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

CHICAGO — Dozens of preschool and kindergarten teachers are adding iPads to their classroom stocks of pencils and paints 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."

The North Shore Illinois district agreed to equip two kindergarten classrooms with a dozen iPads after a yearlong study convinced teachers and parents of their fit for young students. In all, district officials will buy 60 touchpad tablets for an estimated $36,000.

In DuPage County, Ill., Naperville School District 203 plans to provide each preschool classroom in the Early Childhood Center with two iPads this fall.

And Chicago Public Schools outfitted nearly two dozen schools with the tablets this year in a $450,000 pilot program that attracted 200 applications. Each building received 32 iPads, and four schools focused the technology in the primary grades. District officials are considering whether to expand the iPad grant next year, said Technology Education Director John Connolly.

"At first, we thought this is a nice little toy. No one had any idea what this could do educationally," said Principal Barbara Kent of Chicago's Burley Elementary School, which debuted iPads this year in preschool, first and second grades.

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 seemed 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. Carry them with two hands. Only use them with an adult present and ask before you explore, said Charlene Entman, technology facilitator for the Sunset Ridge school system.

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 nine and four. "Thirteen," she typed.

Next, Graham added seven and two to get nine. He tapped the number on the screen and a mechanical voice said: "This is the correct sum."

The exposure to the vanguard of technology in a public schoolhouse initially startled Graham's mother.

"In my world, the iPad is games and music. But it's not just that," said Sarah Wilson of Northfield. "He was doing math."

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 kindergartener with an iPad2 this fall.

But some educators and scholars caution the technology has swept into classrooms so quickly 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.

"A lot of people are rushing to get content and it hasn't really been empirically tested," said Sandra Calvert, founder and director of the Children's Digital Media Center based at Georgetown University. "What we see is a lot of promise, and informal observations to suggest kids are very engaged."

So educators and early childhood development experts are watching closely as schools put the technology in the hands of their youngest learners.

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.

"Most children will learn using as many senses as possible. So, if they are able to sit on the floor and manipulate the pieces of a puzzle, everything comes into play. ... That's a different experience than manipulating their finger on the iPad," said Peter Pizzolongo, a senior director with the organization. "The (technology) just takes it to a more abstract level."

Wilmette School District 39 officials spent months measuring the best applications and the real-world impact that the first batch of 28 iPads had on students. Officials will study the results before deciding whether to expand the program that initially targeted the devices to young students with special learning needs, several of whom rely on the iPad to communicate with classmates.

"Our occupational therapists have said students who have difficulty with writing are using the writing (applications) and then transitioning to where they pick up a paper and pencil," said Nancy Walsh, an assistant technology facilitator who's been tracking iPad use.

The cost can be a challenge for public schools to explain to taxpayers who see the practical value but question the expense amid ongoing budget woes.

With an estimated cost of anywhere from $499 to $829, the device may cost less than a traditional laptop.

Naperville's Director of Instructional Technology John David Son said they can buy two iPads for the cost of one laptop because they purchase a less expensive model with limited storage and Internet availability.

The Naperville district gave principals the option to replace older computers due for repairs with iPads for the coming school year. But they also asked educators to explain the switch in academic terms.

"We want to know how does it tie to instruction," Son said. "How can we use this as a tool to engage students and deliver instruction in a new way?"

Burley's technology coordinator Carolyn Skibba said she was reminded of the technology's value one afternoon in March when she noticed first-graders creating a dinosaur mural to hang outside the classroom. The group stretched art paper across the floor, flipped open books to see dinosaur renderings and kept an iPad on hand to record their work.

"With what other tool could kids be sprawled on the floor with their books, paper and technology all in one place?" Skibba said. "There is a time when this is a perfect tool, but that's not all the time. ...It is not replacing tracing letters with your fingers in whip cream or using physical letter blocks that you hold."