Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Children’s information ecosystems in the United States

Information ecosystems are normally thought of as consisting of collections of facts that float in and out of one’s life, usually in a structured way. We routinely receive and use at work, the news regularly viewed on our smart phones, and for children, whatever they are taught in school. If we did nothing different in the way we live our lives, a predictable supply of information would enter our world, data that we need in order to not change the way we live. That truth is observable in all societies as the environmental feedback one needs to survive and thrive.

Historians are increasingly focusing their attention on these ecosystems and have learned that in all periods of history there existed information ecosystems and that whenever there were tools available to write down facts, and then later machines for moving it about, that information was documented. The invention of the typewriter, computer, PC, and the Internet are examples immediately put to work collecting and moving about information. Historians have also learned that children have information ecosystems too.

In Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, literacy rates among children have been quite high and growing over the past three centuries. As soon as a child could read, they gained access to much information in the way adults did for work and other activities. Books with stories, later academic subjects at school, still later others to support hobbies and other interests became part of a child’s information ecosystem. Everyone reading this blog undoubtedly experienced a childhood of books and magazines aimed at them.

When we look at the world through the eyes of children, we see several other components of their information ecosystem. First, they learn from each other, such as that Santa Claus really does not exist, that their parents put presents under the tree. Educators have tumbled across that obvious truth, designing teaching methods to take advantage of the fact that children share information. We can see when we walk into a child’s classroom and where all the tables are round, not rows of desks. This is because with round tables children can help each other read, fill out their mathematics worksheets, and collaborate on solving problems.

Second, because we know their minds are like little sponges soaking in everything they hear, they ask questions of their parents: Is there a God or a Santa Claus? Where do babies come from? Why is the world round? Television, book writers, and parents reading non-fiction to their children at bedtime inject more facts into a child’s information ecosystem. For the past two centuries, American book publishers have produced thousands of titles for children. Scores of historians documented the welcoming attitude of young people for such materials, even today in an age where screens are irresistible to children.

“next generation” by zeilfaenger.at. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Third, we come to the question of screens: television programming, the same on laptops, tablets, and smart phones and the Internet. Child psychologists and educators feared screens for most of the second half of the twentieth century. But increasingly less since the late 1990s because children take in information regardless of technology platform. The technology was never the problem, only the content. Parents in the 1880s were concerned that their young sons were reading books about boy gangs. Today, most television programming for young children tells stories about how the cartoon characters solve problems after understanding the underlying issues and facts of the case. Dora the Explorer comes to mind. Children love these programs and the screens upon which they are displayed.

Finally, we get to the issue of games and technology. A two-year-old can walk into Barnes and Noble and already know how to use a Kindle and what program to seek out. The large number of math and other problem solving games available over the Internet is standard fare for a 6 to 55-year-old person. Early PC-based education for children was boring, repetitive, and essentially an online version of paper-based workbooks. Meanwhile, children signaled to psychologists and educators that just as games taught them new information and skills, such as counting and keeping score, so too did online games. Not all were violent, although even these taught children eye-hand coordination, to think strategically, and to track results.

In the past decade, students of children’s education have studied the potential of using online games to teach children. Results so far strongly supported the use of technology to teach and to enrich a child’s information ecosystem. It’s increasingly obvious in K–12 classrooms when we see stacks of tablets loaded with math, history, and language games. At home in all socio-economic classes, children engage in “screen time” to play, often directed to games that teach them how to create animals, buildings, vehicles and other images, or to compete against each other in mind games and math skills. They even play old games online, such as checkers and chess.

What historians of information ecosystems have to tell parents, educators, and child psychologists is that the construction and use of information ecosystems by and for children has been underway for a very long time and that the little ones love these. They just don’t know that we call what they interact with “information ecosystems.” But once they “get it,” they expand it just as adults do. Remember that the next time your child asks you to buy them more volumes in a series about dinosaurs or American history or begs passionately for a new game on the family’s iPad.

Featured image credit: “click asi” by Amelia Wells. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.