CHICAGO -- Dozens of preschool and kindergarten teachers are adding iPads to their classroom stocks of pencils and paints in an effort to hook young learners with the newest technology craze at the same time -- or even before -- their parents adopt it.
Primary students in several Chicago-area schools geared up this year with the touchscreen tablets, an expense school officials defend in an era of tight budgets by citing how intuitive they are for 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds raised in a world of ubiquitous technology and constant connectivity.
"This is teaching to their world," said Superintendent Linda Vieth of Sunset Ridge School District 29. "Students still need finger paints and blocks. They need real books and paper in their hands. But this is another tool."
For primary schools that already have computers, the iPad will become one more technology tool in the classroom. But some schools have grappled to find a technology that best suits their youngest learners. The tablets with the flat screens and colorful icons that little fingers can manipulate seem an ideal fit, educators said.
To be sure, several schools set ground rules to teach students how to care for the new gadgets: Check your fingers: If there's glue or glitter, please visit the sink. Only use them with an adult present and ask before you explore, said Charlene Entman, technology facilitator for the Sunset Ridge school system.
Students catch on fast
But the youngest students have taken quickly to the technology.
On a recent Tuesday, Nola Joyce and Graham Wilson, both 6, huddled over the class iPad at Northfield, Ill.'s Middlefork School as they added two sets of numbers and determined which sum was biggest.
Nola whispered to herself as she counted her fingers to add 9 and 4. "13," she typed.
Next, Graham added 7 and 2 to get 9. He tapped the number on the screen and a voice said: "This is the correct sum."
Apple sold more than 19 million iPads since they launched last year, according to the company's earnings reports. It is not known how many were purchased by schools specifically, but Chicago-area schools are not alone in introducing iPads to preschool and kindergarten classrooms. Last month, a Maine school district agreed to outfit every kindergartner with an iPad2 this fall.
Controversy about effectiveness
But some educators and scholars caution the technology has swept into classrooms so quickly that the research has not yet caught up to measure how well students learn using the tablets. Rarely do public schools equip kids with a new technology at the same time adults race to acquire it themselves.
This fall, the National Association for the Education of Young Children is expected to update a technology statement that dates to 1996. While the current policy does not account for touchscreen tablets, officials said the core principle still applies: children learn best by building from simple to complex concepts, from two-dimensional to three-dimensional worlds.