Are PDAs Pedagogically Feasible for Young Children?


Examining the Age-Appropriateness of Handhelds in a Kindergarten Classroom

The frequency and form of computing for children are still open to definition at the classroom level. There are three major classifications of general-purpose computers to consider: desktops, laptops and handhelds (PDAs). However, despite the final commercial realization of a “computer,” teachers should consider the physiological and cognitive readiness of the device in relation to the learner.

If we consider that the International Society for Technology in Education’s National Educational Technology Standards for Students requires early computer use to fulfill computing and information literacy goals, the challenge to educators is to increase legitimate opportunities at an early age. PDAs hold promise as a solution to the problem of providing computing opportunities because of their lower cost. But do PDAs hold pedagogical advantages over conventional notions of computing forms for certain ages?

This article provides a snapshot of a kindergarten classroom in which handhelds were used along with the teacher’s emergent perceptions of the PDA for this age group. The questions guiding this exploratory project were:

1. In what ways do kindergartners interact with a PDA?

2. How do they understand the icons represented on the PDA screen?

3.How d'es the teacher understand the PDA’s potential for her classroom?


Increasing numbers of P-12 educators are exploring the role of handhelds as an instructional tool (SRI 2002). Elements such as cost, form factor and portability add to the attraction of access to all students. Other factors such as student motivation to complete school work and on-task behaviors also increase with the use of PDAs (Royer and Royer 2004). The Palm Education Pioneers program reported on the successful integration of handheld technology in K-12 classrooms (SRI 2002). More than 90% of the teachers in this study reported that handhelds are an effective instructional tool which contributed positively to student learning. However, a review of the literature revealed a paucity of research on the uses in kindergarten and early elementary years. A major concern regarding handhelds for young children focuses on their lack of motor coordination (SRI 2002). Additional concerns about integrating handhelds as a learning tool for kindergartners centered on age-appropriateness.

Brooker (2003) suggests that early childhood educators should match technologies to early childhood education principles, ensuring that learning is child-initiated, child-centered, exploratory and supportive of social interactions. Whereas Papert (1993) stresses the ability of children to control and direct computing activities, making it the learner’s technology rather than the teacher’s technology. Additional studies are needed that explore the various ways young children interact with and respond to these devices.


The project took place in a kindergarten classroom of a laboratory school associated with a large Midwestern teach-ing institution. From an initial 16 students - consisting of 5- and 6-year-olds - we selected four to be observed, interviewed and videotaped using a Palm m130 handheld. The researchers introduced each child to aspects of the PDA, including the calculator, games, keyboard and the Note Pad application.

The teacher, who has more than 20 years of experience in the early grades and is an advocate for computer technologies, participated in two interview sessions. Differences and similarities among the children are compared and contrasted in relation to our guiding questions mentioned earlier. Findings regarding these guiding questions were triangulated by data provided by the teacher interviews.


Children’s manipulation of a stylus and PDA form. When the researcher asked, “If you wanted to learn more about one of those pictures [on the PDA], what do you think you would do?” Three of the four children responded that they would push, or touch, the icons with the stylus, while one child didn’t know. All four children associated the icons with the stylus. The children were also able to tap on the icons and use the stylus with the alphabet keys. Although the PDA keyboard and screen size are concerns for educators, children in this study successfully coordinated this manipulative requirement. In addition, when students were asked to write letters in Note Pad, all four children held the stylus like a pen or pencil.

Maintaining the child’s focus and interest. According to psychologist Jean Piaget, irreversibility is one of the limitations of preoperational thought in which a child fails to understand that an operation or action can go both ways (Papalia, Olds and Feldman 1999). A 6 year old in the transitional phase to concrete operational stage would show characteristics in both preoperational and concrete operational thought. Thus, Piaget proposed that children between the ages of 5 and 8 should gradually move into the concrete operational stage (Trawick-Smith 2000).

The children understood the nature of reversibility - maneuvering from the home screen back to another program and back to the home screen. This notion of reversibility is an important skill necessary for the kind of operating system embedded in most PDAs. Those operating systems (in this case, Palm OS 5) can afford little overhead in terms of memory. Thus, they use a sequential navigation scheme instead of the multi-tasking approach of a desktop operating system, which makes PDA operating systems more age-appropriate in terms of maintaining focus on task.

All four children were highly interested and on task while manipulating the Palm. The children expressed excitement as they explored, and most articulated a desire to work for a longer time. Interestingly, both boys showed interest in playing games while the two girls did not.

Recognizing and remembering icons and graphics. Two children correctly assessed that the button with a house icon would take them to the original screen. One child accidentally pressed the exit button from one program, taking the child back to the home screen. Another child did not make a guess, but she did remember the function of the home button later on when shown by the research assistant. Once they saw the research assistant demonstrate this function, two children remembered to press the erase key with the stylus in Note Pad to get a new blank screen. The other two children did not have a chance to demonstrate whether they remembered this skill.

Managing limited screen space. The children managed a small space in the Note Pad program very well in order to fit their names or draw pictures. On the first attempt, two children wrote their names in a straight line. Another student with a longer name ran out of space, causing the letters to slant a bit; however, she later wrote “MOM” in a straight line.

Self-directed planning and actions. The children demonstrated self-directed planning and actions throughout the project. Once they learned how to use the icons, they became self-directed to carry out their plans. In Note Pad, all four children self-selected what they drew or wrote. Once the children learned how to erase the screen, they were self-directed enough to push the erase key to redraw another picture or finish and proceed to something else.


Pedagogical advantages of PDAs. Although the particular handheld used in this project (the Palm m130) is not as colorful as computer software or as intriguing as interactive books, it still captured the children’s interests. The pertinent features of a PDA - its small size, game appearance and interactive components - may motivate children in learning and maintaining focus. The operating system of a PDA, which requires simpler steps in overall manipulation than a desktop computer, also may be more suitable for young children.

In addition, the “cognitive load” in their working memory may be lowered, considering that the separate attention process for coordinating the keyboard as in a desktop computer is not needed in PDA manipulation (Sweller 1994). Therefore, young children known to be less efficient than adults in working memory (or short-term memory) processing may be better able to focus using PDAs than with desktops (Trawick-Smith 2000).

The cognitive limitation for many young children, which is the logic of reversibility, is frequently required to operate a PDA (Trawick-Smith 2000). Just as children master various skills through naturally occurring play, a PDA can offer them a context to achieve a cognitive advance (Garvey 1977).

Developmentally appropriate ways to use PDAs. Whether a PDA is an appropriate technology for young children largely depends on its implementation. To be implemented in developmentally appropriate ways for young children, the PDA should allow them to be in control. In this project, children were able to use Note Pad in an autonomous way, which allowed them to be actively involved and in control. For teachers and classrooms with small budgets, this function may be a good starting point in the early childhood classroom. Instead of using Note Pad as an electric worksheet, it would be more meaningful if its open-ended nature is utilized to let children be constructive.

While they relied on the adult for overall guidance, children took an active stance to initiate their own selection and inquiry. Children also quickly grasped the function of icons and keys in PDAs as they observed the adult’s actions and tried to apply those actions on their own. The process of exploring the PDA itself, which allows children to discover their own answers, may be one appropriate way to incorporate them. To what extent children can function in an autonomous way after training and self-practice still needs additional exploration.

Final remarks. The beneficial aspects described here may undermine the full potential of PDAs such as communicating or beaming. However, issues of management and equity may create a barrier to use a PDA as a communications device or as a home-school collaboration tool.

A Kindergarten Teacher's Perceptions of PDA Use in the Classroom

Prior to the exploratory study with her students, the teacher (we'll call her Ms. H) could not articulate the potential of a PDA in her classroom. However, in the post-interview she suggested ways of integrating the PDA into her curriculum. After working with the students, we showed video of the activities with the children to Ms. H as she shared reactions and watched them interacting with the handhelds. Her perception on the potential of the PDA for her classroom is summarized below:

PDAs for support of writing activities. Ms. H was interested in the area of literacy as an added dimension to writing. She mentioned a letter identification game, for example, would be a good activity for her kindergarten students. Contrasting the Palm with a desktop computer, she felt a PDA could facilitate fine motor control development. Holding, tapping and writing with a stylus were consistent with the well-coordinated, fine muscle control of handwriting using paper and pencil.

However, handwriting practice and literacy work with a paper-and-pencil medium is not a favorite activity for children (Barrera, Rule and Diemart 2001). The Note Pad (a program that provides a blank screen which is designed for writing/drawing with a stylus) appears to be a good motivational tool in literacy learning for kindergartners. The structure of Note Pad is open-ended and interactive, with a possibility for instant revision. Since young children's learning is embedded in a playful context, the Note Pad may provide a meaningful framework for their literacy learning. The Note Pad writing can be integrated in free writing and drawing journal activities, as well as in structured handwriting practice. Also, the Note Pad can be synchronized to desktop computer files, so writing can be done outside of the classroom and transferred to a desktop computer.

PDAs as communication tools with parents. Ms. H acknowledged the benefits of the PDA when it can be taken home by children and used as a tool for collaboration and communication between home and school. However, she preferred to keep the PDA in her classroom because of equity issues. Kindergartners would have a hard time understanding why some peers would take the PDA home while others would not. Also, Ms. H expressed concern with security issues out of the classroom.

PDA as an assessment device. Ms. H noted that one male student demonstrated problems with fine motor skill development, including poor scissor skills and pencil manipulation. This student also struggled with short-term memory, attention, letter identification and problem-solving skills. In the video, however, he recognized the letter Z and said “Z” as he tapped on it. In a letter-identification assessment a week earlier, he was not able to identify any letters of the alphabet. Related to attention and following directions, he did not exhibit “off-task” behavior with the PDA. Ms. H interpreted that he focused well with the PDA because it mimicked play . He remembered to use the “home” button to get back to the home screen as well as tap the “erase” key to erase his picture in Note Pad. This led Ms. H to consider the PDA for assessment purposes.

Since a young child's performance can be largely impacted by context, it is possible their abilities are underestimated in a conventional paper-and-pencil test. PDAs may work as a supplementary assessment tool to the more traditional methods. It is also possible that children may demonstrate their level of development more fully since they may be more motivated and better able to focus when using a PDA.


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This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2005 issue of THE Journal.