A First 8 Studios at WGBH team member takes notes as she watches a young boy play on an iPad.

Research shows that children learn best through face-to-face interaction with caring adults. Nothing can replace the social, emotional, and cognitive benefits children gain from these interactions. We live in a world increasingly populated by technology, and mobile devices in particular are finding their way into the hands of the youngest children. This is why it is critical to conduct ongoing research, and to invest in approaches that are aligned with the needs and realities of today's early learners.

The First 8 Studios® at GBH Kids team has partnered with learning scientists, content advisors, and preschool teachers, administrators, parents and children to help lay the foundation for research-based early learning with touchscreen, tablet technology.

Integrating Technology to Uniquely Support Teaching and Learning in Early Childhood

Research suggests that emerging technologies, when used in developmentally appropriate ways, have various affordances for improving STEM learning in early childhood. Tablets with touch screens have been found to provide unique opportunities to support early teaching and learning, (e.g. Clements & Sarama, 2008; Lewis Presser, Vahey, & Zanchi, 2013; Linebarger & Piotrowski, 2009; Neuman, Newman, & Dwyer, 2010; Penuel et al., 2011; Sarama, 2004). For example, tablet-based games can extend hands-on learning experiences by allowing children to practice what they have learned with hands-on materials repeatedly and by providing individualized feedback (Clements & Sarama, 2004).

Despite these documented affordances, integration of technology and media in early childhood classrooms is not common, partly due to the concerns about the effects of screen time on young children's health and well-being. Our approach for integrating digital tools aligns with the recommendations made in the National Association for the Education of Young Children's position statement (NAEYC, 2011). We design digital resources that strengthen teaching and learning, provide opportunities that are not available within the constraints of classrooms, promote social interactions among children and between teachers and children, and always complement effective, established teaching practices for preschool children through hands-on experiences.

Research and Development Using Iterative Design

Our teams of learning scientists and public media producers produce a Learning Blueprint, a document that maps out the learning trajectories for the curriculum areas. It also serves as an anchor for discussions and materials development during cycles of iterative design. Based on the Learning Blueprint, the team begins an iterative development process. Extensive user testing in different locations in the country help cull the materials and define the next steps for iterations. We pilot test to get extensive feedback detailing areas of strength and opportunities for improvement of the cohesive set of learning materials. We then complete materials for a final study, often an RCT study, that would implement the program in its entirety. Then our work is published to the world.

Key Insights about Effective Technology Integration

Our work has generated lists and articles of lessons learned about the effective integration of tablet technology in preschool classrooms. Some important lessons are:

  • Early learning with technology can and should be a social and collaborative experience.
  • Hands-on activities and manipulatives are important for a child's development and cannot be replaced by technology. Digital tools should be integrated with hands-on learning experiences and include unique features that strengthen and extend children's hands-on learning.
  • Games for learning need to have gentle pacing and allow for thinking, reflecting, and learning.
  • Partnerships with researchers, advisors, teachers, and children are integral in the development of high-quality learning digital resources.
  • Teachers need support, especially in integrating new technologies.

Our Selected Posters and Publications

Using technology to support early science teaching and learning.

Dominguez, X., Vidiksis, R., Orr, J., Kamdar, D., & Lewis Presser, A. (2022, January 12). NAEYC.

Exploring Preschool Data Collection and Analysis: A Pilot Study.

Lewis Presser, A. E., Young, J. M., Clements, L. J., Rosenfeld, D., Cerrone, M., Kook, J. F., Sherwood, H. (2022). Education Sciences, 12 (2), 118.

Four ways to use tablets to foster early math learning.

Young, J. M., & Lewis Presser, A. (2021, December 13). NAEYC.

Navigating preschoolers spatial learning in the classroom.

Lewis Presser, A. E., Kamdar, D., & Dominguez, X. (Winter, 2021). Teaching Young Children, 14 (2), 16-18.

Developing your preschooler's spatial thinking.

Lewis Presser, A. E., Orr, J., & Levin, M. (Winter, 2021). Teaching Young Children, 14 (2), 16-18.

Ramp it up! Preschoolers investigate force and motion with a digital journal.

Lewis Presser, A.E., Dominguez, X., Goldstein, M., Vidiksis, R., & Kamdar, D. (2019, March). Science & Children, 56 (7), 30-37.

Next Generation Preschool Science (NGPS): Findings from a Field Study to Examine Implementation and Outcomes of a Preschool Science Program Integrating Hands-on Investigations with Innovative Technology.

Dominguez, X., Goldstein, M., Lewis Presser, A., Kamdar, D., & Vidiksis, R. (2018, July). Paper presented at the Administration for Children and Families' (ACF) National Research Conference on Early Childhood (NRCEC) in Washington, DC.

The evidence based curriculum design framework: Leveraging diverse perspectives in the design process.

Vahey, P., Reider, D., Orr, J., Lewis Presser, A. E., & Dominguez, X. (2018). International Journal of Designs for Learning, 9, 135-148.

Growing plants and minds.

Presser, A. L., Kamdar, D., Vidiksis, R., Goldstein, M., Dominguez, X., & Orr, J. (2017). Science & Children, 55(2), 41.

Tablet-based mathematics activities in preschool: Leveraging the benefits and confronting the challenges.

Lewis Presser, A.E., Vesisenaho, M., Vahey, P., Zanchi, C., Nousiainen, T., Uusi-Mäkelä, M., Viteli, J., & Orr, J. (2014, August). A poster presented at the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction (EARLI) Conference, University of Jyväskylä, Finland.

Designing innovative and evidence-based preschool programs to promote early math and science learning: A collaborative partnership between researchers, media developers, and preschool educators.

Lewis Presser, A.E., Dominguez, X., Vahey, P., Zanchi, C., & Goldstein, M. (2014, July). A poster presented at the Head Start Research Conference, Washington, DC.

Effects of a preschool and kindergarten mathematics curriculum: Big math for little kids.

Lewis Presser, A. E., Clements, M., Ginsburg, H. G., & Ertle, B. (Accepted with Revisions). Early Education and Development.

Technology and the future of preschool: Developmentally-appropriate and evidence-based approaches to integrating technology in the classroom.

Vahey, P., Lewis Presser, A. E., & Dominguez, X. (2013, December). A presentation at the STEM Smart: Lessons Learned from Successful Schools Conference, Washington, DC.

The design of a tablet-based preschool math program.

Vahey, P., Dominguez, X., Lewis Presser, A.E. & Zanchi, C. (2013, November). Poster presented at the Psychology of Mathematics Education Conference, Chicago, IL.

Designing early childhood math games: A research-driven approach.

Lewis Presser, A., Vahey, P., & Zanchi, C. (2013, June).

Short paper and poster presented at the Interaction Design and Children Conference, New York, NY.

Next Generation Preschool Math demo: Tablet games for preschool classrooms.

Zanchi, C., Lewis Presser, A., & Vahey, P. (2013, June). Demo and paper presented at the Interaction Design and Children Conference, New York, NY.

Exploratorium: Sharing Next Generation Preschool Math games. Players & Professors: Exploring the Future of Digital Media & Learning.

Vahey, P. (4/29/13). San Francisco, CA.

Hugging technology: the social benefits of integrating preschool apps in the classroom.

Orr, J. (4/6/13). Boston Children's Museum Family Fest Day. Boston, MA.

Digital media and child development.

Zanchi, C., & Pasnik, S. (4/5/13). Early Childhood Summit: Innovation and Opportunity, sponsored by the American Association of Pediatrics, Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University and Strategies for Children. Boston, MA.

Social and mobile learning: Making technology preK ready.

Rizzo, A., Zanchi, C., & Pasnik, S. (3/6/13). SxSw Education Conference. Austin, TX.

Designing tablet apps for math learning in preschool.

Zanchi, C., & Lewis Presser, A. (11/8/12). iPad Summit. Boston, MA.