Technology can add new dimensions to children’s understanding of the world, but we must remember that it is not a substitute for play or effective teaching, says Barbara Isaacs…

The topic of technology, and in particular the use of screens to support children’s learning, always provokes heated discussions amongst Montessorians. Yet in the last five years nearly everyone has become an active participant in the current technological revolution by virtue of using digital media. As educators we need to debate not only what it means to be a digital user but also when and how best to support our young children in becoming ‘digitally literate’.

I don’t doubt that Montessori herself would have been actively engaged in such a debate and would have welcomed the new global communication opportunities digital technology affords us. At the same time, however, I believe she would be expressing concerns about the exposure young children have to computers, tablets and smart phones. At a recent conference I witnessed a nine-month-old baby opening her mother’s smart phone case and tapping the phone, waiting for a response. When the phone did not do what she expected, she passed it to her mother with great urgency, gesturing that she make it work. My conclusion from this observation was that the toddler seemed to be hooked – without much understanding of what she was actually doing.

I am sure this debate will continue not only amongst Montessorians but the wider early years community. The questions being debated relate to what type of screen technology, how much, when and why. And what about the statement we hear so often: they need to be introduced early; they must not be left behind?

Let me examine some of the pros and cons from the Montessori perspective. Montessori’s early discoveries were based on her observation of children, at a time when there had been little research into how children learn, think and develop. A hundred years on, we continue to learn; however, there is general agreement that young children are active learners, and that they learn from the environment and more knowledgeable peers and adults. Being supported by respectful and committed adults, who encourage physical skills, early communication and foster a sense of wellbeing and belonging, contributes significantly to this age group’s spontaneous learning, which is particularly powerful in the first three years of life.

If asked by a practitioner or a parent I do not hesitate in replying that screens do not contribute significantly to a baby’s or toddler’s learning. I can, however, appreciate that for many parents the screen provides an opportunity for a short respite from the demands of their young ones; in this respect, my view is, in small doses, and with supervision, no harm is done. It is interesting to note that in some countries, such as the USA, the recommendation to parents is no more than one hour of screen time per day. For me personally, an hour a day is too much, and the idea that parents equip the nursery with a TV screen before their child is born is a horrible thought.

Both at home and at nursery, young children are exposed to a variety of tools that use technology to make our lives easier or more pleasant: cameras, CD players, food processors, as well as tablets and smart phones. Research has shown that young children acquire knowledge of this technology at home rather than at nursery. Learning to use any of these tools should be linked with an individual child’s ability to concentrate, manipulate and be interested. Once again, initial supervision is essential. At nursery these tools are often added to by showing children how to print their photographs, or by using a digital microscope and computer screen to view bugs or other finds from the garden.

So, we should not discard the learning opportunities offered to us by technology, especially when working with the older nursery age groups. It is possible today to use screen technology to enhance learning – such as communicating with Tim Peake as he orbited the Earth, discovering the surface of the moon, looking at the life on the sea shore. It is also an ideal tool if we want to encourage research, such as opportunities to get to know children in other parts of the world. Having a Skype conversation with children in India or Peru would certainly enrich and enhance children’s understanding of differences and similarities between themselves and others. These digital tools offer infinite riches and bring vibrant learning opportunities, but they need to be introduced by well-informed practitioners who are able to share and extend children’s learning. They are not substitutes for play or effective teaching; however, they can add a new dimension to our knowledge and understanding of the world.