Young Children and Touch Screens

Young Children and Touch Screens

The first five years of life are a time of remarkable growth for a child’s brain. Brain cells are forming connections–called synapses–more rapidly than at any other time in life. Synapses form when a child has new and repeated experiences. From the moment a child is born, he begins to explore his environment through his senses, constructing meaning about how things work and how people act. So it is not surprising that the environment in which a child grows up has a tremendous impact on how the child develops and learns.

Where does technology fit into the child’s world of learning? Most of the research to date has focused on the effects of traditional media such as television, video, and mouse-operated computers on a young child’s development, and many of these studies have not been favorable. Two-dimensional devices like televisions, lack the ‘serve and return’ interaction that children need to practice language and other skills.

Touch technology, on the other hand, is more interactive, but is still very new. Can you believe that the Ipad is only three years old? Researchers admit that interactive touch screen devices may be potentially educationally viable for young children; however, there are many unknown variables at this point. One study (Barr, 2010) found that toddlers can imitate three-dimensional actions on two-dimensional touch screens after watching a researcher perform the action on a real object. The researcher demonstrated an action that produced a sound with a real object, and presented the toddler with a touch screen that displayed a photo of the object. The toddler would then mimic the researcher’s action to produce the same sound with the virtual object. This indicates a level of cognition that researchers continue to study in order to discern if there are other educational benefits to touch screen devices. But, could other educational benefits be possible using touch screens? The jury is still out; more research is needed.

In the meantime, we have these new touch devices all around us. Babies are fascinated by them. Colorful images move and dance when they touch the screen. Interesting sounds emanate from them. Children can even draw and ‘paint’ their own creations. Until more conclusive research is available, my advice is to handle everything in moderation with a purpose. Here are a few ways you can guide your toddler’s exposure to tablets and smartphones in a meaningful way:

  • Sit with her and engage her in conversation about the activity, much like you encourage interaction with a book as you read to her. Remember: ‘serve and return’. 
  • Focus on the learning rather than on the device itself.  
  • When you are selecting applications, make sure that the content is age appropriate, and that it will encourage thinking and creativity.
  • When your child asks a question, show him how he can use the device to find the answer. Take virtual field trips to museums, zoos, and parks.
  • Allow your preschooler to help you text loved ones, so that she understands the purpose of writing.
  • Transcribe a creative story as your child dictates. Print it and allow him to illustrate.
  • After dinner, help your child compose a daily journal entry that reviews activities and his feelings that day. It will be fun to revisit his thoughts when he’s older!

Technological devices can open new doors and provide another way for young children to learn about and understand their world; but these experiences should not replace real human interactions. When used appropriately and in balance with other learning tools, these tools can support and extend learning in valuable ways.


Barr, R. (2010) Transfer of learning between 2D and 3D sources during infancy; Informing theory and practice. Developmental Review, 20, 128-154.


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