July 13, 2021Print | PDF
By Eileen Wood, Professor of Psychology
Many of children’s early learning experiences occur informally within the home, long before they enter formal schooling. Today, technology – mobile devices in particular – serves as an important learning tool for children, so it is important to understand how parents can introduce their children to technology in a way that supports their engagement and education.
My Living and Learning in a Digital World Lab at Wilfrid Laurier University is exploring this emerging topic. I recently co-authored a study with Karin Archer and Domenica de Pasquale which compared how parents behaved when engaging with their young child on a familiar versus novel mobile device. Our sample included children at the infant to toddler stages.
Overall, we found that more passive screen activities and fewer parent-initiated interactions and supports were evident when parents and children were engaged with the familiar device than with the novel one. Surprisingly, given the limitations in spatial skills and coordination in this very young sample, physical supports that would help a child to hold, move or navigate the device and software were infrequent.
Additionally, contrary to popular conceptions regarding the appeal of technology and parental expectations, initiating and sustaining interest in the software and the devices even for a short period of time was challenging in some cases.
Despite these challenges, overall outcomes suggest that parents can engage in a wide array of relevant scaffolds – support techniques – to engage their child socially, verbally and educationally during joint technology play.
Parental scaffolding was further examined in a study by myself and Joanne Lee, director of the Laurier Child Language and Math Lab. We found that parents of early preschool- and kindergarten-aged children demonstrated emotional scaffolding during joint play with both traditional three-dimensional spatial play toys and apps involving blocks and puzzles. Although parents were affectionate and encouraging, they provided fewer scaffolds involving responsiveness and teaching when engaged with the apps than when engaged with three dimensional toys.
Between these two studies, a pattern is emerging which indicates that parents can and do want to assist their young children when using mobile devices. However, individual differences in child interest and parent knowledge may inhibit optimal interactions and support.
What are the next steps? Joanne Lee and I are currently exploring parent knowledge of how to map basic math skills on math apps in order to determine what conceptual and design information might be needed by parents to select appropriate apps for their child. Our study will also assist parents in providing relevant supports for their children during joint technology play.
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