As we near the end of the school year, here in Pittsburgh we’ll be spending some time thinking about our youngest learners. We know that high-quality early learning experiences can make important differences in kids’ lives—differences that they’ll carry with them as they grow.

Low-income young children need particular attention. On average, they enter school with significant shortfalls in areas such as vocabulary. And national research has found that investments in high-quality pre-K education can help prevent these achievement deficits between low-income students and their higher-income peers, as well as produce longer-term benefits such as raising high school graduation and employment rates.

In their 2014 report, Using Early Childhood Education to Bridge the Digital Divide, the RAND Corporation finds that low-income children also lack the same access to technology as their more-advantaged peers, and that without this access, low-income kids are missing out on important opportunities for learning.

RAND and PNC Grow Up Great gathered experts at a forum in Pittsburgh last week to discuss if and how technology could be used to support learning in the early years—a conversation that’s been a long time coming.

“The early childhood community has been a little averse to talking about technology in any deep way,” the New America Foundation’s Lisa Guernsey told us in a Q&A. “And for good reasons, honestly. There is fear that technology in a preschool classroom might lead to kids sitting around staring at the TV. There is also fear that kids might get pushed into things before they are developmentally ready. Everyone wants kids to have a well-rounded, hands-on, exploratory learning environment, but those types of fears have hung over the question of what role technology should play in that.”

One of RAND’s research questions at their forum—“How do we define appropriate use of technology in early childhood education?”—is something local experts have looked at closely.

The Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College partnered with the National Association for the Education of Young Children to define quality media experiences for young children. The Fred Rogers Center’s work has been important in helping educators, media developers, and parents to better understand how children learn from screens and to apply the knowledge to improve young children’s media experiences.

Even at their youngest ages, we want people interacting with kids as they interact with media. 
In her recently released TEDxTalk, Guernsey says we’re at a pivotal moment in our need for a national conversation about children, learning, and media.

Young children, Guernsey stresses, learn from conversation. And even at their youngest ages, we want people interacting with kids as they interact with media. In her work at New America, Guernsey is providing important leadership on improving experiences for low-income children and seizing opportunities that technology may provide.

“We have the power to talk with our kids about what they’re seeing and to understand the media in new ways with them,” Guernsey said, “to help them see how it might related to their outside world.”

Michael Robb, the Fred Rogers Center’s director of education and research, agrees. “It’s not just quantity of talk, it’s also quality of talk,” he said in a blog post. “Depending on age, quality conversations around media should go beyond just describing what’s on screen, to talking about hypotheticals (what might happen if you do this?) or engaging in critical thinking (why do you think that character did xyz?).”

Similarly, when reading an e-book with a young child, experts at the Fred Rogers Center recommend treating the experience the same as if you were using a print book: put the child in your lap, point to objects on the screen, talk with the child, and introduce new vocabulary.

Guernsey proposes that all families of young children should have a “media mentor,” someone to help them make choices about media and learn to use that media in developmentally appropriate ways. This mentor could be a preschool teacher, a day care provider, or a parent. Librarian Cen Campbell recommends a children’s librarian as a mentor, whose expanding roles include making recommendations to parents about how to best use media with their child at home, using apps or e-books during story time, or incorporating new media into their media collections.

Guernsey, Robb, and Campbell are three of the experts gathering in Pittsburgh for the 2014 Fred Forward Conference next week, a biannual event that explores Fred Rogers’ lasting legacy. This year marks the Center’s 10-year anniversary.