In a preschool classroom in Washington, Pennsylvania, about a half hour south of Pittsburgh, a group of 2-year-old children are taking pictures of a tree using their school’s digital camera. The child holding the camera has been designated the “photographer of the day” by his teacher, Jill Fulton. This particular photo session is part of a year-long project to document how the tree is changing through the seasons.

“We have a VTech toddler friendly camera. So they can’t break it,” Fulton says. “They have full range of it. I get a lot of pictures of trees and grass. They are like little paparazzi.”

Fulton, who is a teacher in the toddler room at Just Us Kids, a care provider that serves children from infancy to age 12, says using the digital camera helps kids explore the natural world around them and observe the changing seasons. But, she says, her students love the toy cameras they have in the play area inside their classroom just as much. The toy cameras also help kids learn about their environment, though in different ways—through imagination and make-believe.

A young photographer at Just us Kids. Photo/Jill Fulton.

Early childhood professionals have long been cautious about introducing digital technologies into early childhood classrooms, fearing that screen media will displace time kids should be spending playing, digging in the dirt, or interacting with peers and adults—the kinds of hands-on engagement that research shows best promotes learning for kids of this age.

But some early childhood educators are starting to feel differently. Educators here in Pittsburgh may be on the cutting edge of using the newest technology with the youngest learners in ways that are developmentally appropriate for 2 t0 5-year-olds.  Educators aren’t simply sticking students alone in front of a screen to play around with the latest apps. Rather, they are, as Fred Rogers once said, “putting the children first,” thinking creatively about how to incorporate today’s technology in ways that match young children’s unique developmental needs.

“If Maria Montessori were alive today, the tools we would see in early childhood classrooms would look very different,” says Michelle Figlar who heads up PAEYC, Pittsburgh’s chapter of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the leading advocacy group for early childhood educators. “We think that digital tools absolutely fit into that environment in the same way building blocks and water tables and sand tables do.”

Figlar tells educators to always keep their goals front and center and remember not to get blinded by technology’s “bells & whistles.” “Technology is always just a tool to help us get there,” she says.

From 1968 to 2001, Pittsburgh was home to Fred Rogers, who filmed his pioneering TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood in the city, using the technology of his day to promote learning in the early years. Today, the Fred Rogers Center and NAEYC are helping early childhood professionals imagine new possibilities for their classrooms that include today’s latest interactive technology.

In 2012, the Fred Rogers Center partnered with NAEYC to release a position statement on using technology and interactive media in early childhood programs.

“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” -Rita Catalano, the Fred Rogers Center.
“We believe that when used appropriately, technology and interactive media have tremendous potential to nurture early learning and development,” says Rita Catalano, executive director of the Fred Rogers Center. The position statement therefore included some important caveats. Namely, it recommends limiting passive screen time (such as TV) for children ages 2–5, and avoiding it entirely for children under age 2. And they warn that if technology is provided without guidance and education, “usage can be inappropriate and/or interfere with learning and development.”

The Rogers Center is drawing on child development research to help professionals and parents define quality media experiences for young children. They see potential in interactive touch screen media, and have compiled examples for how to use technology tools and interactive media in age-appropriate, intentional ways.

Technology, for example, can help add insights to a hands-on experience. PAEYC’s Michelle Figlar says a colleague once described a group of 3-year-olds working in the block corner, building houses modeled on their own. Their teacher used the iPad to show the children pictures of their actual houses using

Google map’s street view, zooming out to show the children their street and neighborhood. The experience, she said, was a perfect example of an optimal use of an iPad in an early childhood classroom.

“It brings it to where the children are. It’s intentional. It’s totally integrated. ‘I can see where my house is, what it looks like, and I can show my friends.’ It’s social studies. In this instance, the iPad helped to make a real life experience tangible for the children.”

The Fred Rogers Center is also working to support teachers with professional development programs and their Early Learning Environment (Ele), a web-based support system designed to offer resources and guidance in early literacy and digital media literacy to under-resourced parents, family childcare providers, and early childhood educators.

Jill Fulton is one of hundreds of educators who have attended workshops led by the center this year. She says she’s not a techie in other areas of her life, but the professional development sessions have really helped open her eyes to how to use technology appropriately with 2-year-olds.

For example, Fulton displays photos and video from her classroom each day in a digital frame so parents and children can look at them together at the end of the school day. A similar project, Message from Me, adapts existing technologies like email, digital cameras, and microphones, to enhance parent-child communication about what happens during the school day. Kiosks placed in classrooms enable children ages 3 to 5 to record their daily experiences and send them to their parents. The project is a partnership between the CREATE Lab, the Children’s School of Carnegie Mellon University, and PAEYC.

“The technology is great,” says Figlar. “But the goal of the project—to increase communication among parents, teachers and young children and improve language development—is what’s primary.

Especially in very low-income neighborhoods, where we know from the research that learning vocabulary is very important—that is a beautiful way of using technology.”

Photo/Brian Cohen

Pittsburgh is home to a growing cadre of design professionals, artists, and technologists who are creating partnerships with educators to design better technology for kids.

“It’s always about the children and everyone puts them first,” Figlar says. “They are not just looking to make the next best app they can make money off of. It’s a very reciprocal relationship.”

PAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center are also both working with organizations like Common Sense Media, and with librarians and museum educators in Pittsburgh to make sure that children have developmentally appropriate learning experiences across their community.

A lot of families come to the library to have access to a computer, according to Mary Beth Parks, the coordinator of children’s services at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. So librarians have an important role to play in helping families and educators use computers and other digital tools in ways that promote learning and literacy. At the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh librarians are incorporating iPads into storytime, making developmentally appropriate iPad apps like interactive books and educational games available to children and caregivers.  Parks says this way of using technology is important because it not only “provides access to technology but also models instructional methods and techniques that can be used by the child’s first teacher—their parent or caregiver.”

Similarly, partnerships with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh are helping to make sure young children in the region have plenty of opportunities to experiment with technology in a hands-on way. The museum’s innovative MAKESHOP is an exhibit space where kids and adults can experiment with physical materials and digital tools. Hands-on play with technology, the museum’s director Jane Werner says, is important to help children begin to grasp at a young age that they can be creators, not just consumers, and that technology is something they can have control over.

The museum hosts classroom visits and two Pittsburgh Public School Head Start classes in the museum itself.

Werner concurs that the partnerships that take place on behalf of children in the region are unique.  “We tend not to get territorial,” she told me last spring. “There’s so much work to be done, we all realize it, and we all work together.” Fred Rogers would be proud.