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Vision

“The early learning community has been wisely cautious about using technology with our youngest children. But technology, when used appropriately with caring adults, can help children learn in new ways – and lessen the growing inequity in our country.”

-Libby Doggett, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Early Learning

The vision of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) (hereafter known as The Departments) is that 1) all young children will have adults in their lives who are well-informed on how to use technology to support learning at various ages; and 2) all young children will have opportunities to learn, explore, play, and communicate through a multitude of approaches, including the use of technology.

This vision is already a reality for some early learners and the adults in their lives. The examples below represent promising ways to help early learners use technology with peers and adults to foster relationships, expand learning, and solve meaningful problems.

  • Supporting interpersonal relationships: A military family used video chatting software to enable their two daughters aged 2 and 4 to keep in touch almost daily with their father, an Army major, during his deployment in Iraq. The family reported that the connection made his deployment “more bearable” for him and “eased his return home” for the girls because it allowed him to be part of their daily lives.1
  • Fostering the development of school readiness skills: Preschoolers at Austin STEM Academy noticed that the guinea pigs in their class observatory looked cramped inside their cage, so they suggested building a new home. With the help of instructors, the children consulted an application (app) that described guinea pig habitat needs and then collaboratively designed a blueprint for their new guinea pig home. The project helped students develop strong early critical thinking and problem solving skills while executing their plan.2
  • Language development and communication: A teacher vetted and selected a multimedia storytelling app so that a 4-year-old boy in Athens, Georgia who only spoke Chinese was able to create a digital story with a tablet to share details about his home life. The project, complete with photos from home and narration in both English and Chinese, allowed the other students to hear his story in his own words. The digital family story helped him become more integrated into the classroom community and improved his English language skills.3
  • Exploration and learning: A kindergarten classroom in a Southeastern U.S. city used digital cameras, digital microscopes, and drawing software to learn about fossils, bones, and dinosaurs through an archaeological “dig” in their classroom. Sifting through a sand table, the students used the cameras and microscopes to record their experience of discovering plastic bones and dinosaurs. The children then had the choice of creating a multimedia book using drawing software or a handwritten report on their discoveries and what they learned.4

The rapid pace of innovation in technology provides a seemingly endless stream of new learning options for families and early educators. However, not all technology is designed in a way that is appropriate for early learners or leads to meaningful learning, so adults need to be thoughtful about children’s technology use. Additionally, there is a growing technology opportunity gap. The goal of the Departments is that all children in every community and at every socioeconomic level have equitable access to appropriate technology in early learning settings and that technology is used responsibly with young children.

Technology and Assistive Technology Devices

In this document, technology refers broadly to both hardware that enables connectivity and devices (including television and handheld devices such as smartphones and tablets), content (including digital media such as apps, games, software and television programming), and assistive technology devices. The term assistive technology device stems from the Assistive Technology Act of 1998 and is specifically defined in Section 602(1) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as “any item, piece of equipment, or product system, whether acquired commercially off the shelf, modified, or customized, that is used to increase, maintain, or improve the functional capabilities of a child with a disability. The term does not include a medical device that is surgically implanted or the replacement of such device.”

Purpose

The purpose of this policy brief is to:

  • Provide guiding principles for early educators (including those in home settings), early learning programs, schools, and families on the use of technology by young children to support them in making informed choices for all children.
  • Inform the public, families, and early educators on the evidence base used to support these guiding principles.
  • Issue a call to action to researchers, technology developers, and state and local leaders to ensure technology is advanced in ways that promote young children’s healthy development and learning.

While this brief addresses early learners from birth to 8 years of age, the Departments acknowledge that this is a large age span in the development of a child and what is appropriate for an 8-year-old is likely not appropriate for a toddler or infant. This brief focuses mainly on age-appropriate guidance for children ages 2-8. A special call out box titled, “What Is Developmentally Appropriate Technology Use for Children age 0-2?,” discusses technology use with children under the age of 2.

The Departments’ guiding principles presented in this brief for using technology with young children can help families make informed decisions about their child’s interaction with technology, including watching television, playing digital games, using video chats or apps to communicate, or using digital tools to create content. They can guide early educators on how to introduce and use technology in the classroom, community, or home as a tool to support learning. They can also help early educators and policymakers at state and local levels better understand the importance of connectivity and providing appropriate technology for early learners, the importance of training and supporting early educators to best use technology in early learning settings, and the legal requirements for children with disabilities as defined by IDEA and individuals with disabilities as defined by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

IDEA, Section 504, and Title II

Eligible children with disabilities may receive assistive technology provided as early intervention services under the requirements in Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); as special education and related services under the requirements in Part B of IDEA; or as special education or related aids and services under the requirements in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) for school-age children. Section 504 also applies to school-age children who are not IDEA-eligible. Determinations as to whether students with disabilities should receive assistive technology and the specific device or devices to be provided are made on an individual basis by the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team, Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) team, or Section 504 team, if appropriate.

This brief is not intended to limit the authority of the appropriate team to make individual determinations regarding the assistive technology to be provided to a particular child. In addition, all persons with disabilities, including parents and students, are protected from discrimination on the basis of disability under Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under these laws, if a covered entity provides technology, the entity must ensure that any technology that is provided is accessible to persons with disabilities.

For more information on the laws that apply to students with disabilities, see the following resources:

The importance of unstructured and unplugged play

Families and early educators should be aware that technology use should never displace the role of unstructured, unplugged, interactive, and creative play that research shows is the best way children learn. In fact, unstructured playtime is more important for brain development in young children than any type of media use.5 Children should have exposure to many different types of play, including those where teachers are guiding play, play with peers, and independent play. In early learning settings, play can be intentional, with the teacher thoughtfully creating learning environments, or unstructured such as during recess. During unstructured playtime, children process what they are learning on a daily basis and develop social skills with peers and adults. Technology and media should not take the place of interactions in the real world, including playtime with adults and peers, physical and outdoor activities, and the social interactions and experiences that are essential for a child’s development.6 For these reasons, frequency and duration of technology use are important considerations for families and early educators.

Families should be aware that, as with many other childhood activities and influences, technology use can have both positive and negative effects depending on use.7 Adults should expect to set limits, encourage a diversity of experiences both digital and unplugged, and keep in mind that research shows that for young children in-person interactions should be fostered.8


  1. Chalmers, M. (2011) Social media allows military families a deeper connection. USA Today. Retrieved from http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/military/story/2011-11-28/military-deployment-social-media/51349158/1
  2. Austin STEM Academy, ADMIN. (2013) Inquiry, problem, and project based learning. Retrieved from http://austinstemacademy.com/2013/04/25/inquiry-problem-and-project-based-learning/
  3. Bales, D. (n.d.) Digital story helps dual language learner connect with classmates. NAEYC. Retrieved from http://www.naeyc.org/technology/digital-story-helps-dual-language-learner
  4. Beyond the Journal, Young Children on the Web. (2008) Meaningful technology integration in early learning environments. NAEYC. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/files/yc/file/200809/OnOurMinds.pdf
  5. Ginsburg, Kenneth. The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds. AAP. Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182
  6. National Association for the Education of Young Children & Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. (2012) Technology and interactive media as tools in early childhood programs serving children from birth through age 8. Washington, DC: NAEYC; Latrobe, PA: Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media and Saint Vincent College, page 5.
  7. American Academy of Pediatrics, Communications and Media Council. (2015) Beyond turn it off: how to advise families on media use. (Policy statement) Retrieved from http://www.aappublications.org/content/36/10/54
  8. American Academy of Pediatrics. (2011) Media use by children younger than 2 years. (Policy statement) Retrieved from http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/128/5/1040.full.pdf

Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief (Back to Main)


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