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The New Playground for Preschoolers and Parents

Parents bring their young children to public playgrounds with an expectation that the visit will present opportunities to socialize and pretend with others of a similar age. Children also look forward to the experience and often express reluctance to leave the playground when told that it is time for them to go home. In this setting the responsibilities of adults are to be careful observers who monitor conditions to ensure safety, prevent mistreatment, and support enjoyment for everyone. The appeal of public playgrounds makes them a popular destination around the world.

There is another playground, a place where having fun, talking, and learning is what a child and a parent do together. In this more complex environment, the adult responsibilities involve helping children practice civil attitudes as well as technology skills that will enable learning online and involvement with social networking. The goals of this presentation are to describe why parents should welcome their obligation to introduce preschoolers to the Internet, define appropriate expectations for both generations, identify obstacles that should be overcome, suggest guidelines for teaching online, and outline an innovative program we are creating for parents.

Mutual Motivation
The Kaiser Family Foundation (2004) conducted the first national survey to determine the extent of media presence in the lives of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Sources of information included 1,000 parents of children from 6 months to 6 years of age. Although the 20 million Americans not yet old enough to attend school are regularly seen as consumers by companies advertising on television and the Internet, little is known about the effects of exposure to such messages. The Kaiser survey concluded that preschoolers are the most rapidly increasing age segment to access the Internet. Many of these children are involved with a computer daily, alone when turning the machine on, and choose their activity.

Most families have Internet access and parents are eager to provide activities that support child readiness for the classroom. However, introducing children to the Internet is an unprecedented task that creates uncertainty among adults who wonder about the attitudes and skills they should try to convey. Fortunately, the Internet experience promotes conversation. A combination of visual and audio stimulation motivates preschoolers to talk about feelings, describe ideas, interpret events, express curiosity, generate guesses, identify difficulties, overcome failure, enjoy success, and gain confidence. There are corresponding opportunities for parents to share their own impressions, arrange discovery, answer questions, encourage persistence, acknowledge achievement, correct assumptions, make known right and wrong attitudes to guide conduct on the Internet, and make their unique contribution to development of social skills. Close family relationships depend on continuous access to one another and mutual self-disclosure. This orientation can also prevent the Internet from becoming an age-segregated arena in which communication is restricted to conversations with persons from the same cohort.

Preschoolers usually know letters of the alphabet and are able to recite numbers in progression. However, they have yet to acquire the necessary skills for reading to become a method of learning. As a result, young children rely on observation for much of what they know. Further, between 3 and 5 years of age, they are in a development stage called 'identification,' that leads them to imitate and adopt the attitudes and behaviors of their caretakers (National Early Child Care Research Network, 2005). Another factor motivating parents to use the Internet as a tool to provide education at home is the realization that, in a few years, their children will very possibly surpass them in ability to apply the skills of technology. When this inversion of authority emerges, indicating that a child knows more than parents do about some things, reciprocal learning (learning from each other) becomes possible. Mothers and fathers who provide their child the initial guidance needed for healthy exploration and interaction on the Internet will more likely accept this shift toward greater equality in family relationships.

Need to Revise Public Policy
The possibilities for increasing child and parent dialogue prompted us to design a free, online community service course for parents of 3 to 6 year olds. Most adults have observed that children prefer using tools of technology for their learning and recognize that parents who respect this motivation can teach more effectively. On the other hand, concern is mounting about children across the socioeconomic and ethnic spectrum that could be exposed to dangers lurking in cyberspace (Lerner & Benson, 2003; Rosen, 2007). Most parents today acknowledge that they sometimes must cope with circumstances that exceed their ability to successfully respond. Nevertheless, public policy has yet to reflect the fact that all parents of young children need education to equip them for an expanding instructional and guidance role (Epstein, 2006; Thernstrom & Thernstrom, 2003).

An assessment of the current scene reveals that, while disadvantaged families often face daunting obstacles, many of them demonstrate great resilience and strength (Schoon, 2006; Stipek, 2006). Studies have also shown that families in general have limitations that may require increased external support for them to succeed. Further, becoming an affluent parent does not always protect children from danger. Indeed, certain problems are more prevalent among families with higher incomes (Levine, 2006; Luthar & Ansary, 2005). In addition, responses of two million adolescents to surveys confirm that income and family structure have less influence on child development than parent behavior and community support (Benson, Scales, Hamilton, & Sesma, 2006). Forty developmental assets that 3 to 5 year olds should be able to count on are described by the Search Institute web site at All parents can choose to change their behavior whereas income and configuration of the family are less modifiable conditions. Accordingly, 'Learning with Preschoolers: Child and Parent Development' is a course intended for every family that can access the Internet.

Reaching Parents
Recruiting parents from diverse backgrounds as learners in the course calls for working with community organizations and agencies that already contribute to family welfare. Our task involves assistance from the following groups to help inform parents about the novel opportunity they have to teach and learn with their children online.

* Preschool directors who report periodically to parents about teaching
* Elementary school web sites serving parents of soon-to-be students
* Community college student services connecting parents to resources
* University student associations and alumni association news outlets
* Commanders of military bases and National Guard education officers
* Home School associations that arrange instruction for parent teachers
* Ecumenical Councils that identify family opportunities for faith groups
* Family Court judges requiring parent attendance in childrearing classes
* Parents without Partners, the Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America
* Radio and television news shows addressing community service needs
* Magazines and newspapers that alert adults to educational opportunity
* Public libraries, senior citizen centers, and community recreation centers
* Large corporations with human resources staff that work with employees.

Program Design
Three factors that affect parent development are considered in shaping the evolving program. The first factor is to make sure lessons for parents contain the knowledge that they are expected to gain from course participation. State reports about success of students in schools underscore the importance of curriculum alignment, linking instruction with the learning that will be evaluated (Valentine, Clark, Hackman, & Petzko, 2004). Experts in measurement recommend this approach as an essential criterion for assessment. A test blueprint matches the learning objectives with the content of test items and quickly identifies gaps. Reliance on blueprints can maximize content validity for intervention programs (Morrison & Howell, 2007).

The instrument used to assess parent understanding of child development and guide choice of content for lessons is the Parent as a Teacher Inventory (PAAT) (Strom, 1995). This inventory identifies favorable qualities of parents and detects their needs for further learning. Specific items make known how parents interact with their child, expectations of the child, actions taken in response to particular child behaviors, and knowledge about ways to support child development. PAAT includes 50 Likert-type items, divided into five scales, each containing ten items. The scales reflecting key concepts in child development and parent development are:
(1) Creativity -- willingness of the parent to support the imagination of a child;
(2) Frustration -- focus of parent frustration with behavior of the child;
(3) Control -- scope of control the parent needs to have over child actions;
(4) Play -- understanding how play influences child perspective; and
(5) Teaching/Learning -- views about ways to facilitate thinking in childhood. Comparing how parents perform on the PAAT before and after the course is the basis for preparing individual progress profiles. The inventory is described on the Office of Parent Development International Web site at

A second factor shaping course design is to stimulate interaction between parent and child in the context where they enjoy time together. Each of fifteen lessons for parents includes one or more carefully selected web sites clicked to for easy access. The resulting dialogue and mutual motivation to learn reinforces the value of curiosity and creative thinking, identifies right and wrong attitudes for Internet users of all ages, supports child imitation of commendable behaviors that may not be as readily witnessed in daily situations, and provides a natural setting for adults to observe attitudes and understandings of their children.

A common characteristic shared by good teachers who provide instruction for all age groups is an ability to recognize the conditions that promote learning. The optimal condition for a child to retain and apply knowledge is to be in a situation with opportunities to immediately practice what was taught and then get feedback from a parent who confirms achievement or gives corrective guidance. Situated-learning at home often contrasts with gaining knowledge in the classroom where memorization might be accepted as sufficient evidence of comprehension. The more beneficial form of assessment calls for demonstrating understanding in a context where the learning should be applied (Leve & Wenger, 2003).

A search of the early childhood education literature did not identify programs that assist parents in preparing children for nontraditional conditions of learning that are presented online. There is an emerging need to recognize that, from now on, child development will depend on having opportunities to gain extensive practice in using tools of technology. These possibilities should expand as more parents adopt a broader outlook and recognize the processes of mental, social, and emotional growth and the environment in which they occur are inseparable.

The third program design factor implicates scheduling. Most employed parents have obligations that make attending classes in schools or community centers impractical (Klein, 2005). A major advantage of an online curriculum is learning when it is convenient for individual parents. Lessons can be studied in any order. This allows participants to rely on personal concerns or individual interests as a basis for choosing their own sequence of progression. These flexible conditions permit mothers and fathers to discuss the lessons. Parent education classes take time away from the family whereas this course strives to increase the amount of dialogue between parent and child while spending time together (Weiss, Kreider, & Lopez, 2005). In addition, we believe that the consistency of guidance children need is more likely when mothers and fathers access the same set of lessons.

Program Components
Most parents agree that growing up and raising children today presents more complicated challenges and opportunities than were confronted by previous generations (Weiss, Kreider & Lopez, 2005). Understanding the age-appropriate expectation for children is necessary to support their success. Parents also need to possess guidance skills in order to facilitate learning. This course explores five separate realms in which to increase adult knowledge about development, build a trusting relationship with children, and contribute to mental health of the family.

(1) Parents have the unprecedented responsibility of introducing young children to the Internet as an essential resource for 21st century information and learning.
(2) Parents spend more time watching television with children than other forms of leisure and should make use of this setting to teach and monitor critical thinking.
(3) Parents have the role of teaching attitudes and skills that define a readiness baseline children are expected to show for reading and mathematics at school.
(4) Parents want children to become creative adults and can help attain this goal by becoming involved as partners in imaginative play and fantasy practice.
(5) Parents who accept the responsibility for discipline, to correct misconduct of their child, can initiate the basis for socialization that facilitates learning at school.

The following components make up most of the fifteen lessons. Some examples of guidelines, parent goals, and web sites appear at the end of this presentation.

* Essays describe separate aspects of child development for parent reflection.
* Parent goals are described that govern direction and for assessing progress.
* Parent-child Web site visits are identified to focus instruction and enjoyment.
* Guidelines for teaching online define attitudes and skills that parents should convey.
* Annotated children's books help parents focus the scope of reading to children.
* Parent-child play activities support preservation of imagination and creativity.
* Parent-child agenda questions stimulate mutual sharing of feelings and ideas.
* Parent Internet Web site visits increase awareness of child growth and needs.
* Parent conversations focus discussion on common goals and working together.

Priorities for Instruction
Several issues deserve consideration when going on the Internet with young children. First, parents should decide whether to focus mostly on content or process. Many adults think of the Internet as being a huge version of school curriculum. Certainly, some sites extend the knowledge gained in a classroom. However, instead of trying to expose a child to the content commonly known by adults, greater emphasis should center on mental processes related to critical thinking. This departure from their own education experience as young children often produces anxiety for parents because they believe that teaching consists mostly of communicating facts for memorization. A better strategy is to respect a child's motivation for discovery by teaching search skills that help people find out what they want to know. These nontraditional emphases promote the basic skills and attitudes needed to frame questions, persist in locating information, and think critically about the value of data presented by resource sites. The leadership role of parents permits them to repeatedly model conditions of self-directed learning such as asking questions, checking on hunches, exploring possibilities, judging credibility, and applying insights to situations that are experienced in daily affairs.

A second consideration for parents visiting the Internet with their child involves the adult perception of how enjoyment and play activities affect learning as a motivational factor. Many adults suppose that when an activity is enjoyable, it does not qualify as learning. This customary attitude that no longer makes sense reflects previous education experiences of adults. In contrast, anyone educating children today should realize that, beside quick data retrieval, the inclusion of visuals and sounds technology tools offer have enormous appeal, stimulate engagement, encourage dialogue, increase attention span, and contribute to willingness to persist in solving problems.

Program Effects
To determine the progress of individual parents and assess effectiveness of the online course for them, mothers and fathers complete a demographic form and self-evaluation before the first lesson and after the final lesson. Those who finish the course will get a confidential Parent as a Teacher Profile that identifies areas in which they have demonstrated growth and those where they have yet to learn. Parents can depart from the given sequence of lessons in favor of their personal choice for progression. The more lessons parents complete, the more they can benefit. After finishing each lesson, parents electronically submit an evaluation form reflecting their experience about personal relevance and application.

The African proverb suggesting that 'It takes a village to educate a child' warrants consideration by modern societies (Booth & Crouter, 2000). Still, most projects to increase guidance and supervision of young children focus only on the support system within schools. The usual approach is to schedule in-service training that enables teachers to be more responsive to student needs, orients counselors to motivational barriers they can influence, and acquaints principals with effective procedures to coordinate faculty activities. Corresponding efforts should support the adults that children rely on outside of school and especially before boys and girls are old enough to attend elementary grades. By presenting lessons that can help parents fulfill their new obligations along with performing their customary responsibilities, greater progress can occur in the social-emotional competence and academic achievement of children.

Preparing children for the digital learning environment is emerging as an aspect of education that requires teaching at home and in classrooms. Parents need to understand some basic aspects of technology to support their child's education, especially during the preschool years when curiosity is high and readily directed to discovery tasks, search skills, and ethical attitudes needed for Internet activity. Innovative programs could persuade more parents that their child can benefit from guided experience on the Internet and they, the adult relatives, are able to provide the initial instruction. Some mothers and fathers hesitate to invite a child to join them on the Internet because they may lack confidence in computer skills. A more productive outlook is to recognize that by demonstrating a desire to explore and discover ideas, parents illustrate a worthy example of motivation for learning. High expectations are appropriate for most children but dreaming contributes little to a child's prospects. A better strategy for parents is to set high expectations of themselves and stay involved with the exploration of new ideas that define lifelong learning. Modeling is the most powerful form of instruction and, in an era of rapid change, requires willingness to participate in certain challenges that were never encountered by parents in the past.

Everyone needs access to tools of information technology so they can participate in the expanding communication networks. Educating children today requires a different set of strategies than those relied on previously for guiding instruction. This change is happening because technology encourages children to question, challenge, and disagree, thereby increasing the potential for becoming critical thinkers. Toward this possibility, parents need encouragement and guidance to adopt high expectations for themselves in helping children begin their journey to become self-directed learners. As child access to technology grows, the amount of learning expected at home is bound to increase and require more involvement of parents to act as models, give corrective feedback, participate in reciprocal learning, and monitor Internet activity. We intend to support parents in meeting these challenges.

Sample Guidelines for Parents Teaching about the Internet

1. Situations that require waiting are opportunities to model patience. During the time that Internet materials are loading, explain that the computer is getting things ready for you to play together. Responding in this way presents a helpful example of learning to wait and being able to cope with delay. Adopting such attitudes contributes more to healthy adjustment of children than blaming others or the computer for the inconvenience of having to wait.

2. Respect your child's desire for repetition when exploring the Internet.Playing a game or doing an activity on the Internet repeatedly is more appealing to your child than it is for you. These experiences can provide children feelings of confidence that, in some situations, they know in advance what will happen next. Being able to predict that certain things will remain the same like having a daily schedule for meal time or going to bed satisfies a need for order and consistency that is much stronger in early childhood than during later stages of development.

3. Let the child navigate the mouse for needed practice without criticism. This experience provides a sense of control rather than watching the parent act as the sole control agent because it is easier for adults and things can proceed more quickly. Sharing some control with your child in certain situations is a better idea than constant dominance. Recognize that moving the mouse properly will be difficult at first, particularly given the lesser muscle control of children at this age. Encourage practice. Responses like "You can do it," and "You did it correctly" are more appropriate responses to confirm achievement than vague praise like "You are amazing," or "You are really smart."

4. Always read directions for a task before letting a child move ahead. Your child will be expected in school to follow directions given by the teacher. Now is a good time to introduce the importance of directions. Ways to use the mouse and other keyboard functions are usually described on the computer screen. Parents should read these directions aloud to clarify the steps which should be taken. Do Internet tasks yourself the first time as the child watches and then imitates.

Parent Goals
* Teach your child that success all through life requires making a continued effort.
* You and your child should benefit from spending time together on the Internet.
* Observe carefully so you can tell when your child has learned certain things.

Parent-Child Internet Visit
Before going online with your child, review the teaching guidelines and visit the Barnaby Bear site by yourself so that you know what to expect. Visit the British Broadcasting Company to meet Barnaby Bear and play a Fairy Footprints game.


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