Ask kids “why” and help them bridge worlds—and subjects—one keystroke at a time

Our 21st century kids navigate a keypad and master a basketful of remote controls long before they can read or count. In fact, an increasing number of preschoolers learn school readiness skills, at least in part, from their computer play. As Computer Learning Month continues, it’s an excellent time to evaluate how we parents-as-teachers choose and mediate our kids’ computer learning experiences.

Computer Learning Month was first designated by Congress in 1987. In an archived Computer Magazine article on the inaugural event, Ken Wasch, then-director of the Software Publishers’ Association commented, "What's important about computer learning isn't the mastery of technology by whiz kids and hackers, but how millions of ordinary kids are using computers to develop critical-thinking abilities, academic skills, and creativity. That's what Computer Learning Month is all about," he adds.

Nearly four decades and many millions of computers and e-devices later, that statement remains spot on.

Experts in education agree that computer-aided learning will only increase and that it holds tremendous and exciting potential. For example, Douglas H. Clements, Ph.D., is the Kennedy Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Learning and Professor at the University of Denver. Previously a kindergarten teacher and a preschool teacher, he has conducted research and published widely in the areas of the learning and teaching of early mathematics and computer applications in mathematics education. In a video titled “Introducing Young Children to Technology,” recorded when he was at SUNY and posted to YouTube in early 2013, Clements said, “Computers can really help kids bridge the world between their concrete experience and abstract mathematical thinking at a very young age.” He added, however, that “The computer needs to be embedded in a rich educational environment of which the computer is only a small part. The computer’s role in the classroom is to be just one more teaching aid.”

Clements noted that in the classroom the teacher is the one who controls that and picks the educational experiences on the computer. He further said that studies suggest young children are more likely to learn from computers “if the teacher is nearby and able to interact with them,” i.e., available to engage kids when they get stuck.

One might suggest that in the classroom we call “home,” a child’s first teachers, known as Mom and Dad, function in the same way to mediate kids’ e-experiences, to be available to help and redirect, and to maximize development of those “critical thinking abilities, academic skills, and creativity” long associated with kids and computers.

In a video titled “Language, Literacy, and Math with Doug Clements,” posted by Erikson Early Math Collaborative, Clements addresses teacher concerns that a classroom math focus, so important for STEM preparation, might adversely affect language and literacy standardized test scores. He references research showing instead, that a math curriculum, among several language-related benefits, can actually increase kids’ sentence complexity. The reason? Clements said, “ Probably because in our math curriculum “We’are always asking the kids ‘tell me why,’ ‘how do you know,’ ‘how else could you do it’? They gotta’ dig down to explain those kinds of things.” He then calls it “the power of asking why.”

Such seemingly small techniques and strategies can make a big difference in improving problem-solving and critical thinking. When kids do get stuck—both online and off—asking them what their next move is going to be and why, is a simple yet super way to understand how they are processing a situation and a chance to give them more information and/or alternative ways to think about it.

Looking for clever, colorful math apps for kids? Find offerings that range from Preschool Pencil Pal to Multiplication & Division Flash Action. Looking for a G-R-E-A-T app to help good spellers become great spellers and struggling spellers succeed? Look no farther than Spelling 1-2 for iPad, Mac, Android, and Windows.

Some apps boost skills useful in any subject. Tile Trouble, a sliding puzzle app available in both iOS and Android platforms, helps develop concentration, creativity, memory, visual/spatial perception, logic, reasoning, problem-solving, eye-hand coordination, and fine motor skills. Designed for kids ages 8+ it can also be a good way for adults to stimulate memory and “think fast” skills. Memory Match Jr. in Android and iOS and Memory Match, also in Android in iOS, are great, play-anywhere game apps that helps challenge and enhance memory, focus, vocabulary, and listening skills.

The power of why, an attentive parent-as-teacher, and playful, educator-designed apps and software can make computer time quality learning time.