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Thousands of parents are enrolling their children in online preschool

November 3, 2017
Jackie Mader
The Hechinger Report

JACKSON, Miss. — LeMya Vaughn, wearing a pink shirt, her hair braided neatly, sat in a large red armchair, her feet swinging far above the floor, practicing her reading skills. She leaned in toward her laptop and looked at a sentence that read, “Bake me a cake.” The word “bake” was in red. The rest of the words were in white.

“Click on a colored word,” said a cheerful voice from the computer. LeMya’s mother, Lakesha Vaughn, sat close by watching as her daughter considered which word to click on. “Find a word that has color,” Vaughn reminded her gently. LeMya thought for a moment and moved the mouse to click on the word “bake.”

“Very good!” her mother said. An animated baker danced on the screen, as the song “patty-cake” blared from the speakers. LeMya smiled.

Research has found that quality early learning experiences are critical for children. In particular, students who attend high-quality center-based preschool are more likely to graduate from high school and are less likely to be held back.

But experts worry putting small children in front of the computer for hours each week is a bad idea. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5. And kids sitting quietly, clicking on a mouse is the opposite of what preschool should be about, say many experts.

Though it may seem more economical, experts caution that online learning is no replacement for high-quality preschool.

NIEER’s Shannon Riley-Ayers said online programs can increase “narrow skills,” like knowing the alphabet, being able to count, and recognizing colors, “quickly and very easily” through repetition. But when it comes to more complex skills and non-academic concepts, like self-regulation, oral language, and self-awareness, they fall short.

Narrow skills are “such a small slice in terms of what they need … and the many, many skills that we want our young learners to have,” Riley-Ayers said. “I don’t think [online preschool] could ever replace a high-quality early childhood brick-and-mortar type of place.”