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by: Laura Cooke @laurajcooke   ·    3 March 2014

Tech for toddlers

Marli Hoffman and Jena Mukina are pioneering the use of tablets in preschools, giving young kids a headstart with technology, writes LAURA COOKE.

The Little Ashford Preschool is a preschool like many others. Kids learn through playing, painting, listening to stories and interacting with others. Unlike many other preschools, they also spend time every day learning on iPads.

Co-owner of Little Ashford Marli Hoffman, who runs the preschool with business partner Jena Mukina, took some time out to chat to us about the initiative.

Tell us a bit about what you do.

We’re in our fourth year and have three preschools in Johannesburg. There are about 220 kids, between the ages of three months and five years. We’re the first school in Africa to bring iPads into the preschool classroom. It’s important to stress that the use of iPads is in addition to the activities that you would usually expect in a preschool.

What is the advantage of using tablets early on in education and how do tablets fit into to early education?

We have to prepare kids for the future and make them comfortable with technology. It also adds a new and exciting way of learning. YouTube clips, for example, are more interesting than a static poster. Interactive media makes lessons far more engaging. And kids can also show their parents what they’re learning by sharing the videos and activities with them at home.

We have an open door policy and parents are able to give feedback at all times. We also include a daily diary on the iPad using the Kid’s Journal app. We keep track of mood, food and behaviour and can communicate directly with parents. You can also add photos in the diary and create a history for parents where they can see their child’s progress.

Do you think kids are at a disadvantage if they don’t have access to tech like iPads?

Yes, I do. I think the way the world is going, kids have to move with it. Unfortunately education is lagging behind. It’s almost like not having a ball in today’s world. Kids use the iPad between five and 20 minutes a day and it’s unbelievable how quickly they pick up the fine motor skills and how they find their way around the iPad. Even before being able to read or write, they figure out how to access the right folders.

What are some of the interesting things you’ve seen?

I think the big thing is the way children think. Vocabulary is increased drastically as is the identification of shapes, colours and numbers. Remember that this is in addition to everything you’d usually do – it enhances the learning rather than takes over it. The kids are also more interested, excited and concentrate for longer. 

How early on do you think is appropriate to start using tablets? 

We use them from one year old for a few minutes a day, with a focus on storytelling, or simple games like pop the bubble. There is no correct time – the key thing is balance and that use of the iPad isn’t excessive. 

How do you set boundaries as a parent and a teacher?

It’s not an issue. They understand the iPad is in the bag and can only be used at certain times – it’s like setting boundaries with anything. If they know the limits, they will follow them.

How do you envision the classroom of the future?

Wow. I don’t think it will change drastically in terms of preschool – it’s at primary and high school level where the sky’s the limit. There are certain things you have to learn at a young age. Running, painting and play dough will always be important and are a part of growing up.  

At higher levels of education, the teacher could eventually be removed and everything could be done over chat or lessons over the internet. A teacher could teach more people – which could be great in SA. You could have a central learning teacher teaching in different locations at the same time. 

Tech like tablets is quite expensive – which means many kids won’t have this access. What are your concerns around this?

The concerns in all aspects of education are already there and a huge re-look needs to be done. I don’t think the iPad is the only answer. You need computers for access to information – even one iPad connected to a projector could give kids access to important information. 

People freak out when they see young toddlers with an iPad. But what we do is balanced – we don’t replace anything with technology; it’s an added element. I’d rather see kids with an iPad than watching TV as they can interact and learn with an iPad. But playing outside is still just as important. 

For more about the Little Ashford school, go to http://www.littleashford.com/.

Listen to Marli Hoffman talking about preschoolers and technology at TedX Johannesburg.