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Wireless Tots

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Primrose School Launches First Wireless Technology Program for Preschoolers

The first wireless technology program for preschoolers was implemented in January at the Primrose School at Bentwater in Atlanta, Ga., a new corporate school operated by Primrose School Franchising Co. The new school serves as a testing and training facility for groundbreaking educational approaches, including emerging innovations in curriculum and technology. And unlike most of its competitors, the company is proud of the fact that Primrose Schools has gone through the rigorous process of accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The Atlanta-based national franchise company has 109 schools and is building its new national headquarters next door to its Bentwater school. Primrose will use this convenient school location to test ideas such as using laptop computers. Parents' top priorities are their children's safety and happiness. Yet, they also want their children to learn as much as possible while in a quality preschool environment.

Cathy Lilley enrolled her 4-year-old daughter, Kianna, at the Bentwater Primrose School after studying the curriculum, which revolves around themes such as air transportation and life in the ocean. "I'm making sure [Kianna] is going to be ready for kindergarten," says Lilley. "I like that they already have her on the computer."

Balanced Learning

The National Education Goals Panel's report, "Reconsidering Children's Early Development and Learning: Toward Common Views and Vocabulary," identifies five key areas that define a child's readiness to attend school and his or her ability to participate in a learning environment:

1. Physical well-being and motor development
2. Social and emotional development
3. Approaches toward learning
4. Language development
5. Cognition and general knowledge

Primrose Schools recognizes the necessity and value of well-planned, developmentally appropriate experiences for children. Its philosophy carefully blends child-initiated and teacher-directed activities - combining the two leading philosophies in early childhood education, while adding the special Primrose focus on character and values. The child-initiated approach inspires students to think for themselves and explore their own abilities, while teachers guide them to a love of learning and prepare them for success. This exclusive, highly successful approach is what Primrose calls "Balanced Learning."

Primrose searched for a technology solution that would be consistent with the Balanced Learning approach, while still meeting the needs of its teachers and students. A National Research Council study stated that: "appropriate stimuli, such as close interaction with caring adults and engaging hands-on activities, enhance the brain's development." It went on to report that "a number of the features of the new technologies are consistent with the principles of a new science of learning." It was important to Primrose to create such an environment of technology use.

Wireless Options

Primrose considered the wireless option because it provides benefits such as improved access and integration into daily activities. Wireless laptops are wheeled via cart from one classroom to the next, which has two immediate advantages: Children have greater access to computers and the Internet, and it becomes easier to incorporate technology into an assortment of activities.

The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory's report, "Technology in Early Childhood Education," describes the ideal use of computers for young children as "powerful tools that, as with other technologies, are most beneficial when used as a natural part of the learning experience," which includes:

  • Integrating computers into the classroom environment;
  • Using them as a part of the ongoing curriculum; and
  • Applying their use to real problems for a real purpose.

The findings concluded that "when computers are located within the classroom, children's developmental gains from using appropriate software and activities are significantly greater than when they are in a computer lab." This improved access, in a meaningful setting, provides for better opportunities for student interactions and the extension of learning in valuable ways.

Potent Technology

The Primrose program's hardware includes eight laptop computers with CD/DVD drives and built-in wireless capabilities. The laptops are brought to classrooms in a mobile lab with built-in power, as well as safety and security components. The school has cable-modem access, and the wireless networking card in each laptop allows access to the Internet no matter where the computers are used in the school.

Wireless technology also allows teachers to directly link instruction to the real world by adding more resources than are found in a typical preschool classroom. With the roving cart and wireless laptops, activities can be individualized and children can share ideas and projects. In addition, each child has supervised Internet access.

Many other preschools use popular software to offer "edutainment" and fun activities for children within PC-based learning areas. But, at Primrose, we're not playing with the latest cartoon character or game. Instead, we're using the computers for learning in a way that is fully integrated into daily curriculum. In other environments there is limited, if any, Internet usage, and computer access itself on a daily, meaningful basis is limited or nonexistent.

With the wireless format, as opposed to a PC-based tech lab, Primrose can make technology more potent as an educational tool. Students don't have to interrupt what they're doing to go to a different room and they aren't learning technology in a lab setting just for technology's sake. The laptops are also an improvement over the two wired PCs per classroom, because of the increased access for each child. This use of the new computers at Primrose acts as a catalyst for social interaction, language development and cognitive development, as the children create, discuss, explore and share their ideas through technology-based activities.

Integration Into Daily Lessons

Integration within Balanced Learn-ing works during both the teacher-directed activities and the child-initiated explorations. During small group time, there are usually no more than eight children per teacher, and each child has his or her own laptop. The teachers walk their students through the basic steps each day: turning on the computer, getting to the Internet and connecting to the preselected Web site. Next, the teacher guides the children through the initial part of the site as an orientation - making suggestions for items to explore and guiding the discussion with questions about what they see. This interactive technology makes it easier to create an environment in which children learn by doing and sharing.

One of the first lessons for the 4-year-olds at Bentwater focused on a unit of learning about air transportation. Specifically, the students wanted to learn about hot-air balloons. What happened next was a fun, engaging and cross-curricular activity as the group visited the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta Web site (www.aibf.org). The site helped the children learn about early math skills by describing the balloon shapes and counting the balloons on pages they selected. It also let them plan what type of balloon they would make later as an art project, and allowed the students to view the inside of a balloon as the teacher explained how hot-air balloons work.

The entire lesson lasted about 20 minutes - just enough time to keep the attention of the active 4-year-olds. At the end of the lesson, the children shut down the laptops, returned them to the cart and prepared to create their own balloons with art supplies such as brightly colored construction paper and tissue paper, string and crayons.

The other integration element is for children to use software on the laptops for creative activities. During the child-initiated choice time, several laptops are set up in a learning center area. The children interested in using the computers can use software such as Inspiration Software's Kidspiration and APTE's Digital Photo Activity Kit to create and save their own projects. Teachers are on hand during this time to help the students where they need assistance.

Each laptop has Primrose-approved software for use during playtime and instructional activities. The software is selected based on several criteria, including it must:

  • Allow for active learning with the children making choices and selections;
  • Provide for creativity and self-expression;
  • Invite further exploration and build upon what the children already know;
  • Elicit excitement and conversation; and
  • Apply to real-life connections.

In addition, the laptop solution allows several children to explore programs together, while each has his or her own creative results to share.

Along with enriching the Balanced Learning curriculum, the wireless format allows teachers to use their time more efficiently and productively. During the children's nap times, for example, having a laptop allows the teacher to plan lessons, preselect and prescreen Web sites, download new activities from the Primrose curriculum and, most importantly, send messages to parents about their child's day. This makes for a greater focus on the children, better planned activities and improved parental communications.

Teachers are now able to send parents the Web addresses their children explored that day, while at home, children can show their parents what they learned at school. This builds stronger school-to-home connections and fosters self-esteem among students.

Project Evaluation

The use of computers for young children has not been widely accepted until recently. Many believed that the use of computers by young children was not developmentally appropriate. However, new findings point to the positive effects of technology use on cognitive and social learning and development. However, not all preschool companies have embraced this new research.

The other imperative issue for preschools has been cost, because most do not provide high-speed Internet connections within classrooms and only have one or two computers in each room. Adding additional resources and access would improve the integration of technology into the classroom, but it can be an expensive proposition.

At the Primrose Bentwater project, the school only has the laptop solution for classrooms and did not include the purchase of any stand-alone PCs, except in the after-school program where there is a large-screen monitor with wireless keyboards and a PC for large group explorations. At Primrose, we felt the wireless laptop solution was actually a more efficient use of the tight technology budget in the long run.

The typical Primrose School has at least two PCs in each classroom, beginning with the preschoolers. The laptops are shared throughout the day by the classrooms, so the extra cost was minimal. The total project cost for Bentwater was around $15,000, which included eight laptops and a cart with base, extra items such as a digital camera and printer, and the after-school program equipment described above.

Primrose will continue the pilot at Bentwater through the 2003 school year before expanding the program to other Primrose Schools. The evaluation of its success will be focused on two key areas:

1. Equipment. How has it held up to use by young children, was it easy to learn, was it easy to use, and has it been easy to maintain?

2. Enthusiasm. Have the teachers fully integrated the use of laptops to enhance the learning environment? What areas need improvement, did the activities keep the children's interest, and has the use been consistent?

After the evaluation, Primrose will offer a complete packaged solution for all of its schools. The planned roll out will initially be the schools' choice to replace old PCs with the laptop solution. However, all newly built schools will be required to implement the wireless program upon opening.

Computers are not a substitute for human interactions and relationships, nor can they take the place of activities such as reading a story together, dramatic play or hands-on projects. When used appropriately as an educational tool, computers can open up a new world of learning. The interactive, inquiry-based activities can support and enhance the curriculum. The critical factor is how the use of technology is in balance with the learning experience, as balance is at the heart of Primrose educational programs.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2003 issue of THE Journal.

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