It’s a tempting thought: Put a toddler in front of a computer or video with the right program and they’ll quickly acquire skills like reading, writing and early math.

The thought is so alluring that parents often ask early education teachers what the best apps are, said Lisa Guernsey, speaking at the national seminar of the Education Writer’s Association in Nashville this week.

Photo by Jennifer Dev

Photo by Jennifer Dev

The next question gets asked just as often, said Guernsey, whose book Screen Time, looks at ways electronic media affect young children.

“Is screen time bad?”

Concerns about how much time toddlers and other little learners – dubbed The Touch-Screen Generation in a recent Atlantic article -should engage with screens is becoming more of an obsession in a high tech world.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time at all for kids under two, yet Guernsey has advocated a more nuanced view. She’s also come up with guidelines based on what a scant – but growing – body of research is finding. Guernsey calls her guidelines the three C’s — for media consumption: content, context, and your child; they come with a series of questions that can be tailored to each child.

With all its bells, whistles, apps and toys, technology also creates anxiety for both parents and educators, and research is going to have to follow the charge ahead.

For example, I am particularly interested in evidence that the use of technology in a pre-school class is helpful with kindergarten readiness, a huge issue for states that don’t have publicly funded pre-kindergarten, places where children come to school not knowing letters or numbers.

My question comes at a time when states like Louisiana are imposing academic standards for preschool education, and as the state education department there is giving $265,000 for technology to 29 parishes participating in a pilot program.

The program will allow teachers to track development milestones on a computer for children up to age 4, notes Sarah Tan.

Nonetheless, it’s not clear if the schools – or the teachers – are ready, Tan notes in her piece for The Hechinger Report and The Times Picayune.

“We are so far behind in training preschool teachers on the science of how kids learn that parents are coming to asking them questions about what apps they should download…and they don’t know,’’ Guernsey said.

Guernsey is a big fan of reminding parents that technology can’t possibly replace other interactions that both teachers and parents might have with children. She is also aware that there isn’t always a choice of screen time vs. play time in households where parents are stressed and may not have access to quality child care.

“It’s fair to ask, are they missing a chance to finger paint on the back porch with their loving mommy by their side or something else?’’ Guernsey said.

And just like toys and other equipment, even the most educational of apps need some introduction. “You can’t just put out blocks and expect it will be a good learning experience,’’ Guernsey said. “None of this will just happen by osmosis.’’

As for the question of avoiding screen time, Guernsey makes it clear that “not all screen interactions are created equal. What happens when it [screen time] means talking with Grandma? What happens when a teacher is next to a child?

Georgene Troseth, an associate professor of psychology at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development, said the role of parents and caregivers guiding children in the use of technology and what they are seeing and experiencing can’t be underestimated – especially when very young learners have no way of discerning what is real – and which images are believable.

Her own research shows that videos can be useful learning tools, but that youngsters “will learn a lot more if you are there helping them, like you would with a book.”

Not surprisingly, some of her suggestions for using technology don’t sound that much different than what happens with a parent or caregiver sits reading with a child on their lap – asking questions about the story.

[Cross-posted at Hechinger Report]

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Liz Willen is editor of The Hechinger Report and director of The Hechinger Institute.