Child’s Play: Should Preschoolers Engage with Technology or Good-Old Fashioned Fun?

Topic: Child Development, Play, technology

As Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole in children’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, she grabs at a jar of orange marmalade and, having no place to put it when she is done, watches it fall. With the touch of a fingertip, a child reading pulls the jar of orange marmalade back to the top of the page and lets it plummet back down again. The child can also dangle the white rabbit’s pocket watch, stretch Alice taller when she partakes from the bottle labeled “Drink Me,” and so on. This is the Alice app for Apple’s iPad tablet, hailed as a new kind of pop-up book for young readers, that enables children to manipulate images to encourage interactive reading. It’s only one of countless apps designed for children, including numerous ones that appear to have the preschool-age audience in mind.

Apps for smart phones and tablets are just the latest digital media to offer up entertainment for children. They compete for screen time with television, the Internet, and computer and video games. And there is no shortage of technology-based toys, including pretend cell phones and laptops for infants and toddlers and even functioning digital cameras for preschoolers.

But is all this technology appropriate for the youngest children?

Organizations that study the effects of technology on children are hard-pressed to keep on top of the rapid updates that occur on a seemingly daily basis. Some are finding the need to re-evaluate previous positions on the subject. For instance, earlier this year, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media posted a draft revision of the NAEYC position statement, Technology and Young Children—Ages 3 to 8, which has not been updated since 1996. After reviewing public comments on the draft, the two organizations will update the position statement, re-name it Technology in Early Childhood Programs Serving Children from Birth through Age 8, and release it in the fall of 2011.

As it is currently drafted, the new statement begins by affirming that digital media and technology can be viewed as “learning tools that, when used in intentional and developmentally appropriate ways and in conjunction with other traditional tools and materials, can support the development and learning of young children.” This is not a surprising conclusion, especially noting how frequently digital media tools mimic typical childhood activities. For instance, children can turn the pages of a picture book on an e-reader, use a stylus to color and draw on a tablet, and play electronic versions of card and board games on smart phones.

(It should be noted that the two organizations view only interactive digital tools in this manner—more rigid and static media, such as television, does not hold any potential in their opinion. Low-quality day care centers, recently found in a study to be placing children in front of TV screens on average four times per month, should be put on notice.)

NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center’s position statement goes on to provide guidelines for selecting and using appropriate technology-based and digital media applications for classroom use. The two organizations are not alone in promoting digital media literacy – among others, PBS provides suggestions for teachers on how to use a variety of technology-based tools in pre-K through high school classrooms. And it’s not just teachers that are being encouraged to engage with children as they interact with technology and digital media. Organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, and even the television station WETA encourage parents to make television viewing and video game playing into interactive family events; to talk to and ask questions about what children watch and play with; and to play alongside children with mobile apps to facilitate learning and communication.

These suggestions seem to acknowledge that technology is a pervasive fact of modern life; indeed ABC News last month reported on a study indicating that 75 percent of mothers allow their children to play with smart phones. And, the news program noted, schools are purchasing tablets for children in kindergarten.

Some, however, are not convinced that there is any benefit to allowing children to play with technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend that children age 2 and under have no screen time at all and older children be exposed to no more than one or two hours of screen time per day. These recommendations seem valid considering that numerous studies (although generally focusing on non-interactive TV viewing) point to a link between increased screen time and negative consequences including attention deficit, behavioral problems, higher psychological difficulty scores, less physical activity, obesity, irregular sleeping patterns, impaired academic performance, violence, and less time for active and imaginative play.

It is this last point that is of particular concern to early childhood educators when planning classroom activities and dovetails with the question of whether children should engage in play with technology-based tools or be left to their own devices for creative play. As noted above, some technological tools available do appear to be mimicking traditional childhood activities such as coloring, reading, and game-playing so the choice may becoming less of an either-or situation. But in general, technology-based tools tend toward adult-scripted, rule-based activities versus child-directed, unstructured play. And the latter has been found to be incredibly influential in children’s healthy development. Among the benefits of this kind of play are learning self-control and how to plan ahead, becoming problem-solvers, and working out emotional and social issues such as anxiety and sharing.

Indeed, NIEER has long looked at child-directed, imaginative play as a means for young children to learn both intellectually and socially. We are not alone in this approach – the books A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play and A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool: Presenting the Evidence provide anecdotal and research evidence to back up the power of play and its potential in early childhood education classrooms.

Imaginative, creative play was brought to the forefront of the public’s mind this fall with the Ultimate Block Party, an event that stressed the importance of play in a day-long festival of child-friendly activities. Play will also be receiving academic treatment in 2012 when Routledge begins publishing the International Journal of Play, a multidisciplinary effort to examine all aspects of play across the globe.

These are encouraging developments and suggest that some have been heeding the words of psychologist Carl Jung, “Without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of the imagination is incalculable.” Even with a boundless supply of new technological toys for children, we should provide children with plenty of time to explore their own creativity through imaginative, child-directed play for future innovations in technology and beyond.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER


  1. Thank you for this beautifully woven piece that outlines the issues and the history of this controversial issue. However, I am confused about NEEIR’s recommendation.

    Is it that NEEIR believes technology and “good, old-fashioned fun” are mutually exclusive in preschool classrooms? Early Childhood Educators are looking for concrete statements on this topic. Does NEEIR recommend all, nothing, or balance? The statement, “we should provide children with plenty of time to explore their own creativity through imaginative, child-directed play” still seems to leave a lot of time to integrate divergent, creative, and rich play with technology tools.

    As an aside, I respectfully point out that there is a vast difference between technology “toys” and interactive technology tools. iPads, computers, digital cameras, and other interactive media are hardly toys. They are completely different than the toys one would find in a toy store, and they are used for much more than entertainment. If that is not clear in the NAEYC position statement, perhaps it should be clarified in the final version.

    I’m eager to hear NEEIR’s recommendations. Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

  2. I agree wholeheartedly with the above comment. It is clearly down to the technology we use and how we use it. I feel that technology has an important role to play in personalised learning and in particular motivating boys. What is important is that those creating the applications and software have consultation with early education experts and that teachers use technology in creative and innovative ways.

    If you are interested check out my blog post on using technology to motivate boys early literacy.

  3. The title of this piece is perhaps part of the challenge we face… why is it an either-or argument?

    Perhaps books should not be allowed in school or home settings because some children will retreat into books instead of “real world play” becoming “book worms” and this is an adaptation we do not want.

    You see “child-directed, imaginative play as a means for young children to learn both intellectually and socially” does not exclude the use of technologies in that pursuit. Some technologies and technological tools are ripe with these opportunities to play with others whilst exploring imaginative worlds and ideas.

    The role of adults in helping to provide appropriate resources for creative play and social play opportunities is neither diminished nor enhanced with technology. We still are responsible for helping young people make good choices about how they spend their time and attention.

  4. There is very little research base on the effects of technology on young children’s development, particularly newer technological advances such as tablets, smart phones, etc. On the other hand, there is ample evidence that child-directed imaginative play provides social-emotional and academic benefits. While it is highly possibly that technology-based tools, especially those that are highly interactive and focus on educational problem-solving rather than entertainment or electronic drills, can also be beneficial, there is limited research evidence on the long-term benefits or possible detriments for this at the present time. Therefore, NIEER recommends that opportunities for child-directed imaginative play are not sacrificed for the latest technology. That is not to say all technology should be banned from young children’s use; however, it should be used in moderation and vetted for its educational value.

  5. This is very nicely done, Jen.

    Keep up the good work!


    Donald J. Yarosz, Ed.D.
    Research Connections
    National Center for Children in Poverty

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  9. Stephanie Curenton on

    Nice job, Jen. The issue and argument are laid out very nicely!
    Stephanie M. Curenton
    Rutgers University, Bloustein

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  14. First of all, I read with surprise that this piece still refers to the NAEYC/Fred Rogers Position Statement on technology and media use with young children as being in draft form. The final version has been out for several months now ( If NIERR is going to re-post pieces it would be prudent to make sure the information is up to date less it call into question the carefulness given to the content overall. Second, there is a more than 30 year history showing empirically that when young children use technology in guided and developmentally appropriate ways positive outcomes are seen in a variety of areas including literacy, math, creativity, problem-solving and sociability. At the beginning of the use of ‘computers’ in education this was not the case just as it is not the case now with interactive technology. NIEER has a wide voice and does excellent research, so I would send a call to become involved in guiding and leading research initiatives so that we can determine if these effects are the case for newer technologies. Finally, it is important but I feel mostly already understood that there needs to be a balance between technology and other activities in early childhood classrooms just as we know from much of the work on what constitutes a high-quality early childhood program that there must be a balance between open-ended discovery and guided instruction in order to prepare children for formal school for example. There are many people, some of whom have commented here, who work tirelessly to provide support for educators in using best practices around technology and young children. I’ll take the liberty of ending with that I observe many children using technology in early childhood classrooms and inevitably when I ask what they are doing, they tell me they are “playing”.

    • Dr. McManis,

      Thank you for your comment and interest in NIEER and, most importantly, your dedication to improving children’s lives.

      This post is from about a year ago and at that time, the NAEYC position statement was still in draft form.

      As we noted in an earlier comment in this thread, the research base on technology and its effect on young children’s learning and development is limited, particularly for newer technology such as tablets, smart phones, etc. While NIEER would love to become involved in leading or participating in studies on the effectiveness of newer technology, it’s an issue of capacity and already being involved in numerous research studies.

      You make valid points about balance. Again, as noted earlier, NIEER recommends that opportunities for child-directed imaginative play are not sacrificed for the latest technology, but that is not to say all technology should be banned from young children’s use. Instead, it should be used in moderation and vetted for its educational value. This sounds exactly like what you and others who have commented are already doing.

  15. Hi Jen, thanks for the informative article. Is there any way that I could get citations for the claims and data you provide throughout your article? I am citing your source for an English paper and would love to bring credibility to your article. Thanks so much!

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