(TNS) — EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. — Lisa Tate was having fun using a keypad to move a small robot around, but she finally had to give up control.
"It wasn't all that hard: He wasn't listening to me," said Tate, an educator at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville's Early Head Start Program, located at the school's East St. Louis Center.
What looked like play was actually part of a workshop on integrating technology into early childhood education.
"It's exciting and I think the children will master that a whole lot quicker than adults will," Tate said.
Tate was among about 190 educators and education students participating in an Early Childhood Science, Technology, Engineering Arts and Math (STEAM) Conference Monday at SIUE.
"We have to stay on the cutting edge of early childhood education," including technology, Tate said. "That begins in early childhood. If we wait until children are in school, we're too late."
Christie Counton, an early childhood educator with the Granite City School District, watched as Tate tried to maneuver the robot.
"It's really cool to come out," she said. "It's hands-on, so we get to try the activities to figure out what would work best in our classrooms. It gives us an idea of what we can take back, and how to integrate new ideas into the classroom."
This is the second STEAM conference the university has held, according to Elizabeth Sherwood, an associate professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning Early Childhood Center, and one of the organizers of the event.
"I think the major focus is to help teachers understand that there are all kinds of ways for children to learn," she said. "And children are much more capable than what we think they are if they are working with the right type of materials and their curiosity is just allowed to work."
Much of the focus was on hands-on experiences, ranging from robots and keypads in one workshop to sound and photography in others.
The program aims to promote all of that in early childhood education, said Sarah Sebert, a consultant with the Arlington Heights-based Early Childhood Center of Professional Development, one of the conference's sponsors.
"These are all important topics that need to be promoted," she said. "Early childhood people have traditionally been good at language and those kinds of things, and sometimes the sciences get a little less attention than early childhood."
Keynote speakers were Toni and Robin Christie, early childhood educators from New Zealand.
Robin Christie said part of his focus was "to reinforce the idea that children are capable and competent learners who should be given as much control over their learning as possible. That includes making empowering environments, and making sure the learning the young children are engaged in is hands-on and based on the real world."
He said new technology is only one aspect of a wider approach.
"Technology is a very broad term that does include to me things like gardening spades," he said. "Children learn first by having their hands on real-world material that they can manipulate for themselves. While there is a place for that electronic technology in the lives of young children, we have got to make sure the focus for parents and educators is on real-world experiences and experiences that involve other people."
Balancing high-tech learning with everything else was a common topic.
"It's not appropriate for little children to spend all their time in front of a screen," Sebert said.
She used building blocks as an example, arguing that while there are computer programs that can simulate building, it is not like actually building something.
"It might tumble down, but it's not the same as having the blocks themselves and realizing why it tumbles down," she said.
Another aspect of the learning experience is the physical environment.
"We tend to do too much," she said "We think they need stimulation, they need stimulation, they need stimulation. They do, but they need a little bit of peacefulness and we need to slow down and make it a little quieter."
Christie also argued that we need to get past traditional gender roles and "bring more good men into the lives of young children, both as teachers, but also as fathers, grandfathers, parents, friends and mates (New Zealand slang for 'friends')."
Sherwood noted more than 90 percent of early childhood educators are women, and Christie added that one of the troublesome issues is that traditional societal roles for men create misconceptions that men cannot be nurturing and caring.
"Utter nonsense," he said.
Christie also said that another issue comes from the fact that "physical contact is a vital part of what we do," but in today's society, that raises concerns.
"All of this pales in comparison to the positive effect men have on the life of young children," he said.
©2016 The Telegraph (Alton, Ill.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.