The Learning Environment for Early Childhood in the digital age
The phrase ‘Learning Environment’ is used synonymously with ‘Home Libraries’ which is depicted as a mirror of learning culture at home. Majority of published literature has portrayed the home library as a ‘decorative arrangement of books at home.’ In fact, the home library plays an important role in creating a reading habit and love for books. At the same time, developing a home library should not only be limited to help the child with school work. A good home library creates a good learning environment at home. In the 21st century, homes are equipped with digital devices connected to internet such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and other handheld devices like the e-book reader. This article examines the pros and cons of using traditional (print) as well as digital media in the context of a home library. This review study found that the use of digital devices by children, either knowingly or unknowingly, is increasing. Preventing children from using digital devices is diﬃcult but can be done by diverting their attention from digital devices to a functional and attractive home library. Otherwise, overuse of digital devices causes negative eﬀects on the physical and mental health of children.
The adage ‘home is the ﬁrst school’ and ‘mother is the ﬁrst teacher’ clearly depicts the need for support of education at home. As learning cannot happen in a vacuum it is this learning that requires adequate learning materials and support from parents or teachers. The word library is described as a building or room with collections of printed materials like books and periodicals. The collection also includes multimedia such as ﬁlms, music etc. The home library has been portrayed as a decorative arrangement of books and recognized as a status symbol of the family. In some cases, home libraries were established as a part of a professional’s practice as with advocates or doctors. It is very rare to see a home library addressing children’s needs. In fact, the ideal home library should address all family members of all age groups. Since the innovation and popularity of the internet, one’s attention is now diverted to an electronic information environment.
The aim of this article is not to resolve any issue regarding the comparison or suitability of digital media versus paper media in early childhood, but rather, to examine the pros and cons of diﬀerent media so that parents can develop a home learning environment using an informed choice of materials and media. As summarised below:
- Home library has a collection, a mix of media and materials, addressing all family members irrespective of the age group to create a good learning environment.
- Parents, teachers and the community are knowingly or unknowingly, exposing children to digital devices, indiscriminately, due to their own constraints and lack of awareness.
- Overuse of digital devices by children in early childhood could aﬀect the physical and mental health of the child.
- The use of digital devices by children cannot be avoided, but can be minimized by diverting their attention to alternative attractive and interesting reading materials.
- The informed participation of parents in developing a home library helps to provide a good learning experience to children.
This review article discusses the following: learning and development in early childhood; the traditional home learning environment; present day 21st century home environment; the use of digital devices in early childhood; and ﬁnally the ﬁndings of this study and conclusion.
- LEARNING AND DEVELOPMENT IN EARLY CHILDHOOD:
Early childhood development and the role of parents or care givers is heavily dependent on understanding the anxiety of the child, its sequence and continuum within the contexts of family, community and culture. Mitchel describes three phases of child development in multiples of seven years:
First phase (0 to 7 years): Imitation – the young child mimics everything, uncritically, in the environment, not only the sounds of speech and gestures of people, but also the attitudes and values of parents and peers.
Second phase (7-14 years): Imagination – toward the end of the child’s ﬁrst seven years, various changes take place. On the one hand a new and vivid imagination of life, while on the other, a readiness for more formal learning.
Third phase (14-21 years): Truth, discrimination and judgment. In adolescence, the child now searches for truth and experience and the power of one’s own thinking.
The ﬁrst two stages of development require constant support and attention of the parents. The Ontario study found that ‘Care and learning are inseparable concepts.’ Learning in early childhood requires a framework rather than a speciﬁc curriculum derived from principles based on beliefs, values, experiences such as:
a) The care in early child development sets a strong foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health.
b) Constructive support for the child in early learning capitalizes children’s natural curiosity and exuberance to learn.
c) The learning needs to be evolved as an integrated and lifelong culture of the family.
Learning and behaviour of a child is dependent on family involvement and activity and therefore calls for attention of the parents to keep observing the development of the child. Early Childhood Australia (ECA) derived an ‘ Everyday Learning Index’ which focuses on children’s attention and interaction with varied objects, observation of everyday activities such as how the child perceives space, shape and size, how children compare and classify things and how they begin to place them in order and sequence. There are many physical objects that attract and help children learn reasoning and logic to solve problems, language to communicate, numbers to calculate and create concept of time, money and basic counting.
There are some myths about learning that exist such as learning happens only at school, learning is curriculum-speciﬁc and it is the responsibility of the teacher only.
Many schools of thought have derived the concept ‘learning environment’ and how learning takes place. Montessori (1870-1952) deﬁned learning environment as “a freedom to learn, encouragement to explore and independence to the child’s activity with materials and resources”. Piaget (1896-1980), a child psychologist, enunciated the interaction of child with physical and social environments. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, found that the human brain does not just react to the environment, but has the capacity to alter the environment for its own purposes. Ulrich, in the biography of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), enunciated that learning is based on providing a suitable environment, with lots of natural and sensory resources such as wood, sheep’s ﬂeece and beeswax crayons, to encourage exploration and creativity.
A learning environment is to support a child explore, interact and understand nature. Hence, the concept of a home library is not to have just a collection of books or other reading materials; rather it is a creation of an environment with many types of natural objects related to learning. The normal attention span of children is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age. Therefore, a 2-year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular task maximum of 6 minutes, and a child entering kindergarten should be able to concentrate a maximum of 15 minutes (this does not apply for viewing TV). The attention span for viewing of TV or playing digital media games depends on the program that interests the child or the game in the digital device. Recently it has been observed that children who spend increasingly longer time (even amounting to addiction) on computers or smart phones was due to the exposure or training given to children by parents or caregivers about games and other entertainment in the digital device.
The present study deﬁnes the home library considering a broad view of learning in early childhood as one that is a learning environment with a collection of diﬀerent types of objects such as books, periodicals, toys, physical/natural objects, photos, posters, maps, musical instruments, gaming objects, sports materials and including digital devices to invoke creativity and interest in reading, and not to just support the school curriculum. At the same time, all types of objects are not necessary for all the age groups of children. The type of collection varies with the age and interest of the child.
- TRADITIONAL HOME LIBRARY ENVIRONMENT:
A home library has been recognized as a collection of books supporting curriculum based learning of children at school. Jacobs opined that “a home library is the key to academic success.” The survey conducted by National Book Foundation (NBF) with a study sample selected from 27 nations showed that the presence of book-lined shelves in the home and the intellectual environment those volumes reﬂect gives children an enormous advantage in school. A child coming from a home, rich in books, is 19 percent more likely to complete university education than a comparable child growing up without a home library. NBF further pointed out that children growing up in a home with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes. The report by the Scottish Government views the learning environment in a broader perspective such that ‘a home library does not just mean a collection of books arranged in a classiﬁed sequence on the shelf, it is the creation of culture to acquire, organize and share information and hence the home library helps to invoke the child’s interests and enables them to explore and experiment; to accumulate the ideas and organize; to spark their young imagination and think creatively; and to encourage independent learning and promote a positive attitude towards learning.’
Organizing The Home Library :
Home libraries, speciﬁcally designed for children, are to attract and motivate them to create a healthy reading habit. The key aspects required for a home library are having an appropriate place and space at home, appropriate media and resources, display and accessibility to the child, and parents accompanying the child in reading (OECD, 2009).
Book Aid International recommends that the place selected for shelving books should be within reach and in an interesting corner of the house for the child, with child-friendly furniture including shelves, beanbags, pillows, cushions and funky kids’ chairs and with adequate lighting. It suggests that rearranging the collection periodically helps to break the monotony. Kennedy-Moore, a child psychologist, suggested to supplement the collection with big posters, pictures, ﬂannel board stories, picture card games, recorded stories and songs.
Role of the Parents in Traditional Home Library:
Children in their ﬁrst seven years of age mimic parents and therefore the role of parents is more important than the actual collection of reading material itself. The activities they are likely to mimic are reading of newspapers by parents over a cup of coﬀee, picking up a magazine or a good book while you are out of the house etc. It is very important that parents should read with children, give company to them when they are working on school homework. It is recommended that parents should talk to kids about what book they read, why they like it, what they learnt and how it helps. School age children should have some mandatory reading pertaining to diﬀerent seasons like during school days, during the vacation or summer camp, music lessons, so it is essential to keep materials related to children’s activities and interests such as favorite sports players.
Usually, parents have a habit of telling stories to children, which is a very good habit. It would be very helpful if parents consistently support story time in the home library, keeping the related book on hand. A good story sparks a child’s imagination, stimulates curiosity and helps with brain development, word and language patterns. Stories should be selective, safe and easy in order to build relationships, inter-personal skills and contribute to related classroom activities. If we want to encourage children to love books, parents have to read books aloud to them. It is better if parents start at an earlier age, even a baby of a few months can see pictures, listen to your voice and turn cardboard pages. Parental support is recommended as the best start in learning at home for the child. Parenting behaviors are important in children’s development and care in early childhood by parents becomes important for later development. It was found that parental involvement in early learning has a greater impact on children’s well-being and achievement more than any other factors such as family income, parental education or school environment. Hence, the importance and success of home libraries for learning in early childhood is very well established through empirical research.
Although people are witnessing a very high impact and transformation due to the large availability and content of electronic information, a home library should not become an exclusion.
- 21st CENTURY HOME ENVIRONMENT :
Routine observation into most homes makes it clear that a 21st century home environment is rich in its use of electronic devices. It is seen that most young children in developed nations in the 21st century live in media-saturated homes, school or community environments. The National Literacy Trust, UK conducted a survey about use of electronic media and access and found that between 2012 and 2013, the proportion of children who owned e-readers rose from 20% to 30%, tablet ownership increased from 38% to 65% and smart-phone ownership from 38% to 70%. The 2013 survey found that tablet use at home by children aged 5 to 15 almost tripled between 2012 and 2013 rising from 14% to 42%, reading more on computers and other electronic devices than in print form. Almost all (97%) children had access to electronic devices such as computers, tablets, phones and e-readers. Children prefer screen (52.4%) as compared to print (32%). Research by Scholastic US in 2012 also indicated increase in the number of children and young peoples’ preference for reading on screen: the reading of e-book rose from 25% to 46% between 2010 and 2012 and the response about the positive eﬀects of e-books on their motivation to read increased from 33% to 49% over the same period. Girls are signiﬁcantly more likely than boys to read in print (68% vs 54%). Use of electronic devices by girls against boys are (67% girls vs. 60% boys), e-Readers (84% girls vs. 69% boys) and tablets (70% girls vs. 67% boys).
The market is also witnessing many more reading devices such as the iPad, Kindle, Kobo Reader and smart-phones. The duration of use of a digital device by children in 2001 was about 16 hours a week and in 2010, duration of use of digital device by children (2-5 years) was about 32 hours a week. The increase in duration of children using digital devices was not just an incremental growth in 10 years; it was due to improvement in technology, reduction of cost and increase in number of handheld devices, convenience and ease of use for children due to touch screen and other factors.
- USE OF DIGITAL DEVICES IN EARLY CHILDHOOD :
The users of digital devices were grouped based on ‘intentional activities’ and ‘non-intentional activities’. Intentional activities are educational television while “non-intentional” activities are those with no expressed learning objectives or curriculum, such as, simply watching non educational television, talking on a phone etc. It was observed that adults are using a variety of digital media for communication and entertainment, as a result of children followed the pattern. Children borrow and share access to these devices at home[25-29] and parents also ﬁnd it easier to entertain children using these digital devices. Thereby children will grow to love digital media whilst ignoring print media. e-Books have been enhanced and enriched with audio, video, animation, and interactive games suiting children’s education and parents are making use of them to teach their children using these.
Eﬀects of Reading on Digital Screen :
The electronic information and entertainment environment, speciﬁcally for digital natives (persons brought up in an age of digital technology, has created an addiction, so much so that, there is a new word coined called “Wilﬁng”.[31,32] The word “wilf ” is derived from the phrase “What was I looking for?”. Wilfers surf the internet without any real purpose, often forgetting what they were looking for. Those who read only on digital screens are signiﬁcantly less likely to enjoy reading and less likely to be strong readers.
Eﬀects on Cognitive Development of Children:
The cognitive research on eﬀects of digital devices for children shows both positive and negative eﬀects. Positive eﬀects are that the use of computer games can be an important building block to computer literacy for children because it enhances children’s ability to read and visualize images in a three-dimensional space and track multiple images simultaneously. It also slightly improves academic performance but the evidence for this is limited. It is found that technology serves as an opportunity for children (3 to 5 years old) to spontaneously engage in emergent literacy activities. Technology provides multiple opportunities to observe, explore and play with the devices like television, DVDs, MP3s, smart phones, computers, video games, smart toys etc. Parents feel that a home computer will provide an educational opportunity for their child and prepare them for the information-age.
Negative eﬀects are that the use of digital devices aﬀect children in their social development, relationships with peers and family, and also increases the chance of becoming emotionally and socially isolated leading to depression. Further, playing violent computer games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suﬀering and may blur a child’s ability to distinguish reality from simulation. However, the study suggests a need for systematic empirical research to minimize the negative eﬀects and maximize the positive eﬀects in children’s lives. Reading on digital devices distracts young minds from narrative comprehension.
Parents are worried about the inﬂuence of the internet on their children and express disappointment over their children using the computer for activities such as playing games and browsing the internet to download lyrics of popular songs. Some parents however consider children without computers to be at a disadvantage.
Eﬀects on Brain :
Susan Greenﬁeld, a neuroscientist, pointed out that the brain can adapt but a computer screen is not a sensory component and demands fast reaction. Plasticity allows the brain to adapt to whatever its environment is. It follows when we interact with two-dimensional, fast-paced, audio- visual interfaces such as computers. Then the brain is adapting to this, but things are fast and bright, with countless simultaneous inputs, which fragments our attention with so much of interaction. The gain of processing of simple information is at the cost of impacting upon the development of deeper cognitive thinking. The big question is – What kind of minds will we have in the future as a result and what can we do about it?
A computer screen has a strong sensory component that mandates fast reactions and it is very arousing and exciting. It might skew the brain in the future from what has previously been a balance heading towards a more infantilized brain and creating a world in which we are all required to become autistic. Computer games may boost intelligence, but not knowledge because information processing is not knowledge. Neurological eﬀects were found during the introduction of mobile phones and now with the overuse of digital media screens for reading, games etc. speciﬁcally in early childhood, these eﬀects are a real concern. More empirical and clinical research in this area is required.
Eﬀects On Pre-school Age Children :
Children born today in a digitally rich environment are facing the risk even before they are born as mothers get exposed to the radiation of digital devices during the pregnancy. After birth, if a child cries a parent is likely to expose them to digital devices, because it is easy to entertain their child using these. This generation has been the most targeted generation bombarded with information from a very early age. The survey conducted on behalf of World Internet Institute found that in Sweden, 94% of people have internet access, which means that children and young people are now growing up in an environment where the internet is an integral part of the everyday life of the family.
In 2008, every ﬁfth (21%) three-year-old child used the internet and among ﬁve-year-old children the number rose to half (51%). Among nine-year-olds, the proportion of internet users is over 90% and from eleven years of age, it is diﬃcult to ﬁnd someone who does not use the Internet. Use of the internet among pre-schoolers is however limited and it is only from ten years and upwards as the majority have become daily users. The usage pattern identiﬁed in the survey is that in the ﬁrst phase of use (age group 3-6 years) were games and video; in the second phase of use (age group 7-10 years) is videos, games, instant messaging, computers for home work and projects; and in the third phase of use (age group 11-14 years) is mobile phones and internet for social media.
The age of internet use in the year 2002 was 10 years of age; 8 years of age in the year 2005 and 5 years of age in year 2008 and now it is 4 years of age, which happens at home not at school. This trend prevails not only in Sweden, but also in South Korea (MIC/NIDA, 2007) and USA (Rideout et al. 2003; NCES, 2001).
The advantages of the traditional home-library with constructive and constant support of parents are very positive. Comparatively, in the case of digital devices and reading on digital screens, majority of studies indicate the negative eﬀects on children’s physical health as well as on their minds speciﬁcally concerning comprehension of what is read. The advantages of digital devices are multimedia capabilities, games, instant access to varied (good or bad) information resources. With regards to use of digital devices, majority of literature published by digital immigrants (the generation of people born before the advent of digital technology) are very reactive, and responses from digital natives (the generation of people born during or after the rise of digital technology) are consistent in supporting digital devices. Research by psychologists and neurologists are predictive and more empirical and experimental studies including clinical trials are needed to conﬁrm the health problems.
Key Points :
- Care and learning are inseparable concepts and learning in early childhood requires a framework rather than a speciﬁc curriculum.
- For the child learning is intricately dependent on family interaction and involvement and therefore parents need to pay attention to and understand the children’s everyday learning index’ and not just their exam performance.
- A home library helps to stimulate the child’s interests and enables them to explore and experiment; to accumulate ideas and organize; to think creatively with a broad imagination; and to encourage independent learning and a positive attitude towards learning.
- Key factors required for creating a good home library are an appropriate place and space at home; media and resources to be aptly displayed and accessible to children; creating contextual and integrated activities to make children use books and other learning materials appropriate to the context ; and for parents to be involved in participation to support the child learning.
- Most young children in developed nations in the 21st century live in media-saturated homes, schools and/or with communities.
- Widely available new reading digital devices like Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle, Kobo Reader and smart-phones.
- Duration of use of digital devices by children (2-5 years) was about 32 hours in a week.
- Children are being encouraged towards digital media because it is easier for parents to entertain children, thereby children will grow to love digital media whilst ignoring print media and due to convenience and price, digital media may replace print media permanently.
- Pre-schoolers have been the most targeted generation, bombarded with information from a very early age.
- One cannot avoid digital devices considering many advantages. Children borrow and have access to these devices at home.[25-29] e-Books have been enhanced for children with audio, video, animation, and interactive games therefore parents are making use of digital devices to teach their children.
- Use of digital devices aﬀect children in their social development, family relationships, and peer relationships and increases the risk of becoming isolated and suﬀering from depression. Playing violent computer games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suﬀering and may blur a child’s ability to distinguish real life from simulation.
- Reading on a digital device distracts young minds from narrative comprehension. It might skew the brain in the future, away from what’s previously been a balance in the human condition heading towards a more infantilized brain and creating a world in which we are all required to become autistic. Computer games can boost intelligence but not knowledge because information processing is not knowledge.
- To invoke creativity a good learning environment should also include, in addition to books, a broad collection of learning objects such as toys, physical/natural objects, photos, posters, maps, music instruments and gaming objects or sports materials, painting materials. It helps to divert the child’s attention from overuse of digital devices.
Many studies have found that, whether one likes it or not, the digital environment is dominating and one cannot avoid it totally. The solution is to ﬁnd means and ways to balance the attention of the child by creating a good home-library with a collection comprising of many attractive traditional objects along with good books. It has been seen that due to convenience and price, digital media may replace print media permanently, and that it is conceivable that print media will be replaced by more convenient tablet devices in the future.
The interplay of nature on the human mind, behaviour and emotion with space, time, resources, abilities and values are getting lost, because today many children growing up in the digital age have fewer opportunities to experience nature as they are engaged in the virtual world. At the same time, considering the merits of digital technology, it is diﬃcult to limit children from these digital devices. Diverting their attention using suitable alternatives and also having the parents’ attention and constant support is very essential. The onus is on the parents to set a good model to balance the use of traditional materials with electronic devices at home beginning from very early childhood.
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