Friday, April 10, 2009

How do computers fit into a plan for pre-Kindergarten children?

Another brief paper that I submitted earlier this semester (Spring '09) at George Washington University:

In this week’s studies in usage of technology in pre-Kindergarten settings, we were introduced to a multi-faceted and often confusing discussion (which might be better characterized as “argument” or “controversy”) over the proper role that modern technologies might play in a pre-Kindergarten classroom. I find it necessary, in order to a bit more dispassionately focus on the question at hand, to take up a curriculum-driven approach to usage of educational technologies in this context. This avoids for the moment the passion-inciting question of whether such technologies are healthy or “proper” for usage with 3 and 4 year-old pre-Kindergarten students, and focuses instead on these two questions: (1) What are the prime goals of the average pre-Kindergarten curriculum? and (2) Could the achievement of these goals be assisted by computer technology?

What are the prime goals of the average pre-Kindergarten curriculum?
For starters, the National Institute for Early Education Research [NIEER] offers this consolation to those of us seeking to make sense of widely disparate pre-Kindergarten curricula throughout the U.S.: “Given the multitude of available curriculum models, the confusion regarding which ones are appropriate for 3- and 4-year-olds is understandable” (Frede & Ackerman, 2007). Determined, however, to find a common thread, I looked at the curricula of a couple of Head Start programs as well as the pre-K curriculum of my neighborhood international school (IST, 2008). All the curricula I examined seemed to converge at a point clearly established by the Head Start program in Portland, Oregon: “The goal … is to bring about a greater degree of social competence in children” (Head Start - Portland, 2009). While some pre-K programs go notably further in their curriculum, stipulating that children will “develop beginning reading skills … acquire beginning writing skills,” etc. (Head Start - New Castle County, 2009), the most fundamental focus of all programs seems to be the development of cooperative social behavior.

One thing that is clearly not present in any pre-Kindergarten curriculum that I have examined is a particular focus on “computer skills”. Whereas many K-12 curricula do pointedly include the development of computer skills, such an explicit role for computers within the pre-Kindergarten curriculum is conspicuously absent. This is important to note: K-12 curricula require the usage of computers; pre-Kindergarten curricula do not. This means that the inclusion of computers in pre-K classrooms seems to be decidedly optional from a curricular perspective.

Could the achievement of these goals be assisted by computer technology?
For the sake of brevity, I will presume that an assessment of technologies which aid in development of reading and writing skills will be covered in our upcoming survey of K-12 educational technologies. This allows a focus on the question of whether the purely socialization-oriented goals common to all pre-K programs can be assisted by incorporation of computer technologies.

In summarizing the findings of neuroscientific research, a recent NIEER report concludes that “sensitive interactions with adults do more to promote brain development than any toy, CD, or DVD” (Thompson, 2008). While this certainly favors humans over gadgets in the pre-K classroom, it leaves open the question as to whether gadgets, such as computers, might play an effective supporting role. Fortunately, I found two relatively recent studies (from 2002 and 2003) which focus on computers and socialization of preschoolers.

One study focused on both the peer-to-peer interactions and student-to-teacher interactions around two separate computers, equipped with a variety of age-appropriate educational games, placed for observation side by side in a preschool classroom. One student was placed at each of the two computers, and the main thrust of the study was to see whether this would lead to social isolation or social interaction between the separately-placed students. The researchers give details of some of the numerous peer-to-peer interactions that occurred, many of which fall into the category of “hey look what I’m doing on my computer” type of interactions. Predictably, teachers had to sometimes give assistance to students, and also had to adjudicate arguments between students (Heft & Swaminathan, 2002). In reading through these anecdotal episodes, it occurs to me that these are the kinds of social interactions that take place when any toys are being played with in a preschool classroom; in this case, the toys just happen to be computer-based learning games.

The second socialization-oriented study was set in an inner-city preschool, and looked at the potential for computing technology to have a positive effect in mitigating the disruptive behavior of “at-risk” students, behaviors which included “poor attention to directions, hyperactivity, and aggression”. The researchers studied and compared two groups of young students, with one group working with computerized math games twice a week, and the other group not getting computer access. Their findings showed that the “at-risk” preschool students who found it difficult to sit still in a normal class would be quite attentive throughout a twenty to twenty-five minute session of computer-based math games. Not surprisingly, their performance on math assessments was noticeably better than that of their counterparts who were not given access to computers. However, the researchers noted that the disruptive behaviors of the “at-risk” students resumed seconds after they got back into their normal classroom (Laffey, et al, 2003).

No overarching conclusions can be derived from a cursory look at two studies, but I think it can be said that there is nothing in either study that would suggest that the usage of computers by preschool students would likely provide notable incremental benefits in the socialization of the children, either in peer-to-peer interactions or student-to-teacher interactions. The first study simply showed that computer learning games offer the same opportunities for social interaction and learning that any other “toy” in the classroom offers, and the second study shows that, while disruptive children are temporarily pacified by computer learning games, their behavioral problems are not permanently ameliorated in any identifiable way.


Frede, E. & Ackerman, D. (2007). Preschool Curriculum Decision Making: Dimensions to Consider. Retrieved March 2, 2009 from

Head Start New Castle County [Delaware] (2009). Curriculum. Retrieved, March 1, 2009 from

Head Start Portland [Oregon] Public Schools (2009). Curriculum – Basic Educational Skills as Defined by Head Start. Retrieved, March 1, 2009 from

Heft, T., & Swaminathan, S. (2002, March 1). The Effects of Computers on the Social Behavior of Preschoolers. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 16(2), 162-74. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ654377) Retrieved March 3, 2009, from ERIC database.

International School of Tianjin [IST] (2008). IST Curriculum Handbook. Retrieved, March 2, 2009 from

Laffey, J., Espinosa, L., Moore, J., & Lodree, A. (2003). Supporting Learning and Behavior of At-Risk Young Children: Computers in Urban Education. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 35(4). Retrieved March 3, 2009, from

Thompson, R. (2008). Connecting Neurons, Concepts, and People; Brain Development and its Implications. Retrieved, March 1, 2009 from

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