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Meaningful online education for our youngest learners: Tips to reconcile the need for e-learning with how young children learn best

Meaningful online education for young learners

By Jill Bowdon
August 25, 2020

When schools suddenly closed down last March, many teachers lacked experience with using technology to instruct students and connect with them. In early childhood and early elementary school classes, this challenge was compounded by the fact that many teachers consider e-learning to be developmentally inappropriate for younger students. Teachers’ years of experience told them that rather than sitting and learning passively by staring at computers or tablets, young learners need to move their bodies, practice their fine motor skills, interact with peers, use manipulatives, and play.

As schools reopen for the 2020/21 academic year, many districts plan to incorporate educational technology, such as online learning management systems and educational apps. How can early childhood and early elementary school teachers reconcile the need for e-learning with what they know about how young children learn best?

Look for apps that promote the four pillars of learning

Luckily, research can help educators resolve this dilemma. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, PhD, a nationally renowned psychologist, collaborated with colleagues to produce standards for evaluating educational apps [658 KB PDF icon ] based on the science of learning. According to Dr. Pasek and her colleagues (2015), apps that are designed for young children are most effective when they promote the following four pillars of learning:

  1. Active, or minds-on, involvement of young learners. Active involvement is more than just swiping or tapping on a screen. For example, apps that promote active involvement could have learners identify and photograph objects in their surroundings that begin with an initial sound, manipulate geometric shapes to solve tangram puzzles, or arrange musical notes onto a staff and then compose a tune using the notes. A good way to determine whether an app promotes minds-on learning is to check whether it results in learners creating content.
  2. Engagement of young learners. Young children are still developing the ability to stay on task. Consequently, they may be easily distracted by too many special effects or animations in apps and have trouble completing the tasks required to learn. Ideally, apps should make effects contingent on, or in response to, an action taken by the learner. For example, if a child taps on a picture of an apple, the app then would provide the initial sound of the word.

    To promote optimal engagement, material presented in an app should fall into the Goldilocks zone—that is, the material should be neither too challenging nor too easy. Teachers should draw on assessments and what they know about their students’ abilities to determine whether apps provide content at a level that is just right.

    Apps that optimize engagement promote intrinsic motivation and a growth mindset, or the desire to keep trying even when tasks are challenging because of a belief that practice leads to improvement. However, when apps provide stickers or a preferred activity upon the completion of a task, young learners may begin to need that external reinforcement and disengage from learning without it. Also, ironically, praise within an app may discourage engagement if the praise is for a child’s intelligence rather than specifically tied to a child’s effort or hard work.
  3. Meaningful learning. Apps that optimize learning ask children to go beyond rote memorization and perform more cognitively demanding skills, such as analyzing, evaluating, or creating. Learning experiences that involve more cognitively demanding skills tend to be “sticky” in the sense that learners are more likely to retain the knowledge and apply it in new contexts.

    To promote meaningful learning, apps can help young learners make connections between their own experience and new content. For example, an app may ask children to activate their prior knowledge of the animals they might see at a zoo before asking the students to create their own zoo. Notably, apps will work best if they are meaningful or relevant to a learner’s cultural and linguistic experiences.
  4. Social interaction. Face-to-face interactions are normally best for young learners. Apps that promote social interaction by encouraging young children to engage with family members and teachers can encourage dialogue and promote language development. In the time of COVID-19, face-to-face interactions are not always possible. The good news is that interactions mediated through screens can still have positive effects on young learners (Roseberry, Hirsh-Pasek, & Golinkoff, 2014). Such interactions could be a teacher and child on a video chat as they engage in an app, or two children using screen sharing to draw together online.

Set objectives and measures to guide learning

When teachers select apps with these four pillars in mind, they set up younger children for more successful learning experiences. However, just as important as these pillars is the context surrounding the use of an e-learning app. Teachers should be intentional about setting their learning objectives first and then selecting apps that align with those objectives, instead of the reverse. Similarly, teachers should ensure that apps provide mechanisms for assessing students’ learning so that teachers can build from the app in future instruction.

With this information in hand, early childhood and early elementary school teachers can feel more confident about providing technology-mediated learning experiences that are developmentally appropriate for young learners when used in regulated amounts.

Learn more

To learn more about apps that encourage content creation by young students, check out this Edutopia blog post that highlights seven apps available for use.

Browse REL Southwest’s searchable spreadsheets of resources that educators and caregivers can use to support young children’s learning and development at home, including e-learning apps and programs.


Hirsh-Pasek, K., Zosh, J. M., Golinkoff, R. M., Gray, J. H., Robb, M. B., & Kaufman, J. (2015). Putting education in “educational” apps: Lessons from the science of learning. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 16(1), 3–34. doi:10.1177/1529100615569721

Roseberry, S., Hirsh-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2014). Skype me! Socially contingent interactions help toddlers learn language. Child Development, 85(3), 956–970. doi:10.1111/cdev.12166

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Author Information

Jill Bowdon Staff Picture

Jill Bowdon

Senior Researcher | REL Midwest


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