

And it’s an incredible tool for vocabulary building because we can give them more words to describe what was going on or how they were feeling, or even just what’s in the picture, who’s in the picture. And those are practically free tools. You don’t even have to print them out. We just do it that way. And I think that that’s really important.

The other part of that is that using the audio recording features of most technology, children hearing their own voices improves their interest in both making their language clearer, but also writing it down. There’s some really interesting early research that’s not published yet, but I have access to, that talked about when children can hear themselves speaking or singing, then they are more likely to want to also write that or draw it.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Oh, that’s interesting. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard that.

LOVELY:

Yeah, it’s not released research yet, so I can’t tell you citations. But I think if you think about it, it kind of makes sense. If they want to capture it, the devices captured it, but they want to capture it for themselves.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And I would say that’s something we underutilized, too. I know me and my partner are always saying, “We need to take more videos,” because it captures so much more of the experience, including the audio. Because I know one of our favorite videos is of our youngest singing a song. And it’s just, like, the cutest, most amazing video ever.

LOVELY:

And while you love it, I bet your youngest also does.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Totally, yeah. I know our oldest two, there’s a video of the two of them playing and joking. And it’s his favorite video. He’ll watch it a hundred times in a row.

LOVELY:

And because children are self-centered – they all stretch from who they are – we can harness that. I was working with the kindergarten class and she had a device for each table of children. She had round tables with, I think, five children. And she would just say, “This week we’re going to be learning about pride and what are we proud of.” And every table had an iPad. And for that whole week, whenever they saw something that they were proud of or they saw something someone else should be proud of, they took pictures.

And then and near the end of the week, she just pulled those iPads together and put them up on a screen. And they got to talk about, what was the proud moment there, what was going on? And it didn’t take much prep. She was teaching those kinds of social-emotional learning things, those kinds of self-monitoring things. And all she did was bring the iPad because, during the day, there’s not time to stop. Classrooms are very busy places. But the children have time to pick up an iPad and take a picture. So, there you go. It’s that time machine again, I guess.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, and you said exactly what I was going to say. I just think that’s such a great example where there’s so much to that learning and that experience. And the iPad was just one little part of it. It was the tool that enabled all that great learning for that exercise. Very cool.

LOVELY:

Yeah, and it could be an old cell phone that doesn’t have cell service. It could be any digital tool because it’s just easy for children. Most children don’t know how to use a real camera, but a lot of them know how to use a digital camera that’s in a device. So, it doesn’t have to be expensive. Because I think we have to be aware that technology is not free. So, we need to leverage it, but we also need to make good choices about what technology and when can we use low-tech to achieve the same accomplishment, if we can.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, good point. And inequality exists and some children may not have access to the same technology as others, certainly. Gail, is there a certain technology or innovation for young children that’s kind of newer to the market or something you’ve seen that you think is pretty cool or could be used with young children, in some of the ways we’re describing here today?

LOVELY:

Well, it’s probably pretty clear from what we talked about, I think digital photography and digital videography is probably an easy entry point and really powerful, if you remember to go back to it. As far as other technologies, I am a huge fan of robots for little ones. Not necessarily because that’s where I started, because where I started was really hard. But there are some robots that are just push-button on the back, so they’re very direct. You push the arrow pointing forward and the Bee-bot moves forward – Bee-bot is one of the most well-known of those robots.

But that kind of procedural thinking and having to be a little bit systemic in your thinking, as opposed to just the first thing you think of or the random next step, is pretty powerful and is accessible. I mean, with even three-year-olds, there’s no screen involved. The computer’s just built into the robot. And lots of mathematical thinking and language, as well, from having conversations about where do we want it to go and which way. So directionality, which of course impacts language and math and everything else. I really do love some of the really robust but simple robots that are available for this age group.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Love it. Okay, in addition to robots, what are other resources, from a professional development perspective, that folks can check out to learn about this subject or other things related to early learning?

LOVELY:

So, I have a few sources that I use that I think… I have a website, I can say that there’s a few things there, which is www.SuddenlyItClicks.com. But I belong to an organization called ISTE, which is the International Society of Technology in Education. And it’s worldwide and it provides a lot of resources and information. They have some standards for children and teachers and school administrators, as well. And they have local affiliates and groups all around the world. So, that’s a good resource.

I happen to like Edutopia, at www.Edutopia.org. They have many resources about education, not just about technology. But I think that they’re pretty down-to-earth. And it’s not too, dare I say, “university-like”. It’s readable and understandable.

And then there are two experts that I always learn from that I go to frequently, both on the phone because I know one of them very well, but also online. So, there’s Ann Gadzikowski, she has a website, www.AnnGadzikowski.com. And the other expert that I really rely on and learn from is Dr. Marina Bers. She is professor out of Tufts and the inventor of ScratchJr and Scratch and some robots. And [she] is really smart about research and thinking behind technology and its effect on young people and their growth and development. She’s amazing.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Wonderful. And what about yourself, Gail? If folks want to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, where can they go?

LOVELY:

My website is www.SuddenlyItClicks.com. I’m on Twitter at @GLovely. So, those are easy ways and I always respond.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Alright, www.SuddenlyItClicks.com or @GLovely on social. So great to meet with you, Gail. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences on technology and young learners!

LOVELY:

Thank you, Ron!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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