What can a 4-year-old learn at online preschool?

Monique Hurtado, a mother of three in Monrovia, California, doesn't send her 3-year-old to preschool. Hurtado has her own bookkeeping business and her husband works full-time as a laser supply stock clerk.

“Financially, we couldn't afford it,” Hurtado said of the nearby preschool options.

There was another reason too: “I just feel she should stay home with me."

So, she set up a preschool learning center. The big kitchen table is neatly divided into stations with paints, crayons and other art supplies. There are blocks and play dough in tubs.

And there’s a laptop computer.

Monique Hurtado found a preschool course for her child on the Internet. For years, websites have offered free preschool handouts or activity guides. Now, parents can get an entire preschool curriculum from a computer.

The companies behind online preschools

Two new companies for online preschool are ABC Mouse and CHALK preschool online. Neither was willing to share exact metrics on home-use of its online products, but both said their numbers are in the tens of thousands — and growing daily.

CHALK representative Jenna Capozzi said when the online preschool soft-launched in November 2012, there were 100 sign-ups per day. Now it’s in the thousands.

“Our retention rate is at 60 percent, which is encouraging, for we still consider ourselves a start-up and are learning every day about a unique market,” she said.

CHALK started out charging for the service but a year later, in November 2013, they began offering their content for free. CHALK online is a 30-minute class covering all the preschool basics, from literacy to science.

They're taught through videos created by Capozzi’s team, based on lessons taught in CHALK’s brick and mortar preschools. There are also many “off-line” activities attached to each day’s class that parents are encouraged to lead, like "take a nature walk and note the colors of flowers."

ABC Mouse also delivers online preschool curriculum developed by early education specialists. It rolled out a version in public libraries across Los Angeles this year, after it received interest and feedback from preschool teachers. Last year, the company said, 65,000 teachers used ABCMouse.com in the U.S. and Canada.

A sign of the times?

It's a sign of where early education may be headed in these times of high preschool costs and long wait lists.

Online preschool has even been adopted by the state of Utah as one arm of its early education services. Faced with a desperate need for more quality preschools, the Utah Legislature in 2008 funded an online preschool venture called UPSTART. The legislature studied student’s progress, and results came back extremely positive. An independent evaluation of the program's third year showed student's did two to three times better in literacy than students who had not used the online program.

Utah recently reauthorized – and increased — the funding for another five years. It's costing the state $900 per child to provide a full year of online preschool, and this year the state will spend $2.2 million on the program.

Yet sitting a preschooler in front of a screen to "watch school" is a concept that some question. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended limited screen time for the preschool age group, one reason some online providers limit the lesson time to 30 or 60 minutes a day.

Screen time: Positive or dangerous?

Some experts, however, think limited and targeted screen time can be positive for young brain development. Dr. Gary Small is the author of "iBrain" and a professor of psychiatry at UCLA. His work looks at the effect of digital devices on the brain. He found computer and device use “allows us to exercise our brains” - even for little children.

“It can get your neurons happy [and] it allows your brain to challenge itself and to develop in many positive ways,” he said.

The danger, according to Small, is that children will not switch off the computer to do other necessary developmental activities, like building with blocks or getting dirty in the sandbox with friends. 

If a child is only using a computer or tablet, he said, “some of those three dimensional concepts that you get from hands-on play are not kicking in.”

Georgetown university professor Rachel Barr has also studied small children and what they learn from digital devices. One of her studies involved a puzzle that could be done on a digital device or with real physical blocks by toddlers aged 15 to 33 months.

When the children were shown how to build an object out of shapes on a touch screen, and then they were asked to repeat it on the digital device, they did very well. But they didn’t do so well when they were given real physical blocks and asked to build the same object.

“They seem to have some difficulty taking the information with them,” Barr said.   

CHALK, with its roots in a brick and mortar preschool, understands this, said Capozzi, Chalk’s lead content creator.

“At that age kids are learning very tactile-ly,” she said. Her program prompts parents to supplement the online program with offline, hands-on activities. “If they want to learn about how something can have a rough texture or a smooth texture, put those textures in front of your child to actually touch it."

Hurtado said she and her 3-year-old love Chalk preschool online.

“It is hard to try and come up with a curriculum, so that’s why I really like the online preschool because it does take a lot of the pressure off of me,” she said. “I can add to it, which I do, but I don’t have to think up all the things or spend the time to sing all the songs because it’s done for me.”

Hurtado believes her daughter is blossoming from her online preschool.

“I didn’t realize she was soaking in as much as she was,” Hurtado said. “I was really surprised.”

About the author

Deepa Fernandes is the Early Childhood Development Correspondent at KPCC.

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