Rocking and Rolling. Media and Technology for Our Littlest Learners: Guidance for Educators and Families on Choosing Appropriate High-Quality Content

  • February 29, 2024
children playing with toys in front of an ipad

From 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., Ms. Thompson greets families and other home caregivers as they pick up their toddlers. Linda, mother of 18-month-old Esme, strikes up a conversation about how her friend’s child care center is introducing tablets in its toddler and pre-K rooms. “Is our center thinking of going in a similar direction?” she asks. “I just want to make sure that Esme is prepared for our high-tech world.”

Ms. Thompson isn’t sure how to respond. She is very familiar with American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) guidelines that suggest screen media should be used sparingly before age 2, and she can’t imagine introducing tablets in her toddler classroom. But at the same time, she understands Linda’s concerns and knows that many of the children in her room already use mobile devices at home. Just last week, 2-year-old Marcus’s father asked Ms. Thompson if she could suggest any apps that would help Marcus practice his numbers and the alphabet during an upcoming car trip. Ms. Thompson made a mental note to do some research on the topic; however, she feels uncomfortable recommending apps for children so young.

Young children today live in a digital, screen-filled world. Families often rely on technology as a helpful tool to engage their children so that they can accomplish tasks around the house or enjoy a much needed evening out at a restaurant. In addition, schools and programs are feeling more and more pressure to respond to our increasingly technological world by preparing children to be proficient technology users. Early childhood educators may feel caught in the middle—wanting to do what’s best for children’s early development while also feeling pressure from both families and administrators to “keep up” with a changing world.

We know that children birth to age 3 should engage in very little screen time. As highlighted in the opening vignette, different organizations provide recommendations regarding young children’s time and interactions with media and technology. In the medical realm, the AAP discourages the use of screen media other than video-chatting for children younger than 18 months. High-quality programs and apps can be appropriate for children 18 to 24 months—but only when used with an adult. Indeed, letting children this age use media by themselves should be avoided (AAP 2016).

In the realm of early childhood education, NAEYC’s joint statement with the Fred Rogers Center echoes the AAP’s recommendation: for infants and toddlers, technology and digital media should serve mainly as a way to strengthen their relationships with adults (NAEYC & Fred Rogers 2012). NAEYC’s updated position statement on developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) adds to this, stating that “there is no evidence that development is enhanced when children younger than age 2 independently use devices” (2020, 13).

However, when scaffolded by an adult and used responsibly and intentionally—as one of many options to guide teaching and learning—technology can be a tool for supporting children’s development (NAEYC 2020). Further, DAP’s emphasis on social and cultural contexts and teaching in intentional, responsive ways can extend to the technology context when teachers consider families’ at-home media use and decisions about screen time.

Thanks to their knowledge of child development and developmentally appropriate practice, it is possible for educators of the very young to select and use technology that enhances learning, creativity, and interactions with others (NAEYC & Fred Rogers 2012). This article offers guidance on choosing high-quality media for children as young as toddlers. It also outlines talking points to help families make informed decisions about technology use for their children. I base these recommendations on my years of research and consulting in the area of children’s learning from media and technology. My work lies at the intersection of media studies, developmental psychology, and early childhood education, with a focus on applied research that creates tangible insights for families and educators.

When Is the Right Time for Screen Time?

There really is no rush. Research consistently shows that later onset of media use is correlated with better developmental outcomes (Tomopoulos et al. 2010; Lin et al. 2015). For example, Nathanson and colleagues (2014) found that children who watched television before the age of 2 had lower executive functioning skills in preschool compared to children who did not engage with television until after their second birthday. Other studies have found similar links between media use before age 2 and developmental issues, like language delays (Chonchaiya & Pruksananonda 2008; Karani et al. 2022) and decreased executive functioning (Barr et al. 2010; McHarg et al. 2020). It is important to note that these studies are all correlational. That means there is no evidence that screens are causing developmental delays. Rather, there are likely other factors—such as the displacement of other important activities like book reading or pretend play, and/or the quality of the content children are engaging with, or how they go about interacting with it—that may lie at the heart of the issue.

When families and other home caregivers ask about increasing toddlers’ use of technology in the early learning setting, remind them that their children will have plenty of time to become technology proficient in later years of schooling. Decades of research have shown that young children, especially those younger than 3, learn more, and more efficiently, from face-to-face interactions compared to when the same material is presented on a screen—a phenomenon known as the video deficit (Anderson & Pempek 2005; Jing & Kirkorian 2020).

That said, educators can also reassure families that a little bit of screen time here and there will not hurt their children in the long run. For children younger than 2, screen use should be limited to real human connections, like video chatting with a grandparent who lives far away (NAEYC & Fred Rogers 2012; AAP 2016). For 2- and 3-year-olds, if a half hour of television is needed so that a family member can take a shower or get dinner on the table without anyone having a meltdown, so be it. The key is to make sure children are engaging with high-quality content and families’ contexts are considered.

Choosing High-Quality Content

Technology and interactive media should expand children’s access to new yet relatable ideas and playful and engaging content. Apps and other tools should encourage active and empowering interactions; they also should provide scaffolding to help each child progress in their skills development and serve as a supplement—not a replacement—for real, hands-on learning experiences (NAEYC 2020).

More than 50 years of research on programs like Sesame Street and other curriculum-driven educational shows have demonstrated that children can learn from screen media when the content is developmentally appropriate and created with clear educational goals (Fisch & Truglio 2001; Choi 2021). Just as with any other tool or learning experience, educators should use their professional judgment when choosing which technology or interactive media tool to use in their learning settings and as they work in partnership with families.

However, the task of guiding children toward high-quality content can be overwhelming, especially for families: In our multiplatform world, a search for “educational apps” in the app store brings up thousands of results. The “Kids TV” filter on Netflix brings up hundreds of options. To help sift through this sea of content, Hirsh-Pasek and colleagues (2015) have developed the Four Pillars of Learning framework to serve as a guide for choosing (and creating) apps that promote active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning. Apps that are appropriate for toddlers and their older peers invite children to actively think and participate and do not distract from learning with flashy pop-ups or sounds that are unrelated to learning goals. Based on this framework, Zero to Three has created a resource to help early childhood educators and families make decisions about apps for young children. (“Resources for Choosing High-Quality Content,” below, highlights this and other guidelines for educators and families.)

When considering more traditional content like television programs and movies, both educators and families can look for programs backed by an educational curriculum. A simple shortcut is to do a browser search for “[Name of show] curriculum.” If the first couple of results include resources that enumerate learning goals, the show probably has an educational framework or curriculum behind it. Teachers (and families) can review and consider using these curriculum guidelines and activity suggestions to extend learning from the screen to children’s everyday routines and play times.

Resources for Choosing High-Quality Content

Zero to Three (2018) has developed a flowchart ( for assessing the educational quality of apps for young children. The E-AIMS model it uses was developed from the Four Pillars of Learning framework (Hirsh-Pasek et al. 2015), which is meant to guide app creators, educators, and families in creating and choosing apps that promote active, engaged, meaningful, and socially interactive learning.

“Life’s Little Lessons” ( is a collection of resources designed for early childhood educators. It is based on the popular PBS KIDS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. This resource covers 10 topics from Fred Rogers’ social and emotional learning curriculum, such as “new experiences,” “mad feelings,” and “using your words.” Each topic has teacher tips, a suggested classroom activity, and an activity to share with families and other caregivers. (Other PBS KIDS shows offer similar resources.)

Common Sense Media ( is a highly regarded resource for families and educators. It reviews all kinds of content for children, including television shows, movies, books, apps, and video games. Common Sense’s team of expert reviewers rates content based on its appropriateness for ages 2–18 in several categories, such as educational value, positive messages, diverse representations, violence and scariness, and sex, romance, and nudity.

Is Interactive Technology Better than “Passive” Television?

A common refrain heard from both families and educators is that having young children play a game on a tablet is better than having them watch television “passively.” But is that really the case? The short answer: not always.

A research team from Northwestern University (Aladé et al. 2016) conducted an experiment to test this question in the context of early math learning. Young children either played an interactive game on a tablet or watched a noninteractive video that displayed the same content. The children who played the game interactively were better able to apply the math skill to a very similar task. But the children who watched noninteractive video performed better when asked to apply the math skill to a new situation. Researchers concluded that interactivity is helpful for practicing a specific skill (similar to the benefits of rote memorization in elementary school) but that watching content noninteractively allows children to learn the lesson in a more holistic way that can be more easily applied to new contexts.

Other studies have shown similar results (Schroeder & Kirkorian 2016). In fact, some leading developmental psychologists and educational media experts recommend referring to television and the like as “receptive” rather than “passive” media. This, they say, more accurately reflects the fact that young children are still highly activated when they watch television (Anderson & Davidson 2019).

The key message for educators and families is that high-quality television can be just as beneficial for learning as interactive games and apps. Educators might choose to show clips from educational television shows that supplement and reinforce a lesson plan, project, or other learning experience. They can also make use of instructional activities that are designed to accompany these shows (see the “Life’s Little Lessons” example in the “Resources for Choosing High-Quality Content” above). Families, in turn, should not feel pressured to purchase a tablet for their children for fear of missing out on learning opportunities.

Characters Are Key

Research has also indicated that the characters featured in children’s media content can be an important conduit for learning. Children (and adults) often form strong, friendship-like attachments with their favorite media characters. This is known in the research as parasocial relationships (Calvert & Richards 2014). Studies have shown that children learn more from these trusted familiar characters than from unfamiliar characters who present the same content (Lauricella et al. 2011; Gola et al. 2013). Both educators and families can facilitate this learning through, for example, pretend play following a child’s favorite program: “Do you think the boat will sink or float in the water table (or bathtub)? Let’s test our hypothesis like Sid the Science Kid did!”


Early childhood educators—including those who teach our youngest learners—can play a vital role in shaping children’s screen habits and guiding them toward healthy media use and media literacy. (For more on this, read “Framing: How We Think About Our Work,” by Faith Rogow.) As outlined in the DAP framework, integrating technology and digital media in the early learning setting means that children are focused on a specific activity or exploration—not the technology itself (NAEYC 2020). Still, engaging in conversations with families and other home caregivers about appropriate media use requires a balanced and thoughtful approach. By staying informed, sharing evidence-based information, and respecting the various needs and constraints of different families, educators can foster a positive and supportive partnership with families in navigating screen use in and outside of early learning programs for the youngest generation.

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