Engaging Students and Families in a Digital Age: Lessons for Educators and Practitioners

by Lori Takeuchi, PhD
December 12, 2011

Lori TakeuchiThis article originally appeared in the Harvard Family Research Project’s December issue of the FINE: Family Involvement Network of Educators newsletter.

Lori Takeuchi, Director of Research for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and author of the recent report Families Matter: Engaging Families in a Digital Age, discusses her research on how children use technology across the various settings of their lives, and the implications of her findings for practitioners who work with young children and their families.

Children today are surrounded by digital media. Households with kids aged 4–14 own, on average, 11 consumer electronic devices,  which suggests that children are spending a good chunk of their waking hours texting friends, playing video games, grooving to their iPods, and hanging out on websites like Poptropica and Webkinz. My recent report, Families Matter: Engaging Families in a Digital Age, chronicles how digital media are shaping childhood, parenting, and family life with a national survey of parents of 3–10-year-olds, as well as in-depth case studies of two young Latina girls and their families.

I wrote Families Matter with the Cooney Center’s typical audiences in mind—namely, producers and researchers of digital media for young children—and so the recommendations posed at the end of the report suggest new design principles and avenues for future investigation. However, the survey results also have implications for practitioners who work with young children and their families, and I would like to share the most relevant parent survey findings for those audiences here.

Parent perceptions

  • Not all digital media are created equal in parents’ eyes.
    Parents rate computer-based activities as most valuable for young children’s learning, and a majority also thinks video games, specifically, develop skills important to school success. Mobile phones, meanwhile, are viewed as least valuable for learning, and this device is the one most prohibited by parents for young children’s use; handheld gaming consoles and MP3 players are much more accepted.
  • Parents worry about digital media interfering with children’s healthy development…
    Fifty-nine percent of parents believe that digital media prevent children from getting physical exercise, while 53% are concerned about their children’s online safety and privacy. And 40% believe that digital media activities infringe on time that would otherwise be spent in face-to-face interactions.
  • … Yet most parents don’t believe their own kids are at risk.
    Only 18% of parents report that their own children spend too much time with technology. Why the apparent paradox? Parents may be unaware of just how much media their kids are consuming. Laptops, MP3 players, and handheld gaming devices tend to be used in the outer reaches of the home, and are not typically positioned the way TV sets are, in a family or living room where parents can see when and what their children are watching, and for how long.
  • Parents’ restriction of their kids’ media use tends to be on a case-by-case basis..
    The multiplicity of new technology platforms and the rate at which they change may explain why two-thirds of parents don’t impose a uniform set of rules—they find it either unnecessary or simply impossible. However, 22% percent of parents say they do have strict rules around what their kids can do with home-based media (e.g., television, home computers, video games, mobile devices), and 8% say they have rules but don’t always strongly enforce them. Only 7% of parents claim to have no rules.

Digital media and learning

Too often, we tune into the immediate interactions between a child and digital media platform, and pay less attention to the institutional (e.g., school), economic (e.g., parent work schedules and income), and cultural (e.g., values and norms) factors that invariably shape these interactions. But the case studies featured in Families Matter provide compelling examples of how powerfully these other factors can shape the relationships children have with media and, consequently, can shape their opportunities to learn.

For practitioners interested in how to best integrate new technologies into teaching, programming, and other activities, here are a few recommendations that keep the full range of the child’s learning environment in mind:

  • Map digital platforms to children’s developmental needs.
    Children today have access to a wide array of media platforms. However, many were originally designed for adult use. When selecting media for children, make sure they support children’s developing cognitive, social, and, now, motor and visual capacities given the availability of gesture-based (e.g., Wii and Kinect) and 3D gaming systems (Nintendo 3DS).
  • Design experiences that require family members and friends to play together.
    Digital media are often blamed for displacing the time kids spend in face-to-face conversation. To address this, use technology to engage children in socializing, outdoor exercise, academic pursuits, and imaginative play—the very activities that parents fear digital media are supplanting from children’s lives.
  • Encourage anytime, anywhere learning.
    Mobile devices can enhance networked play and learning by allowing kids to take the necessary hardware outside and from home to school to grandma’s house to continue learning experiences, no matter the location.
  • Make screen time family time.
    Adolescents use digital media to express identities separate from their families and connect more closely with peers, but as seen in Gabriela and Sierra’s cases—the two case studies contained in the Families Matter report—younger children tend to enjoy spending more time with their parents. Practitioners should create digital tools and content that leverage this mutual desire for connection, inserting opportunities for learning to occur during play.

Family members communicate, learn, and play together differently than they did 20 years ago, and parents raise their kids differently than their parents raised them. What’s different today from media revolutions of the past is that newer technologies (e.g., iPods, texting, YouTube, Facebook), are being widely adopted by consumers within years, and even months, of their release—compared with the telephone, radio, and television, each of which took decades to become mainstream. The case studies in Families Matters reveal enduring patterns of how families adopt and adjust to new technologies, and how new media wriggle their way into kids’ lives, challenge family values, disrupt well-worn routines, and subsequently inspire parental angst, rule setting, and eventual acclimation. New platforms will come, some will stay, and many will go, but these patterns of integration will retain their currency for quite some time.