How to Introduce Screens as an Educational Tool


Your phone and your iPad are evil time-sucking entertainment devices. However, they also open up a world of knowledge, creativity and interpersonal connection. The balancing act we must all master for ourselves and our children is leveraging our pocket-sized supercomputers as a tool and not succumbing to endless clicking and swiping.

I obviously feel that technology provides incredible opportunities to enrich us; we would not write about parenting here if we did not think this was a great medium for education. Also, YouTube helped me remodel my bathroom, the internet helped me learn how to blog, and I get tons of great parenting inspiration online. However, I have also wasted valuable time streaming pointless television shows and scrolling through my endless Facebook feed.

While it can be hard to manage this balancing act ourselves, as parents it is absolutely critical that we balance the positives and negatives of technology for our children. Providing you with research and strategies to help you be tech-wise parents is what Screen-Free Parenting is all about. Through good modeling and the introduction of screens as an educational tool (long before you allow much entertainment use) you can get a better handle on your own use and also teach your kids to be masters of technology too.

Experts and researchers often discuss the importance of “content” when addressing young children’s screen time, emphasizing that it should be educational. However, I feel as though this is far too nebulous. The vast majority of shows, applications and games for young children are marketed as educational. How is a parent to determine what is actually good content? We have written some articles on evaluating children’s shows before, but in this article, I am going to give you some examples of great ways to model using screens as a tool, rather than an entertainment box. Your child’s introduction to screens does not need to be 30 minutes of Netflix content. Thanks to all of our Screen-Free Community members on Facebook who helped brainstorm ideas for this article!

  1. Accessing Information to Make Plans

Teaching children that the internet can be accessed to help them make plans for things is a great way to introduce screens as a tool. The computer can be used to check the weather and make plans for the weekend. Google Maps can be used to help explain a road trip or upcoming plane trip. These are great, educational uses of screens.

A reader Angela explains: “When they are helping me pack for the cottage and deciding what clothes to bring. We look up the weather for the weekend and then talk about what we need, based on the forecast.”

  1. Let Life Guide Screen-Use Not Vice-Versa

When your child has an interest or a question, you can use a short educational video or internet image search to help him or her. A community member shared the question from her child “What do zebras sound like?” This is a great question stemmed from the child’s imagination or play that can be answered with a screen. I am a fan of using screens’ educational content to supplement children’s natural self-directed learning. I am not a fan of using the screen to guide children’s learning, where the screen is dictating content and learning goals (think common ‘educational’ computer games and applications).

Reader Corrine explains how she has used Zoo resources in this way: “I love using digital resources shared by zoos across the world. They have many live web cams of animals. It really brought our books to life! It also fueled their curiosity to learn more about the animals.”

  1. Writing (and Reading)

Here I am not advocating for a fancy overstimulating educational application that is likely teaching your young child nothing. As your child begins to form words, you can allow the use of a basic word processor for your child to begin typing words. Multiple sensory experiences (typing on a keyboard, writing in sand, utilizing chalk) are helpful in keeping kids interested in the laborious work of learning to read and write. Although, don’t feel pressured to push these things too soon as research shows there is little benefit of early writing and reading.

Salt or sand letter writing is a no-tech way to teach a young child about letters. These are great for 2 and 3-year-olds. The letter cards can be purchased on amazon and any tray of sand or salt will do. See how we did ours here.
  1. Taking Photos

While it can sometimes keep parents from being in the present moment, screens are great tools for capturing memories, both pictures and videos. We have given our daughter an old digital camera and she has begun taking pictures of family members, friends and toys.

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I consider taking or editing photos or videos to be a “creation” use of screens and don’t limit it much. (You can actually see my recommendations for screen use by age and category here.)

A reader with older children (8years and 10 years) explains how she encourages creation via a screen, “We let my older boys–8 and 10 do hour of code for about an hour (!) a week.  Also, my oldest loves to create logos on a mac.”

  1. Accessing Music

Most children love music and dancing. Screens offer unlimited access to music of every genre. Our kids often listen to music or audio stories via my computer or phone. If you stream your music, remember that videos on YouTube often include fast screen-shifts and can be extremely overstimulating, so either stick to Pandora or Spotify or plug the phone into a larger stereo on a high counter so your kids don’t stop dancing in favor of watching.

  1. Maintaining Relationships

Want more on video chatting and kid? Read: Skype Away! Children Can Learn and Connect Through Video Chatting.

Technology helps us to maintain our relationships. We can teach young children this and make the distinction between maintaining relationships and creating new ones (which we do not want our children doing via screens). Children can utilize screens to video-chat with working parents or relatives. Our children often do this and research shows children can learn through video-chatting. Another way to connect or maintain relationships is via messaging or phone calls. We often take a picture of a puzzle we completed and send it to my daughter’s grandfather or father at work. It allows them to feel more connected to her and vice-versa.

  1. Current Events

Screens can be utilized to teach children about current events. I prefer teaching young children how to look everyday things up the old-fashioned way (i.e. an encyclopedia or other book). The benefits to emerging literacy (a child’s understands of the principles of reading and writing before kids actually learn to read or write) are enormous. It will be an easy transition for them to then begin “googling” when appropriate. However, when the events are current, utilizing a screen to help them understand can be helpful. For the recent presidential election, I showed my daughter pictures of the candidates on a screen. For obvious reasons and her current age (4), I did not allow her to view any election related content. A reader in the Screen-Free Parenting Community explained that she utilized screens during the recent Olympics.

Teach Your Child to Use the Screen, Not Be Used By It

The difference to me is pretty clear. In all of the above examples, your child has a goal and is achieving it with the assistance of the screen. They are not being given goals, values or priorities by passively consuming or the newly even worse, actively swiping and clicking as they have been instructed by a game. In other words, the children are creating the “game” and the screen is many of the tools at their disposal.

I believe it is beneficial for your child to truly learn how to use screens as tools prior to using them as entertainment. Since babies are not capable of using screens as a tool, this is one of the many reasons being screen-free during early childhood makes a great deal of sense. (Read our Top 5 Reasons to Throw That Tablet Out the Window article if you want more) After they have begun to understand screens as a tool, you can choose to introduce entertainment media if you wish and see our tips on choosing good programming.

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