Impact Impact: Feature Issue on Early Childhood Education and Children with Disabilities

High-Tech Inclusion in Preschool:
The KidSmart Young Explorer Project


Julie Holmquist is Senior Writer/Editor with PACER Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Ask preschool children what "inclusion" or "increased learning rates" mean, and they'll give you a blank stare. Ask them about the new KidSmart Young Explorer computers in their classroom and you'll elicit a much different response: smiles, excitement, and maybe even a demonstration of their prowess at the keyboard. Fortunately for all concerned, inclusion, faster learning, and the kid-friendly computers go hand-in-hand.

Across the country last year, pre-school children with and without disabilities explored 600 of these special computers together, thanks to a 2008 donation from IBM and from PACER Center, a national nonprofit organization that works to expand opportunities for children with disabilities and their families. The computers were distributed to U.S. preschools, with the help of national groups including the National Head Start Association and federally-funded Parent Centers, as part of "KidSmart: A Project of IBM and PACER." KidSmart is a national early childhood technology program designed to help children with and without disabilities learn in inclusive environments.

The project provides the opportunity for professionals and parents to learn more about integrating technology into early childhood classrooms. Here's one thing they learned immediately: Children love the colorful KidSmart Young Explorer computers housed in Little Tykes furniture. Designed to be used by several children at once, the Young Explorer features adaptations such as closed-captioning and switch capabilities, as well as award-winning educational software that makes learning fun. Children sit on the computer's bench or gather around it, helping each other learn concepts in science, math, language, and more.

"The kids love it. It's so motivating for them," says Glennys Sabuco, a kindergarten special education teacher from Sandy City, Utah. "This can open doors for children that are not normally open. We have some kids with autism here, and for them social interaction is very hard. The bench allows them to do group activities. They learn to share and work together and it's a nice social experience for all the kids." "It's one of our biggest attractions," says April Wilkinson, director at Crawford Child Development Center in Russellville, Arkansas. "We allow two children at a time at the computers. The way it is set up, the child who doesn't have control of the mouse is still playing the game. It's great."

For a 4-year-old Texas girl with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the Young Explorer was the catalyst for a burst of learning. Watching a classmate who does not have a disability "play" the highly attractive educational games made all the difference for this child, according to Bea Vargas, director of El Papalote Inclusive Child Development Program in El Paso. If the girl with ADHD saw that the other child was concentrating and was then able to do something on the computer, she tried harder to learn, too. As a result, she began to learn faster. Like many other children using the Young Explorer, she benefited from the specially designed technology and the interaction with her peers. "They're able to pair up, and this enables them to help each other when they don't understand," says Jessika Casturita, an assistant teacher at El Paplote. "And it helps them interact with children with special needs." Several of the girl's classmates also made progress with the Young Explorer, including a student who is deaf. "When he first started, his vocabulary was diminutive, but now he can vocalize letters, words, and numbers," says Casturita. "He's been able to acquire new skills and communicate new ideas with the different activities found with the software." Other students with developmental delays enhanced their vocabulary and pronunciation. Because the software repeats commands, words, and numbers, the children are able to follow instructions more precisely. "The repetition increased speech development with all the children," she adds.

In Miami, a 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy was able to use a keyboard for the first time, thanks to the Young Explorer. The boy had attended the school for two years, but wasn't able to use the program's existing computers because of his wheelchair needs. "Now we are able to sit him exactly in front of the computer," says Ingrid Garcia of United Cerebral Palsy of South Florida.

Along with the donation of the KidSmart Young Explorers, PACER has also provided training using its KITE program (Kids Included through Technology are Enriched). KITE helps prepare early childhood personnel and parents to use technology in the classroom to improve inclusion and educational outcomes of young children with disabilities. KITE has shown that training on assistive technology and early learning, combined with the introduction of technology, improves outcomes for children with and without disabilities. According to pre- and post-evaluations, when KITE strategies are first implemented, an immediate 15 percent increase in classroom inclusion occurs for the child with a disability, and a 100 percent increase occurs in learning opportunities in the classroom after KITE strategies are implemented fully with technology.

"The KidSmart Project shows how the right technology and training can foster inclusion," says Bridget Gilormini, coordinator of PACER's Simon Technology Center. "It can also broaden the vision of parents and teachers at the earliest level of formal learning about the possibilities available through technology."