ORONO, Maine — Giving iPad computers to kindergarteners, as will happen in Auburn schools this fall, may sound like a stretch for many in Maine.

But younger children in Orono are already taking part in an iPad pilot program at the University of Maine, and one educator there said this week that the technology is going to have a lasting impact on early childhood education.

“I think it’s going to be kind of a game-changer,” said Bonnie Blagojevic, a research associate at the University of Maine’s Center for Community Inclusion and Disability Studies. “It can open up new worlds of learning for some students. But you need to have balance. You need to have intentionality. You need to have conversations about this.”

One of her colleagues echoed the idea that, done right, using iPads for kids will take thoughtfulness, time and plenty of teacher support.

“It can never be a substitute for teaching, or for play,” said Mary Ellin Logue, an associate professor of early childhood education. “I want to see it used as a tool to spark curiosity and to help children think deeper. If it’s used for entertainment — that doesn’t have a lot of value to me.”

Nursery school and kindergarten-age kids at the Katherine M. Durst Child Development Learning Center in Merrill Hall have had one Apple iPad in their classroom since the beginning of the school year. The pilot program is designed to evaluate the content of applications, or apps, that could be used to help children develop alphabet knowledge.

Although the children use the iPad for just a half hour twice a week, the small tablet computer has sparked plenty of discussion, Logue said.

“It’s kind of a polarizing topic, I’m finding,” she said. “Parents — they’re not really in favor of it. They just don’t see that it adds much to their lives.”

On the other hand, the children have an intuitive sense of how to use it, she said. They flip through the iPad, looking for games they’re familiar with from their parents’ iPhones.

“One little boy was looking for the ‘tank game,’” she said. “He was disappointed we only had alphabet games.”

‘Cart before the horse’

That kind of polarization appears to be happening in Auburn, where the school committee voted earlier this month to give each kindergartner an iPad2 touchpad tablet next fall to learn the basics of reading, math, drawing and music.

The Maine Department of Education has said that Auburn appears to be the first school district in Maine to equip kindergartners with iPads. Maine was the first state to give computers to students in 2002 and 2003 when it distributed Apple laptops to all seventh- and eighth-graders.

According to Auburn Superintendent Tom Morrill, the iPad is a great education tool with hundreds of teaching applications.

“It’s a revolution in education,” he said earlier in April.

But not all parents want to be part of this educational revolution.

Tracey Levesque of Auburn said her 5-year-old son will start kindergarten this fall, but he’s not yet ready for an iPad.

“iPads could easily lead to a tune-out of peer or teacher instruction in the classroom, because they have this new tool in front of them,” she said Friday morning. “My son does speech therapy, he does occupational therapy. He needs to be working on communicating with his peers and engaging with them. Not just being distracted by this instrument in his hand.”

A Facebook group she started on April 17, Auburn Citizens for Responsible Education, has nearly 50 members. Those include parents concerned about giving technology to children who might not be ready for it and also taxpayers worried about using their dollars in this way, Levesque said.

District officials have said they hope to pay for the $200,000 worth of iPads with grant money, but if that can’t be obtained, they will be paid for out of the school budget.

That’s not the way that Auburn resident Sheryl Mathews, a retired elementary school teacher, thinks the money should be spent. Although she welcomes the use of computers in her classrooms, she said Friday she doesn’t think that 5-year-olds should each get an iPad.

“I would rather employ five people, or eight people, or 10 people, instead of that money going to Apple,” Mathews said.

Besides, the longtime teacher believes young children already arrive at school with plenty of experience with TVs, their parents’ cell phones, DVD players and other types of technology. What they need from their teachers is different.

“Little kids need nice adults around them. Just please and thank you, that human touch,” she said. “These kids come to school so ill-prepared today for that social part.”

Levesque said while she’s not “100 percent opposed” to the iPads in the classroom, she feels there are more questions than answers right now about the project.

“It just doesn’t make sense to rush something. It’s putting the cart before the horse,” she said.

‘Just a tool.’

But Blagojevic, who also was named an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2007, said the technology is already here, and children are already using it.

“It’s just a tool. A marker’s a tool, a crayon’s a tool,” she said. “It’s how you use it.”

She said the iPad will “force the conversation” because of the type of device it is.

“Essentially, I’m not thinking we need to push the technology onto the children. But what we need to do responsibly is realize that the technology is going to be used by them, and we need to figure out how best to do that,” Blagojevic said.

While young children might be active borrowers of their parents’ smart phones at home, early childhood education has not traditionally had a focus on technology, she said, and more research needs to be done. That’s one reason why a lot of attention will likely be paid to what happens in Auburn.

The New America Foundation, a non-partisan public policy institute, suggested funding research of young children and digital technology in an issue brief on early education that was released in February.

“Policymakers like to highlight technology as a tool for enhancing productivity in classrooms and between teachers, but its actual impact on children’s learning — especially among young children — is still unknown,” the brief read in part. “Educators need guidance on how digital technology should be harnessed to help teachers do their jobs and help children explore their world.”

Gail Garthwait, an associate professor of education at the University of Maine, is now co-teaching with Blagojevic a class in tech tools for early childhood educators. It’s the first semester that the class has been offered.

Garthwait said she feels iPads can more easily allow small children to independently practice some of the things that they want to learn. There’s no mouse and no keyboard — just little fingers and the screen.

“That’s what makes it so exciting,” she said. “You can touch it.”

Referring to the many educational applications that are available with iPad, Garthwait said, “It’s a very immediate, interactive response, and there are many immediate, positive, educational gains that cost 99 cents.”

But the children should always have “very tight oversight” of their computer time, she said, and teachers and parents who will provide them the right balance of iPad and other types of learning, as well as play.

“It’s very important that children have the chance to crawl under things,” she said. “Instead of just passively interacting with the computer to learn the word ‘under.’”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.