Clear Filters

Is there such thing as ‘good’ screen time for young children?

When people learn that I have spent my career in early childhood education and received my master’s in edtech, the first question they always seem to have is: “will the iPad ruin my child’s brain?” By now I have a lot of practice explaining my stance on early learning and technology, based on how children develop and the existing research on digital technology.

First, the good news: your iPad is not going to ruin your child’s brain.

Are there better things they can be doing with their time? Yes. But is a little bit of screen time ok? Also yes, at least at home outside of a child care setting. Here’s how I approach tech in early learning, with some advice on how to use it in your family for more good than ill:

What we lose when we move to a digital space

Children learn by doing. They learn from concrete and hands-on experiences that engage all of their senses. For many young children, iPad games are too abstract to result in true learning. The big question is always whether children can take what they’ve learned from one context and apply it in another, a process called learning transfer. It’s unrealistic to expect children as young as two or three to transfer what they’re seeing on an iPad screen to the real world.

There are certainly situations where it’s preferable to have your child exploring a digital space, rather than a physical one. If you’re on a long car ride, a painting app can be a great substitute for messy art materials. But exploring with art isn’t just about the end result, it’s about the process, the trial and error, the sensory experience of the art materials, not to mention the practice holding a writing utensil in your hand. You lose all of that when you move to a digital space.

How to create higher-quality screen time

However, we live in a world where it is almost impossible to shield your child from all screens, and you shouldn’t have to try.

  • Make an effort to select higher-quality apps. But what makes an app high quality? Think about Bloom’s taxonomy, which classifies learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. Does the app provide opportunities for your child to explore at the higher levels of the taxonomy? An app where they are constructing their own stories, rather than just passively consuming them will be a stronger learning experience. Feedback is another important aspect of learning. Does the app tell a child when they get something wrong and support them to get it right?
  • Co-play is king. Think about what we learned from Sesame Street. Children learn by interacting not just with the media, but with known adults. Your involvement can make even a mediocre app a high quality learning experience for your child. By asking questions and making observations you can help facilitate deeper learning.
  • Technology is a great way to extend an experience. Children learn through repeated exposure and making connections between their experiences in the world. Finding YouTube videos that show a beaver making a dam, or how clouds are formed, can be a great way to add a new dimension to your child’s learning. It can make inaccessible things more accessible, and build a bridge between the digital world and the physical one.

Finally, be gentle with yourself. Being a parent is hard enough work without worrying about whether you’re inadvertently turning your child into a zombie. We live in a digital world, and being literate and creative in that world is not a bad thing if a child’s mind is staying curious and active.

Meredith Downing leads curriculum development at Wonderschool. She taught preschool in a variety of settings including the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center in Washington, DC, and received her master’s in education from Stanford University’s Learning, Design & Technology program.

Wonderschool’s Quality & Safety Promise ensures limited screen time in our child care and preschool programs. Find a high-quality program near you.

Meredith Downing

Meredith Downing is the Curriculum Lead at Wonderschool, where she supports directors to build high-quality programs that help students grow and succeed.