Does Virtual Learning Mean We Have No Control Over Screen Use?

The debate over screen use for children has been around since screen use for children became a thing, with few neutral feelings on the issue. People tend to be either fervently pro-technology: “It’s going to be part of their world, so they need to learn about it as early as possible!” Or they’re fervently anti-technology: “Children are experiential learners who acquire information through all of their senses!”

If you’re familiar with my work, you might recognize that last quote as one of mine, which lets you know where I stand on the issue.

I realize my stance isn’t always popular. A couple of colleagues once told me they liked me well enough but not my thinking on tech. I’ve even lost a friend over the issue. She’s written in favor of technology in early childhood; I’ve written in opposition to it. I don’t think the falling out was intentional; we just lost common ground.

I have, in fact, written in opposition of early childhood tech several times, including here and here. It sets my nerves on edge when I see a tweeted photo of kindergarten children “learning about habitats” by sitting in front of a computer screen. It makes me want to weep when I hear a mom speaking matter-of-factly about her three-year-old attending “school” on Zoom from 9 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.

I find it incomprehensible that we have so much research about how children learn, and it’s either unfamiliar to most people or blatantly ignored!

Of course, screen time for children has become as ubiquitous during the pandemic as has snacking for adults. I’m not delusional enough to think we can eliminate all screen use during this unprecedented period in history. I’m even grateful for it! Not just for the ways in which it allows me to continue to make a living and to maintain contact with people outside my four walls; I’m also grateful that it allows children to maintain contact beyond their four walls. We all need community, and right now technology is our primary source for it.

That said, I object to using the pandemic as an excuse for rampant screen time. When I came across a comment on Facebook claiming that we have no choice in the matter because “we have no control over the virus,” I could feel another blog post formulating.

I don’t know whether the comment was written by a teacher or a parent. But I hope neither the majority of teachers nor the majority of parents believe it’s true!

We often hear the sentiment, “There’s always a choice.” In this case, if we understand that children are experiential learners who acquire information through all of their senses, we know that screens and worksheets can’t provide what they truly need. Our choice, then, is to continue to use developmentally inappropriate teaching methods, or to find alternatives.

I realize that, due to the failure of policymakers and administrators to understand child development, or how children really learn, many early childhood educators are currently required to teach online for endless hours. But just as I encourage them to “sneak” movement and active learning into the curriculum when it’s taking place in a classroom, I encourage them, if necessary, to sneak both in when teaching virtually.

Here are some ideas:

  • Since the human brain can only absorb so much new information at a time, if we want optimal learning to occur, we’ll implement frequent brain breaks. Invite the children to get up and take a quick trip around the periphery of their room. Ask them to pretend they’re walking on eggs that they don’t want to break, or to stomp as hard as they can, or to alternate between one and the other. Ask them to pretend to be a giant! Can they walk in a funny shape? All of these experiences address math concepts!
  • Play some music and invite the children to move to it! If you alternate soft and loud volumes, the children will tend to use light and strong movements, respectively. This teaches lessons in both music and math. If you ask them to freeze every time the music stops, they’re acquiring self-regulation skills, as well as engaging in active listening (emergent literacy). Moreover, the physical activity will feed the brain with water, oxygen, and glucose, ensuring the brain will perform more optimally.
  • Assign the children a project that they must do away from the computer. You could perhaps ask them to go find something to display for a virtual Show and Tell, or to construct something on their own that they can later describe to their classmates. (This also helps build community!) Set a timer so they know when to return to the computer but give them enough time to fully engage in the project. Anything less than 30 minutes simply won’t suffice.
  • There’s no reason why artistic endeavors can’t still be part of the curriculum! Set aside 30 to 45 minutes each day for the children to draw, paint, or sculpt clay. If you let parents know how important self-expression – and time away from the computer – are, most will be glad to provide both art materials and space for their use. Those children who want to can then display and describe their creations.
  • Read a story online, but allow the children to stand, move, or act out the story line as you read it. Teachers often worry that such activities will prove distracting in a classroom setting, but that concern is eliminated with virtual teaching!
  • Employ active learning as much as possible. If the goal is to learn vocabulary words, invite the children to demonstrate them with their body or body parts. If learning to count is the objective, invite the children to place a certain number of body parts on the floor. You won’t be able to see if all of them are counting correctly, but you can ask a few of them to tell you which body parts were touching the floor. If you asked them to use four body parts and Julian says he used two feet and two hands, you know Julian got it right!

Because children are naturally active learners who need to physically experience concepts in order to best understand them, they will gain far more from these kinds of activities than from any direct instruction offered via a screen – no matter how much enthusiasm you try to pour into it.

The answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is clearly no. When we understand child development and how children learn, whether we’re teaching in person or online, we have to do everything we can to ensure our instruction is developmentally appropriate.

For additional ideas and support, check out this blog from Children’s Screen Time Action Network. They, at least, won’t be unfriending me!

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