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Touchscreens and Young Children

Benefits and Risks
David Elkind

rom many different perspectives,

touchscreen technology has significantly
changed the environments in which young
children are reared and educated. Touchscreens
effectively bypass the keyboard barrier to give
young children full access to digital technology.
They empower even very young children to
meaningfully, and enjoyably, engage with a variety
of applications (apps) available on tablets such
as iPads.
This mode of activity for young children raises at
least two important questions. The first has to do
with the developmental appropriateness of apps
for preschoolers: To what extent are the demands
of any given app in sync with a young childs
cognitive ability and fine motor skills? The second
question follows the first: For those apps that are
developmentally appropriate, does interacting with
them enrich, accelerate, or hinder development? I
will address both questions in turn.

The facility of children ages 2 to 5 with tablet
touchscreens has generated an ever-growing number
of apps for young children. The majority, priced at
a dollar or two, are designed for the mass market.
Apps for young children range from those that take
their abilities into account to those that seem to
be designed without consideration of the physical
and cognitive development of the children they are
intended for.
Developmental appropriateness has two facets:
content and intellectual level.


Many apps for young children require them to match
attributes, such as shapes or colors, or objects, such
as animals. When the matches involve common
geometric shapes, primary colors, or familiar objects,
this can be a useful and enjoyable learning experience.
On the other hand, if the shapes, colors, or objects
are unfamiliar and have no labels to which they
can be readily attached, the experience can be
more frustrating than educational. In some animal
matching games, for example, the drawings are so
stylized as to be almost unrecognizable. These might
be fun for older children but not for young children,
who tend to think in concrete terms.

Intellectual demands
The second consideration involves the intellectual
demands of a task. Before the age of 4 or 5, most
young children can process only a single attribute
at a time. That is the reason, for example, that the
characters in fairy tales for this age group tend to be
one-dimensional. The wicked ogre, stepmother, and
witch, as well as the good Fairy Godmother, Snow
White, and Cinderella, all illustrate this point.
Typically, young children do not have trouble
matching one attribute at a time, but they do have
trouble matching combinations of attributes. A game
involving matching objects by color and shape, color
and size, or shape and size may be too difficult for
many young children. Some matching game apps for
the under-5 set even have children matching figures
by a combination of three attributes.
If the content and intellectual demands are age
appropriate, apps can be fun and engaging for young
children. But does using apps accelerate, enrich, or
hinder cognitive development?

Young ChildrenMarch 2016

Acceleration, enrichment,
When defining the pros and cons of young children
using touchscreen apps, acceleration suggests that
childrens rate of cognitive development increases;
enrichment suggests that their development is
broadened and strengthened; and hindrance suggests
that using apps may frustrate and discourage childrens
exploration and growth.

The touchscreen is here to stay and will only
become more pervasive in our lives and the lives
of our children. In many ways, the introduction of
touchscreen technology has done for childrens access
to technology what Montessoris ([1912] 1964) childsized furniture and cutlery did for their access to the
adult-ordered world. Montessoris innovations removed
the muscular constraints on childrens ability to operate
in the physical milieu of adults. Touchscreens, in turn,
have removed the keyboard hindrance to childrens
ability to interact with virtual realityalready a
familiar environment for older children and youth.
As with Montessoris child-sized household
furnishings, however, touchscreen technology does
not accelerate development. In the case of Montessoris
innovations, it still takes several years before young
children can effectively use adult-size furniture and
cutlery. Likewise, using the touchscreen does not lower
the age at which children are able to operate with
multiple attributes, to master phonics, or to perform
mathematical operations. Touchscreen technology, like
child-sized furniture and cutlery,
only makes tasks easier; it does
not make children brighter.

support two well-established principles of development.

Both principles are either explicit or implicit in the
writings of the landmark figures in the history of
developmentally appropriate practice (Elkind 2015).
Many giants of early childhood education have
emphasized the importance of children learning to
discriminate among things before they learn the names
of those things. This principle is described by the
inventor of kindergarten, Friedrich Froebel, who aptly
put it, Children must master the language of things
before they master the language of words (1904). This
is just what children do in many matching games. They
learn to recognize and distinguish between a variety of
shapes, sizes, objects, and so on before they learn the
names for these things.
The rationale for this principle is perfectly
straightforward. Learning the name for something is
only meaningful after a child has learned to recognize
the thingor class of thingsthe name represents
(Bernstein, Loftus, & Meltzoff 2005). Age-appropriate
touchscreen apps can thus facilitate young childrens
learning of many perceptual attributes before they
learn the names of those attributes. This is one form
of enrichment.
A second principle, introduced by Heinz Werner (1957)
and implicit in the work of Jean Piaget ([1947] 1950)
and Lev Vygotsky (1978), might be paraphrased as
horizontal elaboration precedes vertical integration.
Vygotskys concept of zone of proximal development
illustrates this principle. Children may not
spontaneously maximize their development potential
but can do so with social intervention. Susan Careys
(2004) concept of bootstrapping is a comparable idea.

We do not yet have a great
deal of research regarding the
impact of touchscreen play on
young childrens development.
Nonetheless, it is still possible
to argue that developmentally
appropriate apps can enrich
a childs mental growth. This
follows because age-suitable apps

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Another example is Piagets demonstration that

children need to master classification and seriation
(arranging objects by size) in order to combine these
to form the higher-order unit conceptwhich is both
cardinal and ordinal (Piaget & Szeminska [1941] 1952).
It is only after attaining the unit concept that children
are able to perform mathematical operations. Many
early childhood curricula now include both of these
activities. Because touchscreen apps can provide
children with many variations of particular attributes,
they facilitate hierarchical concept formation.

young children with more advanced apps that require

them to decode phonics and use mathematical operations
can be both frustrating and confusing for them.

Apps can thus support conceptual growth by having a

child learn a concept before learning its name and by
offering children an opportunity to practice on a wide
variety of exemplars of the higher-order concept to be
acquired. Both of these facets of carefully selected apps
can enrich conceptual development.

But this does not mean that the early childhood years
are wasted. Apps for young children demonstrate how
much young children can learn and also how much
they need to learn before they are exposed to formal
academic instruction. Infants are not born knowing
colors, shapes, forms, smells, tastes, and touches.
These must be learned over time, through effortful
engagement with a childs sensory, physical, and social
worlds. Like Montessoris child-sized furniture and
cutlery, age-appropriate apps make young childrens
adaptation to the real world easier but no less
necessary. That adaptation takes time, and that is what
age-appropriate early childhood education is all about.

Age-appropriate apps would thus seem to have the
potential to maximize conceptual growth by having a
child learn an attribute before learning its name and
by giving the child additional practice in learning the
lower-order concepts to later be incorporated into the
higher-level ones. But this is just a potential, and it can
be offset in a variety of ways. First, children ages 2 to 5
should not spend too much time playing with appsan
hour at a time, at most. Young children still have to
be comfortable in the real world before they become
immersed in the virtual one. Touchscreen apps provide
little or no opportunity for creative play. When children
spend too much time on such apps, it limits the time
they can spend in creative play.
Experiencing the real world directly is the only way
young children can learn to operate effectively within
it. For young children, this comes about by interacting
with adults and peers and by playing with natural
materialsfor example, sand, water, and wooden
blocksand with graphic materialsfor example,
crayons, clay, and finger paints. In addition, these
activities give young children opportunities to be
innovative and creative, something not possible with
preprogrammed apps.
Secondly, young childrens facility with apps can be
deceptive, sometimes leading parentsand even
teachersto assume that their preschoolers are more
developmentally advanced than is the case. Presenting


Despite decades of TV and commercial programs

promising to teach young children to read and do math,
none have been shown to be successful. Development
cannot be hurried. It still takes at least five or six years
before preschoolers can go beyond learning sight words
and global assessments of quantity (bigger, smaller,
taller, shorter, and so on).

New technologies can facilitate the ways in which
children learn, but they cannot accelerate the rate
at which children grow. It is unlikely that the use of
technology will increase the rate of childrens cognitive
development faster than their biological programming
permits. For example, we can enrich childrens
language and maximize their potential in this regard
by talking, singing, and reading aloud to them from
infancy, but the pace of linguistic progress will still be
limited by their individual rate of development. The
same holds true for touchscreen apps designed for
young children. Appropriate apps matched to childrens
interests and development may serve to enrich growth;
however, even the best-designed apps are limited in
their ability to accelerate development.

Bernstein, D.M., G.R. Loftus, & A.N. Meltzoff. 2005.
Object Identification in Preschool Children and Adults.
Developmental Science 8 (2): 15161.

Young ChildrenMarch 2016

Carey, S.E. 2004. Bootstrapping and the Origin of Concepts.

Daedalus 133 (1): 5968.
Elkind, D. 2015. Giants in the Nursery: A Biographical History
of Developmentally Appropriate Practice. Minneapolis, MN:
Froebel, F. 1904. Pedagogics of the Kindergarten. New York: D.

About the author

David Elkind, PhD, is professor emeritus of child
development at Tufts University. He is a past president of the
National Association for the Education of Young Children.
His most recent book is Giants in the Nursery: A Biographical
History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice.

Montessori, M. [1912] 1964. The Montessori Method. Trans. A.E.

George. New York: Schocken.
Piaget, J. [1947] 1950. The Psychology of Intelligence. Trans. M.
Piercy & D.E. Berlyne. London: Routledge.
Piaget, J., & A. Szeminska. [1941] 1952. The Childs Concept
of Number. Trans. C. Gattegno & F.M. Hodgson. London:
Vygotsky, L.S. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher
Psychological Processes. Ed. and trans. M. Cole, V. JohnSteiner, S. Scribner, & E. Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press.
Werner, H. 1957. Comparative Psychology of Mental Development.
Rev. ed. New York: International Universities Press.

Viewpoint, a periodic feature of the journal,

provides a forum for sharing opinions and
perspectives on topics relevant to the field of early
childhood education. The commentary published
in Viewpoint is the opinion of the author and
does not necessarily reflect the view or position
of NAEYC. NAEYCs position statements on a
range of topics can be found at
positionstatements. If you would like to write a
viewpoint, please see

Copyright 2016 by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. See Permissions and Reprints online at


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