early childhood apps and intention

By Fran Simon, M.Ed.

When it comes to family communication and documentation in early childhood programs, I believe it is quality, not quantity that makes a difference. Educators’ deep reflections about their students’ learning, their interactions with the world and people around them, rather than constant updates about routines are often much more impactful for children and their parents. While there is a place for note-taking and sharing, it is reflection that is most important. Apps for early childhood educators require intention on the part of developers and users. 

We all know technology has transformed the way we do our jobs in early education. As with everything powerful, there are trade-offs. And, with that, this post zooms in on systems designed for early childhood education communication and pedagogical practice. 

Meeting the needs of parents who are digital natives

Because parents are digital natives who are uber-connected and used to having information at their fingertips, they crave digital, instant, and real-time information. Around 2011, as parents’ desire for digital information began to grow, droves of companies that develop apps for family communication jumped to deliver solutions. Now there are hundreds of apps and online systems that have transformed the way early childhood programs are operated and how the people who run them communicate. In fact, one of the hottest growth sectors for investors and developers is the development of digital apps for documentation and family communication. New products pop up every day to help us solve the problems we used to solve with pen and paper. This is all, in my opinion, wonderfully transformative for our industry.

As an early childhood technophile who often reviews these products, I often question how much some of developers really know about developmentally appropriate practice, constructivism, and intention in pedagogical practice. Some of the most popular “parent engagement” apps only offer simple social media-like posts and are often used for one-way information sharing. Don’t get me wrong! I am excited to see the adults in early education programs empowered with technology, but how meaningful is all of the real-time, bite-sized, always-on minute-by-minute communication? 

About the downside of apps for early educators and family engagement

Enter a recent blog post published in The Lily, written by Caroline Kitchener and based on the accounts of two sets of parents that highlight the downside of family communication apps: Day-care centers notify you every time your baby eats, sleeps and poops: New apps create a ‘digital tether’ between working parents and their kids. The article reports how anxious, tethered, and obsessive parents feel when they receive “between 10 and 20 notifications {daily]” from their child care centers using HiMama and other similar products. Kitchener cites Caitlyn Collins, from Washington University in St. Louis, a researcher with expertise studying working moms who says that perhaps the lack of strong family leave policies, and parents’ guilt for leaving their children in the care of others are to blame for parents’ seemingly “addictive” interest in notifications from HiMama. Collins opines, “these apps will be a poor substitute

[for being there in person]. The constant updates could exacerbate the guilt that parents feel, leaving their kids, by showing them pictures of activities — and, occasionally, growth milestones — they wish they could be there for.” 

I vehemently disagree with many of the assertions in the article, including specifically calling out HiMama (because there are a lot of apps that offer almost identical functionality.) There is enormous positive potential for improving communication between educators and families using online systems. However, I do agree that too much of the wrong type of communication could be distracting, meaningless, and a very “poor substitute” for authentic communication between families and teachers. While there is certainly a need to send off a brief note or two to families here and there, I assert that the quality of what is being shared with these families does nothing to further teacher’s engagement with the children, or parents’ engagement with either the teachers or the children when they are home. 

But here’s an example of an antidote … What the research says about some apps

Storypark is an example of an app for early educators to use for documentation and family engagement that does show beneficial outcomes. It is tool that is designed fundamentally different than the “parent engagement” apps, even though it shares some of the same functionality. Its design reflects that the developers clearly understand the process for pedagogical documentation. Storypark is designed to solve a bigger problem for teachers in constructivist, play-based programs who collect, share, and use reflections about the children’s interactions with the people and the world around them. The system is designed to thread teachers’ reflections to tell the children’s developmental story so they can use the information to plan appropriate classroom experiences. Even better, the technology is designed to solicit insights and observations about each child from parents, other educators, extended family members, and specialists to respond with their own insights developing a cooperative and interactive  learning community around the child. This is a concept that is fundamental to programs that are influenced by the Reggio-Emilia, Waldorf, Montessori, and other constructivist or play-based approaches to early education

While Kitchener’s blog post indicated some unanticipated negative reactions of only two families who used HiMama, the (soon to be published) research by Mary Elizabeth Picher, Ph.D, about hundreds of families’ reactions to Storypark, tell a very different story. Described in detail on The Conversation and on the Storypark Blog, Picher’s research not only highlights parent’s positive reactions to their experiences with Storypark itself, but also very beneficial outcomes parents experienced from deeper engagement with their children. 

Picher, who is a researcher and Co-Founder and Educational Director at Wholeplay Family Services, reports that the findings of her study “showed that Storypark increased parents’ understanding of their children’s classroom learning because it made their classrooms more ‘transparent’ for the parents.  With this increased transparency, educators said parents were ‘less confused’ about what their children were learning about in the classroom.” According to Picher, many parents said “Storypark increased their understanding of the curriculum and/or the purpose behind play-based learning, as learning tags [a function of Storypark’s software] made parents ‘more familiar with the language’ of the curriculum and ‘brought awareness’ to the learning that was depicted in educator learning stories.” In fact, one parent in the study said, “I saw [my daughter] doing a lot of play, but because of the [learning] tags at the bottom, I could tell the purpose behind it…So I would definitely say Storypark improved my understanding [of the curriculum], because I didn’t know much about it before.”

In addition to increased levels of understanding of the program, many of the educators in the study reported “Storypark increased the connections parents made between their child’s classroom learning and the learning they did at home.”  One educator said, “Parents are making connections more, connecting what the children do at school to what they do at home.’”

As for relationships, Storypark also made a difference by increasing trust and open communication between parents and teachers. The study shows that with an increased understanding of classroom and play-based learning, educators said parents’ levels of trust in them also increased.  One teacher explained that a particularly anxious parent was calmed by the interactions on Storypark, and “that as soon as she started using Storypark, the parent was less anxious and more receptive.” The educator went on to explain that Storypark “really helped the relationship because there was‘more trust, that there was actually learning happening in kindergarten.”

Intention is what makes pedagogical management and Storypark different 

I believe the glowing outcomes of Picher’s study are the result of Storypark’s’ design, which is used widely throughout New Zealand, Australia, and Canada where pedagogy is at the core of early education policy and practice. In fact, researcher Picher agrees that its design “supports an inclusive, child-centric approach to teaching and learning.”  

My takeaway is that the intentions of the products and the educators are the most important components of the outcomes, especially when it comes to family engagement and documentation. While teachers often need to jot quick notes and send simple comments and media to families, in an ideal world, they would also take the time to write more meaningful observations and learning stories as well. Of course, in addition to streamlining pedagogical documentation, it is also easy to use Storypark to quickly share media with families. But the long term intention of the product is to support and help manage robust pedagogical practice. In addition to including media sharing features, it has the deep functionality needed to allow educators to create collaborative learning communities around each child. In other words, Storypark is more than family engagement, it’s a complete pedagogical management solution that includes documentation, planning, reporting, and standards alignment. If the intention is to build authentic relationship building engagement, or use pedagogical documentation as the basis for planning learning journeys, tools like Storypark are the appropriate digital solution.

The bottom line is when it comes time to shop for apps to help solve some of your program’s biggest challenges, start out thinking about the products that will have the most positive impact on the children and their learning. Then, when you get them up and running, make sure your staff members use the products with careful intention. After all, isn’t that what this early education “thing” is all about? Intention is at the heart of all we do.


Learn more about the ME Picher’s research in an upcoming free webinar on Early Childhood Investigations.


Register for:
register for research on storypark webinar
the research on digital documentation in early childhood education webinar