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NR: Thank you for your time. First of all, I want to get your impression about where technology fits into the wonder of childhood.

CD: That’s a great question. Often, we think that wonder and technology are not compatible and I’m trying to change that impression. I think wonder comes first; technology comes in next when it supports wonder. I think sometimes we have that backwards. I see technology as a tool for children’s exploration of the world, for inquiry, for discovery, for showing you what they know, for documenting what they’re learning. So, it’s simply a tool. And if it’s a tool that can support the child’s wonder and questions about the world, then I’m all for it.

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NR: How do you deal with some of the fears that come along with technology such as challenges to social/emotional learning, etc.?

CD: There are a lot of fears and headlines that grab our attention, suggesting that technology’s really bad for kids. There was one out of New Zealand over the weekend around toddlers and screen time that was really alarming if you just read the headline and didn’t go further. In our role at the TEC Center, we help curate and interpret research and help people understand. Yes, there are concerns and I’m passionately committed to paying attention to the concerns, but I’m also committed to getting past them when we can. Social/emotional learning is interesting because here at Erikson, that is actually at the core of what we’re all about. From the very beginning we’re looking for ways to use tech to support social/emotional learning, not stand in its way. All of our work is focused on that, and that gives us a different perspective.

NR: You just mentioned screen time. I really appreciated your delineating screen time versus healthy and smart media decisions in the book Becoming a Media Mentor. Can you add a little more to that delineation?

CD: Sure; I think we’ve gotten ourselves twisted in knots over screen time. I often get asked when I’m out presenting to parents or educators, “How many minutes?” I think that’s the wrong metric. I think time is a metric. It is important to have a sense of how long the child has been looking at this screen or doing this media activity. But what else do we need to look at? What’s the quality of the content? What’s the context with which the child is engaged with the media? Who else is there? Are there social interaction opportunities? Is it an adult and child interaction moment, or one with peers? I think if we just say how many minutes, we miss a larger picture. I also tell parents all the time to trust your instincts. If you think it’s been long enough, it’s been long enough.

NR: How have ideas about technology and young children been changing over the past few years?

CD: I think a big change was the arrival of the multi-touch screen — like on the iPhone and then the iPad because it gave children a new, accessible  interface right into technology. We’ve constantly seen technology used in early childhood and we’ve certainly been doing computer-based technology for a long time, but this has been a game changer. It’s a different kind of device; it’s highly likely that the adults in children’s worlds are carrying one of those as well. So, the way we as adults are using technology has changed and we need to get in sync on those two.

NR: I love in the books how it brings up the idea of adults not necessarily being the experts in this new domain. I think that’s really fascinating how that shifts that balance in the relationship.

CD: I think that’s a great moment. I call it the reverse teachable moment. Educators need to be confident enough to say to a child, “I don’t know.  Can you help me?” That doesn’t always come easily. The younger you are as an educator, the more you think you’re supposed to have all the answers. But, parents can do the same thing. These kids are growing up in the digital age.  They were born into it. They actually do know how to do things that we’re baffled by. What an opportunity to shift the balance and let the child take the lead and be the one! That’s why I love the use of technology for documentation, because children can show me what they know. They’re in charge.

NR: The NAEYC and the Fred Rogers Center Joint Position Statement talk about some special considerations for infants and toddlers. Do you think there are also special considerations when we’re thinking about using technology with children with specific disabilities?

CD: Yes, so let me start with infants and toddlers.  Back when we wrote that statement in 2012, infants and toddlers was the most controversial age group because why do little babies need screen time? The answer is that they don’t. What they need is relationship time. But we also saw some limited opportunities for screens to be a way for the child to see a photograph of themselves or their family or to use Skype to see grandma or whatever.  What we really said was it has to be in the context of a relationship. Now, I think the larger conversation is around inclusion and assistive technologies and the ways in which technologies can support all children. I’m seeing perceptual barriers coming down. We’re starting to realize that if a tool can help a child, then we should be using it. In schools in particular, we’ve often had very expensive technologies for working with a child. Suddenly we have a consumer-based technology that everybody else has and uses and knows; and actually, it can also be a powerfully assistive tool. That’s probably the breakthrough that I’m seeing; kids don’t feel different because they’re using similar equipment that’ can support them.

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NR: I appreciate you commenting on that because I remember previously when I was working in schools, the technology that was available for children with language disorders was often so expensive and there was often an issue of access. Parents often felt uncomfortable navigating those technologies. Now that a family can use an iPad as a communication device, it’s much more accessible and much more affordable.

CD: Absolutely. And it connects the home and the school in new powerful ways so the child can actually have the same technology in both places. Adults in both places can be talking with each other about what works and how they are doing. That really is the big breakthrough. Technology is always going to have an expense to it, but these devices are getting less and less expensive. I also always want to remind educators and parents that we don’t want to privilege digital media over all of the other kinds of technology that are in classrooms and homes. We’re caught up in the excitement of the iPad for example, the tablet computer, and I know why I’m excited about that; but I don’t want to lose sight of what’s worked well before and what might be a better fit for a particular child. We don’t want to take everything off the table if it’s not digital. That would be a shame.

NR: What does it mean to be a media mentor?

CD: The phrase “media mentor” really began in the library world where children’s librarians were starting to see that they could play a very unique role in helping families answer questions and gain confidence using digital media with young children. So, when parents come to the library for story time with their child, the librarian can model using digital media and also reading from a book. So, really finding that balance. That is really where the idea started to percolate; to be perfectly honest, I grabbed it and went, “Well everybody’s a media mentor,” an adult in a child’s life who can help them navigate the digital age, show them healthy ways to use the media, sit down with them and engage jointly. That’s our responsibility in this new age. Often, because we don’t feel as comfortable with the tools, we back off. The other part of media mentorship is reflecting about our own technology use. What we may find is that what we’re modeling for children, when we’re not just sitting and thinking about it, may be a conflicting message for the child.

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NR: As we’re thinking about how music therapists might serve in that role, what else should music therapists learn?

CD: I think one of the things that media mentors can do is model a healthy relationship with technology.  Technology is a tool to solve a problem. Technology is a tool to help us learn something. That kind of modeling and mentoring is very positive. We spend way too much time monitoring and not mentoring. And we really need to find that balance. In terms of music therapy practice and work with children, can we use technology to improve the communication between home and our work? Can we reach children in a new way? Can we reach a child that we haven’t been able to reach? Can we give the child a voice and control? At what point is there efficacy around this tool that helps this child feel more confident, more able than they did before?

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NR: Are there specific skills that you think are a part of that?

CD: I think in the early years I divided it into three categories. Very young children just need to know how to use the literacy of pieces of technology, similar to handling a book. We need to stop and take time to teach those things. Just because a child can swipe across and iPad screen doesn’t mean the child knows how to use it. We start with good use, good stewardship of the technology, then I think we go to using the technology to learn. That’s the most important thing, that it’s a tool. We’re not learning about technology, we’re learning with technology. As children get ready for kindergarten and on, now we actually do want them to understand how it works and how they can make it work. I think one of my rallying cries lately has been that we have to help children understand that they are smarter than the technology. They have to understand that they are in control. It does nothing without them. That will serve them well in the world that they’re going to live in.

NR: How can a music therapist interpret the quality of technology that’s out there?

CD: The quality is really a tough question for a music therapist, for a parent, for an educator in a classroom.  How do we know? We’ve been buried with so much content. Apps were the flavor of the day. When this all started, everyone wanted to know what app to have. I’m backing away from that and saying, “How am I going to use this tool that can record video or audio?” The child can enter information into it. So, less app specific. More quality tool use. But these questions around “What’s any good?” is baffling for all of us. There’s too much. We know there are media producers who are making some meaningful connection to how children learn and develop, but there’s a lot that isn’t so good as well. I’m going to go back to, “Trust your instincts.” But, I would say to a music therapist, “You’ve got to play with it first.  You’ve got to try it on your own time and decide if this going to be helpful for this child or not?”

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NR: I like how in the books there’s a suggestion for creating space for that kind of play time; doing that on your own and doing that with colleagues. That’s a great suggestion.

CD: I think the notion of parent play time, educator play time, therapist play time, that’s really important. If I fundamentally want children to have adults in their lives who are playful with technology, they need to take some time to play with technology and to not have it work and to figure it out and realize that it’s a process. I think the risk of me always talking about it as a tool is that it gets interpreted as a tool for formal learning and I think it’s a tool for the whole child. That’s an interesting aspect of this new media and what it can offer.

NR: Are there any specific things you recommend that music therapists can be thinking about for supporting parents?

CD: I think this new connection between digital media and parent engagement is a powerful one and one that we really ought to be thinking hard about. I would start by saying meet the parents where they are; you have to know where they are. How do they want to communicate? What’s most useful? It has to be reciprocal. It has to be something that goes back and forth so it’s truly a conversation. But in today’s world, most families have smart phones, so maybe we start there with a text message or a link to something that the parents can explore on their own. We can provide documentation of how the child is doing or how our time with the child has become so much easier and in real time. We also hear from parents who are busy, working too many hours, and stressed out. They don’t want to be flooded either. So, taking the time to respectfully ask, “What do you want to hear from me? How often do you want to hear from me? What’s the best way for me to get information to you?” Because we have new tools to do that. I think we discovered as we did the book on family engagement that we have lots of tools; they will work best when the parent sees them as the right tools. And some parents still are going to want a piece of paper and still are going to want other ways of understanding what’s happening with their child.

NR: It seems like ideas around technology change as quickly as technology changes. What are your few “go to” resources for staying up on the conversation?

CD: That’s a great question. I think that what doesn’t change is child development and early learning. Not that we don’t adjust those along the way, but that’s kind of like a glacier compared to the speed of this. So, when in doubt go back to the theory. What would Piaget have said about this? What would Montessori have said about this? What do I know from theory that can help me make decisions today? And we do the same thing around what is great classroom practice. If you’ve got things that are working, maybe technology can take it up a notch; maybe technology can’t. That’s a moment of decision.  It’s not technology all the time, so I would go back to that. What do we know about how children learn? What do we know about child development? We need to ask ourselves the hard questions. In my case, because I’ve been working with the Fred Rogers Center for so many years, we go back to Fred and what he had to say about the technology of his time, because he had the same goals as we have which is supporting the whole child’s development. There’s a lot to be learned from this very thoughtful man who was very intentional. Maybe the most important lesson is the word that I just said—intentionality. Use it because you know why you’re using it and you know what you hope to get out of it. That doesn’t mean you won’t have adjustments along the way, but too many times I think educators feel that they’ve got to get it in there and do something. That’s not going to work very well.

NR: Final question. Is there any advice that you would give to music therapists as they’re considering improving their use of technology or their role as a media mentor?

CD: As we consider ourselves as media mentors, my first advice is that we first think about yourself and how you use media. That’s not a critique; just be honest with yourself. Are you using it in a way that you want children to use it? Because they are watching you, they are watching their parents, and other adults in their lives. So, be a very intentional media mentor. Back when I was in teacher education, I would say to my students, “Since the children are watching and listening to everything you do, give them great things to hear and see.” Be clear about what you want to introduce, embrace it, and do so when you’re ready. That’s my big thing these days. I love the thought that music therapists can be thinking about technology in my context, how does this translate and what can I do to better support children and families with these new tools. That’s’ really the question I think; being very thoughtful about that and really trusting your own instincts. If it’s not right, it’s not right. It’s never technology for technology’s sake.


About the Author:

Nicole R. Rivera, Ed.D., MT-BC worked as a music therapist for over 17 years serving children with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at North Central College in Naperville, IL. Contact: nicolelrivera@hotmail.com


Suggested Citation:

Rivera, N. (2017). Using Technology and Interactive Media With Young Children: An Interview With Chip Donohue. imagine 8(1), 36-41.