‘Unplugged or Plugged In?’

John-John Serrano tries to get his daughter Xia’s attention with a digital puzzle on a tablet while she plays with a traditional wooden puzzle during a Group Connections workshop, “Unplugged or Plugged In?,” that the Washington Parents as Teachers program held Nov. 29 at the school district’s Early Learning Center. Photo by Jeanne Miller Wood.

Given the option of putting together a digital puzzle on a tablet or a traditional wooden inset puzzle, which would a young child choose?

It may depend on the age of the child, but parent educators with the Washington Parents as Teachers (PAT) program said generally speaking they have observed that children ages 5 and younger tend to gravitate to the hands-on traditional toys.

But, they are quick to point out, that isn’t to say that technology is all bad and doesn’t have a place in helping to educate young children.

“Technology can be a great learning tool,” said Gloria Attoun Bauermeister, who is in her 19th year as a parent educator.

Parents as Teachers is a free parent education program for families with children prenatal to kindergarten age that supports parents in being their children’s first and best teacher by helping children reach their fullest potential. Trained and qualified parent educators provide home- or center-based visits which consist of providing families with age-appropriate activities, information on topics such as potty training, discipline, sleep and anything that parents need to support them in raising their children.

Parents as Teachers also provides developmental screenings, facilitates “Group Connections” events and shares community resources for families.

Last November, the Washington PAT program designed a Group Connections workshop for parents and their preschool-aged children called “Unplugged or Plugged In?” The goal was to expose children and their parents to both hands-on activities and also digital learning.

“We had different stations in all of the areas of development that incorporated both hands-on learning activities, paired with an app which had the same developmental domain or goal in learning,” said Attoun Bauermeister, who organized and facilitated the workshop. “In a way, it was an experiment to see which the children would prefer and which the parents thought was a better choice for learning and development.

“We, as parent educators, know that hands-on play is best for learning, because the more senses one uses, the more connections are being made across different areas of the brain and that face-to-face communication and back and forth communication are best for attachment, language learning and every other developmental domain,” she said.

Sarah Tribout, Labadie, attended the workshop with her twin 5-year-old sons, Logan and Dylan.

The boys couldn’t be more different in terms of their interest in technology, said Tribout, noting Logan prefers all things tech (TV, computers, tablets . . .), while Dylan would spend all of his time outdoors if it were possible. At the workshop, however, both boys opted to play with the traditional wood puzzles over the digital.

That surprised her a little regarding Logan. Although his response was partly due to the fact that all of the tablets were already in use by other children when they arrived, rather than wait his turn for one, he went to the wooden puzzle instead.

In the end, Tribout left the workshop with several ideas on how to combine digital technology and apps with real world experiences to create fun and interactive learning opportunities for both of her sons.

The iNaturalist app suggested by parent educator Kelly Oreskovic, who headed up a sensory station at the workshop, was one of her favorites. It allows users to take photos of anything they see in nature — a bug, a tree, a plant — to identify it and learn more about it.

“So now the technology is a tool to aid and inform children and families as they interact hands-on with the real world,” said Oreskovic.

She also suggested the SkyView app that helps people identify stars, locate the constellations and more just by pointing their smartphone at the sky, and ideas like using the camera feature on smartphones to create a scavenger hunt.

“You can go outside and take pictures of things, then have the kids go out to find them with you,” said Oreskovic, noting this could be a good way to encourage tech-prone kids who don’t like to be outside much to go exploring. “Before you know it, they might be finding some new kind of bug or walking barefoot in the grass and doing things they wouldn’t normally do.”

In addition to the apps, Oreskovic had bins filled with a variety of textures and items found in nature, including a cocoon and a deer bone. Other parent educators offered creative ideas as well.

Jenny Kelpe, who headed up the literacy/language station, showed families how they can make books using either pictures from magazines or photos taken with the camera feature on their smartphone and placing them into resealable plastic bags.

Sandi Gildehaus focused on feelings, pretend play and self-help skills in the social-emotional area. In the intellectual area, Lisa Ruth used Play-Doh and other manipulative materials in sorting, counting and shapes play.

Cindy Eckelkamp, who put together the fine motor skills area, shared activities to help children with strengthening their hand muscles for writing. This included things like drawing with crayons and playing with wooden puzzles and resealable plastic bags filled with colored corn syrup and shaving cream.

She also had a stylus that kids could use with the digital tablet.

“We are seeing through our screenings and things that fine motor skills among a lot of young children are not what they used to be,” said Oreskovic. “We don’t know why, but we think it could be related to them doing more swiping and tapping on digitial devices than holding a crayon, building with blocks or cutting with scissors.”

And for children who gravitate to tech devices, using a stylus, which is held just like a pencil or crayon, is a great way to help build those hand muscles and fine motor skills, Oreskovic said.

‘Research Based’ Information

The “Unplugged or Plugged In?” workshop was free and open to the public, although most of the families that attended were part of the Washington PAT program.

It was designed for children aged 2 and older, because the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t recommend tech devices for children under the age of 2, although the exception is children who are 18 months co-viewing tech devices with a parent.

In designing the workshop, the parent educators relied on information from the PAT curriculum and the American Pediatrics Academy.

“We wanted it all to be researched based,” said Attoun Bauermeister. “They recommend no screen time for children under age 2, but it can be OK for 18-month-olds if they are co-viewing with a parent and interacting.”

In her experience of visiting with parents and their babies/toddlers, that isn’t usually an issue.

“What I have seen is that babies are not interested in tech devices,” said Attoun Bauermeister. “It’s not even an issue at 18 months, because they just want to do hands-on stuff.”

That observation was reinforced by many of the kids’ actions at the “Unplugged or Plugged In?” workshop.

Attoun Bauermeister said her favorite part of the evening was watching a 2-year-old toddler playing with a traditional wood puzzle while her dad kept trying to get her interested in a digital puzzle on an iPad.

“The child would try the iPad puzzle, but kept going back to the real, wooden puzzle,” said Attoun Bauermeister.

Parent educators recommend that whenever possible, parents provide “the real thing” over digital alternatives because it’s better for brain development.

“If you have the opportunity to count items in your home, while walking up and down stairs or playing with blocks, this will form more connections in the brain than doing the same thing on a two-dimensional screen,” Attoun Bauermeister explained. “Try to use technology as a tool — to learn new songs, to learn how to play an instrument, or as a camera to make a book, or if you aren’t at home and don’t have all of those rich, hands-on experiences available.”

The parent educators suggest parents have limits set for how much total “screen time” they allow their young children to have each day. At the workshop last November, they handed out a log sheet for parents to help keep track.

“Each parent who attended this workshop received a few of our handouts from the PAT curriculum. We also made our own handout which featured more timely information such as the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations for how to use technology with children and approved apps and YouTube channels,” said Attoun Bauermeister.

“For instance, if a child is using a device, watching, playing, reading and working with your child increases learning and attachment with you, more than if the child is left alone with the device. If a child seems to be addicted to the device and it is causing power struggles and difficulty in the home, it is fine to eliminate the devices totally until the child is more mature,” she said.

“For toddlers 18 to 24 months, watch digital media with them. Limit screen use for children ages 2 to 5 to one hour a day of high-quality programming, and co-viewing is best!”

One of the motivations for organizing the “Unplugged or Plugged In?” event was to help parents in developing their own guidelines and rules for how they want their kids to use these tech devices, said Attoun Bauermeister.

Tech Benefits

Dannielle Hellmann, Washington, admits she is a tech-heavy user with her two children, Xander, who is almost 3, and Xia, 2, but she is always careful about what she allows her children to access and for how long.

“I limit them to one or two times a day for tablet/tech time, and I try to make it a reward for something,” said Hellmann, noting her children both have their own LeapPad tablets, which are specially designed and geared for young children, but they also have lots of traditional toys as well.

She and her husband, John-John Serrano, use technology, like educational videos on YouTube, Hulu and Netflix, to further engage their children in learning experiences, and she is careful to review any apps first to see how they work before letting her kids access them on their own.

Her son’s favorite game is the Highlights Shapes app.

“The whole idea is they make this little story and it has background music to it,” she said. “You match a colored shape to a dotted outline, and when you do, it creates a picture story.”

Both kids also like the Sesame Street Alphabet Kitchen app where they can create letter and word cookies with Elmo and Cookie Monster.

Hellmann said she doesn’t consider tech use in general as either good or bad for her children. She sees it as another means of presenting them with new learning opportunities. She particularly likes finding apps that allow her children, through their responses or input, to become more involved in a story or activity as they learn from it.

“I like that idea of them engaging with something, that ‘What happens when . . . ’ ” she said.

The parent educators said parents need to be careful not to assume that all technology use is bad. There can be lots of benefits from using tech devices as part of play and learning, or even just social interaction.

“FaceTime or Skype are priceless ways of communicating with family who live far away or even for a parent to check in with a child while they are at work,” said Attoun Bauermeister.

And YouTube is a wonderful way that lots of people use in learning to do new things, like playing an instrument or painting from “how to” videos.

Oreskovic also suggested using the stopwatch feature on many smartphones to conduct various challenges, like seeing how many jumping jacks a child can do in a set amount of time.

‘Still Face Experiment’ from the 1970s

One of the most important guidelines the parent educators wanted parents to take away from their “Unplugged or Plugged In?” workshop was to be good role models in terms of their tech use. They refer to the “still face experiment” from the 1970s to illustrate the importance of engaging and interacting with your baby and toddler.

The video, which is available on YouTube, shows what happens when a parent stops interacting with their child for even a few minutes.

“This causes stress in the child emotionally and physically,” said Attoun Bauermeister. “Yet, without even knowing, some of us do this unintentionally by staring at our devices when our children are around.

“One of the recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics is to create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings and children’s bedrooms screen-free, and be a good role model when using technology because children imitate their parents.”

For more information on Parents as Teachers, people can call the office at 636-231-2820 or send an email to sandra.gildehaus@washington.k12.mo.us.

Parents as Teachers is part of the Washington School District, and its office is located inside the Early Learning Center (ELC) at 831 W. Pride Drive.

For more information about Washington Parents as Teachers, go to www.washington.k12.mo.us, and under Programs, select Parents as Teachers. To see the Group Connections schedule, select Group Connections.

The program holds regular group events, both during the day and in the evening, that are open to the public. Reservations are recommended.

The next Group Connections event is a play group, “We Love Music, With Miss Gloria,” set for Wednesday, Feb. 13, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the ELC.