How Technology is Changing Play

As play becomes more digitized, our youngest learners are missing out on crucial sensory and motor development experiences. Can we find a balance?


By Melissa Bishop

Once upon a time, young children and preschoolers were found engaging in rough and tumble play, exploring in nature and engaging in face-to-face interactions.  These activities have a major role in a child’s sensory and motor development.  With access to technology growing exponentially in the past 15 years, play in the early years is becoming more reliant on digital technology.  This reliance limits children’s abilities to be creative and imaginative as well as limits opportunities for sensory and motor development (Rowan, 2013).     

The statistics are shocking:

  1. 6% of 2 to 5-year-olds have their own smartphone
  2. 72% of the top 100 top-selling education apps in Apple’s iTunes App Store were aimed at preschoolers and elementary aged children
  3. Products designed at putting an iPhone into a baby’s hands are rapid sellers (Laugh and Learn with Fisher Price)
  4. More than 25% of 2-5-year-olds use the internet (Erickson, 2012).

So What Do the Stats Mean?

Our children are engaging in digital technology use at a much younger age.  The use of smartphones, tablets, and laptops are engrained in their everyday activities.  With small children spending hours using devices, their sensory and motor development is impacted.  Young children are not meant to be sedentary in their play.  They are biologically programmed to engage in physical activity to develop effective gross and fine motor skills (Rowan, 2013).  Low muscle tone, obesity, poor gross and fine motor skills, difficulty with empathy, low social skills, and challenges with self-regulation are growing concerns in preschool and school-aged children (Rowan, n.d.).

Video Games and the Preschooler

At such a young age, tactile and attachment systems are under stimulated where the visual and auditory sensory systems are in overload.  When young children and preschoolers are exposed to violence in video games and television, their body enters flight mode.  Preschoolers bodies have not yet developed enough to know that what they are watching is not real.  Exposure to violence in games and television puts strain physical on their body because it is in a constant state of adrenaline and stress.  Their heart rate and breathing increases, and their bodies are on alert.  Placing children in a chronic stress of this sort can weaken immune systems and lead to much more severe diseases and disorders (Rowan, 2013).

What do our Preschoolers Need?

They need movement, touch, human connection, and exposure to nature (Rowan, 2013).  These basic needs support the development of healthy active children, development of self-regulation skills, and coordination.  Preschoolers need tactile stimulation.  They need to run, touch, hug, and play with materials not devices.  Young children are developing empathy skills and at this critical time in development, they need human connection to develop empathy in addition to tactile stimulation (Turkle, 2015).

Teachers are Noticing

Rowan (2013), notes what many of my colleagues and I have noticed in the early years, children are entering Kindergarten developmentally unprepared.  In fact, 30% of our earliest learners are developmentally vulnerable (Rowan, n.d.).  They do not have the basic skills to thrive in the classroom.  Fine motor skills are becoming increasingly more difficult for young children entering Kindergarten.  Often, children have not yet been exposed to experiences requiring fine motor skills.  Teachers are noting that early learners have a great ability to ‘swipe’ on devices, but if you ask them to pick up a pencil or scissors, they lack the strength to hold these objects.  Ontario has put an emphasis in the Full Day Kindergarten Program on outdoor play.  Being in the outdoors not only offers young children the rough and tumble play required to develop gross motor skills, but nature has a calming influence and allows students an opportunity to restore attention for better learning in the classroom.

What Can We Do

Technology is here to stay, educators and parents need to work with it.  We need to put boundaries and time limits on devices and provide opportunities for play outside of technology to support healthy development and encourage a balance between technology and active play.  Providing preschoolers with age-appropriate material is crucial, so their bodies and minds are not in a chronic state of stress.  Parents and teachers can also ensure that children are given plenty of opportunities to play outdoors and engage in games that encourage hands-on play such as tag, red-rover, and hide-and-seek.

Parent and Teacher Resources

Young children entering Preschool and Kindergarten are struggling with motor development and self-regulation.  These skills are required for successful learning and development.  Most important in the early years are human touch, opportunities for play, and exposure to nature.  This chart can help parents and educators identify age appropriate gross motor developmental milestones.  Below are some resources to support the development of fine and gross motor skills, self-regulation, and exposure to nature.

  1. Get Outdoors: Playing outdoors helps to develop gross and fine motor skills. When they are developmentally ready, children will then be able to grasp and hold pencils for emergent writing because they have had exposure to outdoor gross and fine motor experiences.
  2. Provide Tactile Opportunities: In addition to human touch, providing opportunities to explore with materials stimulates child motor development.
  3. Fine Motor Activities: to develop dexterity skills.
  4. Self-Regulation: MindUp Curriculum and Zones of Regulation are often used to support teaching self-regulation skills in the classroom and can be used at home as well.
  5. Rough and Tumble Play is beneficial on many levels. It provides gross motor development opportunities, contact through touch, social skills, self-regulation, and coping skills.
  6. Go to the Playground: Not only is it beneficial to gross motor development, but many social relationships can be built here too.


Erickson, T. (2012). How mobile technologies are shaping a new generation.

Rowan, C. (n.d.). A research review regarding the impact of technology on child development, behavior, and academic performance.’s%20Development.pdf

Rowan, C. (2013). The impact of technology on the developing child.

Turkle, S. (2015). Talk to each other, not your phone.




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