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Special Education Articles: Assistive Technology Articles: Effective Use of Technology With Young Children

Effective Use of Technology With Young Children

Author - Mary L. Wilds
Coordinator -Technical Assistance Center #3 George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia
NICHCY News Digest Number 13 1989 Resources Updated, April 1996

Note: This publication was originally released in 1989 and, as such, does not contain the most current information on assistive technology. NICHCY offers this document on the Internet with the caveat that, while readers can gain basic information about assistive technology from this document, it is important that they supplement this overview with more current readings from other sources. For current resources check out: Parent Pals Assistive Technology Resources.

Computer technology for young children has only recently been recommended for use in the home and applied on a large-scale in early childhood special education programs. Available technology and information about its use with young children has lagged behind that available to other groups for a variety of reasons, such as: the high cost of hardware, a limited amount of developmentally appropriate software, limited funds to investigate the potential of computers as a teaching tool, lack of skill on the part of professionals in creating a range of response modes, lack of training and skill in computer use by early childhood special educators and parents, and the fear that technology would overshadow the human aspects of early intervention (Berhmann, 1988; Hutinger, 1986).

In the past several years, however, changes have occurred which have made computer technology more accessible to early childhood educators, therapists, parents, and children. Equipment is now more affordable, a wide range of developmentally appropriate software is available, and a variety of response modes have been developed which allow almost any child to access a computer (Burkhart, 1980; Charlebois-Marois, 1985; Goossens & Crain, 1987). Publications and training have made early childhood educators, therapists, and parents more aware of the potential impact computers can have on infants and young children. The appropriate application of technology can assist families and professionals in learning about a child's capabilities. As more educators and therapists have successfully incorporated computer use in their early intervention and preschool programs and as parents begin using computers in their homes, there has been a growing acceptance of the belief that technology can serve to enhance, not supplant, one-to-one interaction with infants and toddlers (Lazzari & Wilds, 1989).


Special educators and therapists using computers in their programs have learned that when some beginning skills are introduced, computers become less complex devices for preschoolers (Rettig, 1987). Introducing these skills can reduce the natural tendency for a young child positioned in front of the computer to bang on the keyboard and possibly become frustrated and lose interest in approaching the computer again or learning that the computer is a toy to react too, not interact with. With this awareness, parents and educators begin to think of the computer as more than a pacifier to keep children quiet. The primary aim should be to allow young children with disabilities access to the assistive technology which will be most appropriate to their needs and to provide for the maximum participation of the young child in social and educational environments. To reach this goal, many skills may be necessary for using this technology effectively. For families and programs with limited funds, these skills can be developed without access to expensive computers or technology devices. The following is a list of some of the beginning skills that should be considered. This list is intended to assist parents, educators, and therapists in adapting the computer's use to the child's current level of skills. Keep in mind that not all children will need total mastery of all of these skills. With some children, these skills can be developed simultaneously with the computer and adult intervention. Each child should be individually assessed to determine the potential benefits of technology.

Motor Skills
-- range of motion
-- press and release
-- reliable and consistent motor movement

Visual/Perceptual Skills
-- visual tracking and scanning
-- figure ground
-- form discrimination

Cognitive/Language skills
-- cause and effect
-- attention span (sustained or selective)
-- object permanence
-- means/end causality
-- imitation
-- one-to-one correspondence
-- intentional behavior (desire to communicate)
-- symbolic representation (recognize pictures)
-- reliable yes/no response
-- receptive understanding of commands
-- making choices

Social/Emotional Skills
-- initiating and terminating interactions
-- turn taking and waiting for turn
-- attending to an object or person
-- following one-step directions

This list of skills may initially seem overwhelming, unrelated, or overly simple; yet these skills are included in most preschool checklists and taught using other materials. In addition, these skills can be introduced and taught by using simple and inexpensive toys and switches. Toys and switches are concrete objects that are naturally motivating to young children. Many battery operated toys can be used to teach a young child many of these skills, and any toy operated by batteries can be adapted for switch activation. By adapting toys for use to introduce and teach these beginning skills, teachers, therapists, and parents can help a young child prepare to use computers and other assistive technology. Once children have some experiences with toys and switches, they are better prepared to have successful interactions with the computer.


The importance of play for very young children cannot be overemphasized. For children who have a physical disability or who are generally uninterested in manipulative toys, battery operated toys that are adapted to work with single switches can be used. Battery operated toys and switches can be the tools for developing play skills with objects and with peers. They also provide children with physical disabilities increased control over the classroom and home environment (Musselwhite, 1986).

Selecting toys and switches for young preschool-aged children requires that parents, teachers, and therapists consider several important factors. The most important factor is to become an expert. Make a list of your young child's strengths and needs and choose toys which meet your child's requirements. Collect information from parent support groups, toy lending libraries, information centers, manufacturers, and through exchanges with other parents, teachers, therapists, and others. (Additional resources are listed at the end of this NEWS DIGEST.)

When purchasing battery operated toys, it is important to remember that there are different kinds of toys. It is important to consider a variety of battery operated toys that reflect a range of sensory inputs. For example, toys with flashing and multicolored lights provide visual input; tape recorders, musical, and other noisy toys (e.g., animal sounds, sirens) stimulate a young child's auditory senses. Blowing fans and vibrating toys provide tactile and vibro-tactile input. Toys should also provide for a variety of movement patterns: stationary, horizontal, vertical, and circular movement. Examples include a drumming bear, a walking robot, a fireman going up and down a ladder, and small train or car track sets. Toys should be chosen that can be easily incorporated into play routines (Musselwhite, 1986), as well as for their motivation and age appropriateness to the individual child (Greszko, 1988).

As with the purchase of toys, the teacher, therapist, and parent should acquire a variety of switches that can be used with children on different developmental levels and physical skills. Finding an appropriate switch or switches that match the child's physical requirements is extremely important. The child must have a reliable motor movement that can consistently activate the toy. As the child becomes more capable, the more reliable motor movements available to activate switches will provide a means of more efficiently interacting with his or her environment. Recent technology (Greszko, 1988) has provided a variety of mechanisms for these children to activate toys other than simply using a switch activated by a press of the hand. For example, children can use an eye-blink switch or a puff switch to activate a device. Pressure sensitive switches that require only a minimal amount of movement are now on the market. Voice activation of devices is also now possible.


Once children have a variety of experiences with toys and switches, they are often better prepared to have more successful interactions, not reactions, to the computer. A wide variety of appropriate and inexpensive software is now available for preschoolers. Software for microcomputers generally falls along traditional academic and readiness domains and uses color, graphics, animation, sound, and voice synthesis for this population. When introducing computers to very young children with disabilities who have been exposed to the toys and switches noted previously, it is important to minimize the number of new concepts and skills. Most of this software is written for the Apple II series of computers, which is the computer available in most schools. This software can be used with a variety of peripheral devices that are appropriate for preschoolers. The keyboard is very busy, and young children are easily distracted or unable to focus on a limited selection of keys that activate the computer. Commonly available peripheral devices include touch monitors, adapted keyboards and touch pads, voice activation, and switch interfaces. The TouchWindow by Personal Touch is a touch-sensitive screen that is placed over the monitor. This screen allows the child to use direct selection, touching the monitor, to activate the software. Touch pads include the Muppet Learning Keys by Sunburst and the Power Pad by Dunamis. These pads can be modified into single or multiple switches and adapted keyboards. The Muppet Learning Keys, for example, have the alphabet in order, as well as a ruler that illustrates numbers, and a watercolor set for color selection.

Introducing technology to very young children with disabilities is still quite early in its development. While there are many obvious potential benefits to early intervention using this technology, the state of the art is still not sufficiently advanced to enable parents and professionals working with these children to meet their needs easily. However, these children can be trained in many of the skills necessary for successful use of computer and augmentative communication technology without the use of expensive or complicated equipment. Thus, when they are physically and developmentally ready to use available technology, these children will be able to receive the maximum benefits that technology can make in quality of life and the ability to learn and to become as independent as possible.


Behrmann, M. (1988). Integrating computers into the curriculum. Boston, MA: College-Hill Press.

Berhmann, M., Jones, J, & Wilds, M. (1989). Technology interventions for very young children with disabilities. Infants and Young Children, 1(4), 66-77.

Burkhart, L. (1980). Homemade battery powered toys and educational devices for severely handicapped children. College Park, MD: Author.

Burkhart, L. (1982). More homemade battery devices for severely handicapped children with suggested activities. College Park, MD: Author.

Charlebois-Marois, C. (1985). Everybody's technology -- A sharing of ideas in augmentative communications. Montreal: Charlescoms.

Goossens, C., & Crain, S. (1987). Augmentative communication -- Assessment resource. Wauconda, IL: Don Johnston Developmental Equipment.

Greszko, K. (1988). Types of battery operated toys. Handout developed for the Technical Assistance Center #3, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA.

Hutinger, P. (1986). ACCT curriculum. Macomb, IL: Western Illinois University.

Lazzari, A., & Wilds, M. (1989). Technology in early childhood special education: Access for rural programs. Rural Special Education Quarterly, 9(4), 21-24.

Musselwhite, C. (1986). Adaptive play for special needs children. San Diego, CA: College-Hill Press.

Rettig, M. (1987). Microcomputers in early childhood special education: Trends and issues. Presented at the National Early Childhood Conference on Children with Special Needs, Denver, CO.

Wilds, M. (1988). The future role of technology/computers in the preschool handicapped classroom. Paper presented at Council for Exceptional Children Annual Convention, Washington, DC.

National Information Center for Children and Youth with Disabilities
P.O. Box 1492
Washington, DC 20013
1-800-695-0285 (Voice/TT)
E-mail: nichcy@aed.org
Web site: http://www.nichcy.org/

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