Achieving Balance: Technology and Play in K-2


An important conversations is taking place throughout our board’s school communities as the result of Dr. Jean Clinton’s message regarding technology and young children. Parents and educators alike are asking the question about the impact of technology on young children’s development as they attempt to navigate the complex world; a conversation that I am thrilled is taking place as it demonstrates that individuals are thinking deeply about both the academic and social development of our children and thus, we are increasingly becoming aware of the connection between the two.  Dr. Clinton’s message was clear to us – young children need to play as this is the way that they are going to develop thinking skills, communication skills, learn to self-regulate, and thus, develop social-emotional skills.  However, we also know that our world has changed – technology is not a fad, it is the vehicle through which we now communicate in the world, obtain information, become inspired, and develop a global perspective.  It is a necessary tool for children and youth to reach their full potential, and when used appropriately, must be an integral part of education and daily life. When we think about the 21st Century Competencies, we know that technology is a tool that empowers us to achieve some of those competencies.  Neither of these arguments are being disputed, I believe, as we know that both are necessary – play and technology.

Where this conversation has landed is on some key wonderings about the impact of technology on our youngest learners.  It is the age old discussion – if we are sitting very young children in front of a screen (the screen used to be the TV, now it is a tablet) “too much”, what skills are they not developing?  What are the technology skills that our youngest learners should be developing?  What different considerations to we need to make for infants, toddlers, pre-school age, and Kindergarten students?

We Know that Social-Emotional Learning through Play is Essential


The Early Development Instrument (EDI) continues to shed light upon the notion that many of the children from our region are struggling (called “vulnerable” on the EDI) in the areas of Emotional Maturity and Physical Health and Well-Being.  Our trending data illustrates that we are continuing to see an increasing number of vulnerable children in both areas, Emotional Maturity climbing significantly. Captureedidomains

What does this tell us?  The Physical Health and Well-Being domain gives us indicators of the overall physical development of children in Senior Kindergarten, providing us with information about levels of energy, fine and gross motor skills, and physical independence such as coordination.  Emotional maturity tells us about children’s ability to react before acting, their impulsivity, their ability to deal with feelings at an age-appropriate level, and their empathic responses to other people’s feelings (Offord Centre, EDI Descriptive Report, 2016, pg. 4).  This data is telling us that we need to intervene to a greater degree in these areas of development for our children, as we know that the gap will only grow larger if we do not. Let me be clear – I am not suggesting that technology is to blame for this situation. I do believe that the world has changed in a way that had made me rethink my actions as a parent and as an educator.


The EDI scores are only one indicator of the need to do things differently. As educators, we are now, more than ever, aware of the need to integrate explicit instruction in social-emotional learning into our daily work as “social and emotional learning (SEL) provides a foundation for safe and positive learning, and enhances students’ ability to succeed in school, careers, and life.” This includes helping students to develop the ability to self-manage, whereby they develop the “skills and attitudes that facilitate the ability to regulate one’s own emotions and behaviors…and includes the ability to delay gratification, manage stress, control impulses, and persevere through challenges in order to achieve personal and educational goals.” (Weissberg, R., “Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students”, Edutopia, Feb. 2016).  We must teach social awareness, which “involves the ability to understand, empathize, and feel compassion for those with different backgrounds or cultures. It also involves understanding social norms for behavior” (Weissberg, R., “Why Social and Emotional Learning Is Essential for Students”, Edutopia, Feb. 2016).  The fostering of relationship skills whereby students understand and act according to social norms including Capturesocialcommunicating clearly, actively listening, cooperating, collaborating, and negotiating conflict (all achieved through play!) is vital to the achievement and well-being of students. Programs such as Second Step, Roots of Empathy, The Zones of Regulation, and Restorative Practices are becoming increasingly used in our classrooms, as educators understand the necessity of explicitly teaching social-emotional learning to help students manage themselves, relate to others and make good choices. There is greater understanding that this is a component of being student centered.

Dr. Clinton’s research tells us however, that these skills can be fostered at very young ages through an environment that fosters connections.

We know now that all areas are interconnected and developing together – emotions, language, thinking – rendering it ineffective to focus on one area without the others. Children learn best in an environment that acknowledges this interconnectivity and thus focuses on both emotional and cognitive development. There is now an explosion of knowledge that tells us that healthy development cannot happen without good relationships between children and the important people in their lives, both within the family and outside of it.  As Dr. Jack Shonkoff states, “young children experience their world as an environment of relationships, and these relationships affect virtually every aspect of their development” (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2004). Relationships are the active ingredient in healthy development, especially brain development.  (“Think, Feel, Act”, Ontario Ministry of Education, 2013). 

This notion was reinforced lately by a valued colleague, “Becoming a mother has really allowed me to truly watch and better understand children, they are so curious and capable (and cute)!!! But they need the opportunities to play and explore… we need to guide, model and give them opportunities to problem solve…technology doesn’t do this” (Skworchinski, Personal Communication, May 2016).

We Also Know that Technology is the Norm

We are beginning to understand that student achievement and well-being are inseparable. Dr. Fullan (OPSOA, April 2016) reminded us of the importance of understanding and fostering the 21st Century Competencies in our schools as, “when you are proficient at all six competencies, this is tantamount to having a life of well-being as you have the skills to flourish in the world today and in the future.”

Captureglobal competencies

However, there is a concern that “some are interpreting the 21st Century Skills to be completely about technology” (Blackwood, SGDSB, May 2016), and we need to fully understand that technology is a tool to help us to achieve some of these competencies.

This is a key point in navigating this discussion – we need to achieve a balance in this argument. It is not an “all or nothing” argument when we discuss school age children’s needs.  School aged children need to use technology when it is appropriate. We know our learners in the classroom, and we know who requires more support in and focus on the social-emotional learning areas, and who and when to use technology.  School age children need to become increasingly familiar with the keyboard, but this needs to be achieved through play and inquiry. It is not about explicit instruction…if we believe that children learn best through play, let’s resist the urge to “stuff the duck” as Dr. Clinton says.  Let’s do what we do best, let’s provide opportunities for children to play with technology collaboratively while we also provide opportunities for them to play with the blocks, in the outdoor classrooms, and to thus, build their social and emotional skills and knowledge with concrete, face-to-face interactions.  Let’s keep the notion of balance in our minds, but also remember that as professionals, we are thinking about PURPOSE as well…what is our purpose in deciding to use an app as a provocation to teach coding to students who are wondering about using directional language?  or to help a group of students obtain answers to their questions about the fires in Fort McMurray by connecting with others?  or to perhaps help students to capture their thinking over time?   It is this type of consideration that will serve our youngest learners well.

This is an important conversation and I am thrilled that it is happening.  We all need to think deeply about what has changed in the world, but also what we know about brain research and the development of very young minds.  This needs to inform our decisions daily; it is not about the exciting, cool things that technology can do, or about using the Ipads as busy work, or about removing them completely from our Kindergarten and Grade 1 and 2 classrooms. It is about PURPOSE. “My son’s fine motor skills developed tremendously as the result of his use of technology at a young age…this has served him well as a teenager” (Schram, SGDSB, May 2016), thus illustrating my point about ensuring that the tool fits the purpose.

Finally, let’s deeply think about our own kids and the messages that we are indirectly sending them.  I am guilty of responding to a text message during dinner at a restaurant, thus modelling for my child that focused family time isn’t important.  I see parents and caregivers on their phones while at the park or out for a walk with their little ones.  What a missed opportunity to model language and communication with that child. Does this level of distraction with screens serve to isolate very young children?   “We are likely all guilty of using screens as temporary child care to allow us time for a shower” (Tuuri, SGDSB, May 2016), however we need to ask ourselves just how much screen time our children are engaged with.  We know that research is confirming that the lack of natural social interaction and development that comes from unstructured play is partly to blame for the rise in bullying behaviour, perhaps the use of technology at such a young age needs to be an increasing part of that dialogue.

Until Next Week: I look forward to hearing your thinking on this topic. If you don’t feel comfortable posting to this site, please add a comment to #nmcblog!




8 responses

  1. This blog entry was truly wonderful Nicki. So many important points were raised. Just the other day my 1 year old daughter was at a play date where another little one was hitting her because she was playing in the same sandbox, I was so curious to see how my daughter would react… She simply looked over at me and held her hands up with a “what do I do mom” expression. A great example of how our children need the modeling and guidance to learn the social and emotional appropriate skills, but also given the chance to problem solve on their own.
    The concept of technology as a learning tool and having a purpose is so pivotal. Learning to balance play and tech is key. I have to give credit where credit is due. amazing example of an educator who has demonstrated great balance of the two (play and tech) in the primary grades is K.Cavner, how she intertwines the two together is really remarkable to see! I look forward to seeing and hearing how other educators are balancing the two!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree Danya…balance and purpos for parents and children! I truly worry about the “absent” parent in the room or at the park or at the rink. People need to disconnect and be present. It is hard to model when we are constantly on our devices!


  3. wilsonteacher | Reply

    It’s interesting to read this post through the lens of a new parent. Though Tessa is only eight weeks old I’ve already started to think about how technology will impact her learning. Usually these thoughts occur during dad-daughter bonding time while we’re cuddled on the couch and I have my phone in my hand, either doing work or cruising through social media. By the time Tessa is in kindergarten, will schools be infused with elearning or will we have taken a few steps backwards?

    In the past several years, I think technology and learning has not been balanced. Pressure from the industry on the education system has brought tools into schools without proper training or clear goals. A case in point is iPads in California. Apple and Pearson Education made lofty promises about how student learning would be transformed. Years later, the school district is realizing that such transformations are not automatic and that without proper training, iPad-like experiments are destined to fail – especially when the addition of technology is driven by private for-profit interests (Blume, Los Angeles Times, 16 April 2015). As we work to strike a balance, we need to come back to the point that “[s]chool aged children need to use technology when it is appropriate,” and this means that a device in hand all the time does not solve all of our problems. We also have to consider who is pushing the tools. If it’s a technology seller, what are their motivations? Is there research supporting the use of the tools in affecting student learning?

    Most educators likely understand that “technology is not a fad, it is the vehicle through which we now communicate in the world, obtain information, become inspired, and develop a global perspective” but we also probably agree that some students are losing social skills as a result of less face-to-face interactions with adults and their own peers. It’s amazing to have tools that allow our students to gain perspective about world issues, (even going so far as to communicate with students across the globe) but this needs to work in balance with one’s ability to read body language, empathize with emotions, and exchange ideas personally, as well.

    What strikes me the most about your post and Dr. Clinton’s work is in response to this thought: “Let me be clear – I am not suggesting that technology is to blame for this situation. I do believe that the world has changed in a way that had made me rethink my actions as a parent and as an educator.” I don’t think technology is to blame, but it’s a tendency to let technology be a sort of childcare service that is at issue. When I was a kid on road trips, I had to sit in the back seat and read books or look at the scenery. Now kids have iPods and iPads to entertain them. I think this is an example of the profound effect technology has had on children in terms of emotional maturity, the development of patience, and their learning. It’s great to have students collaborative on assignments through electronic means, but at some point students need to learn the social issues (and pitfalls) of in-class group work. This might mean the occasional departure (gasp!) from technology.

    As Danya and Debbie have said, the solution is connecting with kids – as parents and as teachers. What we do need to do is ensure that what we’re doing is relevant and not just dumped on kids for the sake of it. We need to ensure that we’re focusing on emotional development in our younger learners by modeling, (sweet story, Danya!), and we need to come back and look at the data to see if what we’re doing is resulting in what we want to happen.

    Thanks for an interesting topic and some cool links. Hooray for brain development!


  4. Leslie Blackwood | Reply

    I am very excited to be a part of this conversation and wonder if we shouldn’t be extending your initial questions into all classrooms – Achieving Balance – Technology and Learning in K- 12? When I look at the 6 competencies outlined for 21st Century Learners I can see alignment with our curriculum specifically through the 4 components of the achievement chart. (Knowledge and Understanding, THINKING, communication and application. As educators we want all of our students to be curious, engaged and searching for answers to questions and problems that are interesting and relevant. The tough part is determining how to do this. Among the many things I am reading right now one that I am hoping might help me address the how part of inquiry is – A Practical Guide to Inquiry-Based Learning by Watt and Colyer. This book outlines the many learning strategies that support and sustain inquiry -based learning and emphasizes that although inquiry is a powerful teaching and learning strategy, “it does not exist in isolation from other strategies and, in fact should be supported and sustained by them.” It suggests that technology plays a critical role in furthering student learning. As Nicki points out as educators we need to always be thinking about purpose and balance.


    1. wilsonteacher | Reply

      I agree with you, Leslie. My students are pretty good at summarizing their knowledge but it’s the thinking that is the most important. A teacher from Ottawa messaged me on Twitter yesterday thanking me for asking “SO WHAT” to my kids. (I’d posted a picture of my thinking on my website). If our students can’t provide the SO WHAT for what we’re doing then does any of it really matter?


  5. wilsonteacher | Reply

    This is a great article I stumbled upon today that highlights the relationship between technology and engagement – and society’s perception of the whole thing:

    View story at


  6. Love the dialogue fellow learners! Please keep posting!! Hopefully others will reply to the thinking shared here!


  7. George Drazenovich | Reply

    Great data and analysis Nicki and certainly good information, obviously, from a mental health point of view. Of course, the million dollar question is why the change during these years and what can be done? I also agree that Jean Clinton’s talk was timely and spoke to some things we could do with our kids.

    I am a fan of Neil Postman who wrote a somewhat famous book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. There is an interesting interview with him from 1995 (!) when cyber space and internet was just burgeoning and he shares some of his thoughts. He is a critic but not anti-technology. As he says in the interview, every technology from the alphabet to the printing press, to the internet and beyond gives us something and at the same time takes something away. He suggests (and this is 1995) that what we will lose in any meaningful community life. How to evaluate it? He offers asking three questions:

    1. What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?
    2. Whose problem is it actually?
    3. What other problems are going to be created by this technology?

    Lots of great insights in this 10 minute interview.


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