Are laptops appropriate teaching tools for three-year old children? At least one operator of for-profit preschools thinks so. The company is adding laptop computers and wireless internet access to the education curriculum taught at its 120 locations beginning this year.

After hearing success stories about the use of laptop computers in grade school, the Primrose School Franchising Co., which operates preschools in several states throughout the South and Southwest, decided to try laptops for preschoolers as well.

Since last January, the Primrose School at Bentwater in Atlanta has been piloting the use of laptops with students three years of age and older. Because of the program’s success, Primrose plans to expand the use of laptops to the rest of its locations.

The result is that children of Primrose clients will have access to more sophisticated technology than the majority of students in grade school or high school.

“Young children are fascinated by computers,” said Lee Scott, vice president of marketing at Primrose School Franchising Co. “We’re trying to bring it home to students that the computer [provides access to] important information, just as the storybook does.”

Primrose already provided its preschools with a few desktop computers in each classroom, but found laptops are easier to integrate into the company’s proprietary curriculum, called Balanced Learning.

“The kids would spend a few minutes a day on the computer. It wasn’t really integrated in a meaningful way,” Scott said. Now, children won’t have to leave what they are doing and head to the computer area. The internet also makes a larger library of classroom resources more readily accessible.

“It’s really hard to find age-appropriate material for three-, four-, and five-year-olds. The internet actually provides us with better resources,” Scott said. “There’s such a wealth of fabulous web sites for kids out there.”

Laptops also proved to be more affordable, because an entire preschool could easily share a cart with eight laptops.

“We found it more cost-effective,” Scott said. No longer will the company have to install and maintain a few desktop computers in each preschool classroom.

The children use the laptops about three times a week for 20 minutes at a time.

In small groups, each child sits with his or her own laptop and a child-sized mouse from Kidzmouse to explore pre-selected, kid-friendly web sites that relate to the current lesson, such as autumn leaves or farm animals.

“The children would focus on a web site for about 20 minutes. They are mesmerized, and then they are done,” Scott said.

The laptops are in constant use because they serve 80 to 100 students at each Primrose school, Scott said. Teachers also use them to make lesson plans, pre-select web sites, and send eMail to parents.

At first, officials were worried about how easily laptops might get damaged by preschoolers, but they haven’t had any problems so far. “We haven’t had one with milk spilled on it or go flying off the table. The children have been fine with [them],” Scott said.

Some find it shocking that preschoolers use computers at all, but a recent study from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation finds more and more children as young as six months old are regularly using computers.

According to survey respondents, 31 percent of children from birth to age three had used a computer, and 70 percent of children ages four to six had used a computer.

The children reportedly used computers to access software and visit web sites, but the time they spent with computers was still far less than the time they spent playing outside, watching television, or listening to music.

“Children are exposed to television and computers [at an earlier age], and we feel it should be made age-appropriate,” Scott said. Despite the increased use of technology at the Primrose preschools, Scott says the emphasis remains on activities suited to childhood development.

“We need to be conscious of doing age-appropriate activities with children,” Scott said. “Children shouldn’t be on computers for two hours a day.”

It remains unclear whether children who are exposed to computers and the internet at such an early age are more prepared for kindergarten and grade school–or whether kids who have used computers are no more likely to excel once they begin school.

Educators who spoke with eSchool News expressed mixed feelings about the appropriateness of laptops as teaching tools at the preschool level–but most agreed that young children’s use of computers should be limited.

“Very young children should spend a relatively small amount of time using a computer for any reason,” said Bob Moore, executive director of information technology at the Blue Valley Unified School District in Kansas. “Very young children need to run and play, not sit at a computer.”

“I think there are so many things that preschool children need instead of learning how to use a computer,” said Alan Whitworth, technology director for the Jefferson County School District in Kentucky. “They need to be read to on a regular basis; they need to have a home that is a print-rich environment, where they see their parents and other family members read on a regular basis; they need to creatively play, start learning their colors, start learning to count, learn to get along with others, learn that there are rules; and they need lots of personal attention.”

Whitworth added, “My advice to parents who have asked me, ‘What kind of computer should I get now that I have a two- or three-year-old?’ is ‘I don’t think it makes a difference. Get what you want to use, and let you child play with the boxes.'”

Others saw nothing wrong with the Primrose program.

“Anything that preschools can do to increase student technical skills prior to kindergarten is a good thing. If properly implemented, the preschoolers will have a head start on technology before they enter the public school system. The net effect will be to enhance early student computer literacy, which in turn will make our jobs easier,” said Charlie Reisinger, director of technology at the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania.

“There are many ways for a child as young as three to experience good things on a computer,” said Karen Littlefield, instructional technology coordinator for the Mid-Del Schools in Oklahoma. “The computer is an automatic part of their world. Young children expect a computer in their life. That places more responsibility for proper use and educational validity of computers on the adults in the lives of these children.”

“Computers and a variety of media tools are a part of the environment kids are in. They relate to screens from early ages on, in the home or in public places,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library, media, and technology at the Bellingham School District in Washington. “I think children should be immersed in work and play that includes talking, rhyming, acting, running, painting, investigating, and maybe interacting with what they find on computers with adults and other kids.”

Links:

Primrose School Franchising Co.
http://www.primroseschools.com

“Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers”
http://www.kff.org/content/2003/20031028