Digital Childhoods: What have we
learned about young children and
technologies at preschool and at home
Christine Stephen
School of Education, University of Stirling
In this seminar . . .
Outline our starting points
Describe some of our methods
Report findings from our series of studies
Consider what our work contributes to
– Pedagogy for learning with technologies
– Understanding of the relationship between
local/family culture and children’s experiences with
– Development of methods to explore naturally
occurring behaviours and practices
Our Evidence Base
Co-directors – Lydia Plowman & Joanna McPake
• Interplay: Play, learning and ICT in Preschool
Education (ESRC, 2003-5)
• Children’s access to ICT at home and their
preparation for primary school (Becta, 2003-4)
• Entering e-Society: Young children’s
development of e-literacy (ESRC, 2005-7)
• Young children learning with toys and
technology (ESRC, 2008-11)
More information
• Digital Childhoods
– Rethinking young children and
– Playing and learning with
– Rethinking young children creating
and communicating
• Project Directors
– Lydia Plowman
– Joanna McPake
– Christine Stephen
Where we began
• Policy initiative
• Scottish Government policy and practice guidance
• Polarised debate about benefits and harm of
young children using technologies
• Theoretical and empirical influences
– Socio-cultural
– Ecocultural
– New sociology of childhood
– Evidence from cohort studies
Interplay: Guided Enquiry
Cluster Meeting 1
Introducing the project
and research team
Cluster Meeting 2
Introducing Guided Interaction
Reflecting on Video Clips
Planning Intervention 1
Cluster Meeting 4
Reviewing Intervention 2
Reflecting on video observations
Reviewing the project
Research team observe
& video record in playrooms
Practitioners act on intervention
plans and collect evidence
Research team observe
& video record in playrooms
Cluster Meeting 3
Reviewing Intervention 1
Reflecting on video observations
Planning Intervention 2
Research team observe
& video record in playrooms
Practitioners act on intervention
plans and collect evidence
What did we find in the playroom?
• Initial focus on computers
• Use of ICT often referred to as ‘playing on the
• Unproductive encounters during free play and
children walk away
• Mainly reactive supervision
• Questioned assumptions that working on the
computer together was ‘social’
• Avoidance of commercial or ‘Disney-like’
software – preference for ‘educational’ genre
What did we find in the playroom?
• Children learn – evidence of acquiring
operational skills, extending and using knowledge
and understanding, developing dispositions
• Practitioners learn – acquiring operational skills,
extending pedagogical knowledge, developing
positive dispositions towards technology
• Supporting positive encounters with technologies
required distal and proximal pedagogical actions
and interactions
Children’s learning in the playroom
• Acquiring operational skills
– Needed adult help to show him what happens
when clicked on various bits [of PC screen]—then
able to produce work with no further
intervention. (Peter, extract from practitioner observation notes)
– Showed Ben how to use the controls. Listened to
tape. Ben pressed stop, ‘I stopped it’ and then rewound the tape. (Ben, extract from practitioner observation
Children’s learning in the playroom
• Extending knowledge and understanding
– Linking spoken and written language & re-telling
• Anna and Abigail at listening centre—using fabric fruit to
count out items mentioned in a story—‘he ate four
strawberries and there is grapes’. (Anna and Abigail listening to
‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, extract from profile notes)
– Developing mathematical knowledge
• Duncan’s developing mathematical competencies noted as
he played a game on the computer. His matching skills
allowed him to perform confidently on the first two levels
but the third level was too difficult. (From progress log)
Children’s learning in the playroom
• Developing positive learning dispositions
– Increased confidence and independence
• Josh struggled with the headphones and held them up for help . . .
he needed lots of instruction on how to work the listening centre. .
. . He then listened well. Next day he said ‘I need to listen to the
story, do I push this?’ [putting finger on the green button] (Josh,
practitioner observation notes)
– Willing to persevere in the face of initial difficulties
• After help to learn where to click Malcolm was happy to persevere
and print independently (Malcolm, practitioner observation notes)
– Shared pleasure and enhanced interest
• Look at the delight on his face . . . He is delighted to have
completed the [photograph] process (Innis, profile extract)
Practitioners’ learning
• Developed operational skills
• Extended their pedagogical knowledge and
planning for use of technologies
• Developed positive dispositions towards
Distal Guided Interaction
Distal guided interaction
Arranging access to the technology
Ensuring access to help
Setting up activities
Practitioner actions
Devising ways of structuring turn-taking e.g.
providing a sand timer
Sourcing and selecting a broad range of technologies
to meet individual interests
Arranging staff rotas to make sure a practitioner is
available to support children using technologies
Accompanying a child’s return to a technology they
have abandoned
Ensuring balance across curriculum areas
Identifying learning needs for specific children
Choosing an appropriate location in the playroom for
each technology
Adding props to technologies e.g. puppets at the
listening centre
Proximal Guided Interaction
Proximal guided interaction
Practitioner actions
How to use a software tool such as the paintbrush or
How to frame a picture in viewfinder
Interpersonal engagement and prompting
Sharing pleasure in features such as animation
Suggesting a child tries something new
Staying close by a child for emotional support
Reading dialogue box on screen
Reading out choices on screen menu
Using a pretend mobile phone to order a taxi
Making purchases with a toy bar code scanner and credit
card reader
Providing verbal and non-verbal feedback
Smiling when child succeeds in typing in own name
Admiring photographs taken
Instructing or explaining
Telling child how to use a digital camera
Setting out the routine to begin using electronic musical
Discussing what can be seen on a microscope slide
Toys and technologies at home
• Used case studies to produce richly detailed
accounts of young children’s encounters with
technology at home
• Across the ‘home projects’ we asked
– What kind of technologies and technological toys
do 3- and 4-year use at home?
– How dominant is technology in their lives and
what do parents think about this?
– What are children learning when they are playing
with technologies?
Methods for ecocultural enquiry
• Interviews with parents
• Structured conversations with children
• Researcher-recorded video of children using
traditional and technological toys
• Mobile phone diaries
• Family recorded video
Likes to succeed
Cautious about what she can do –
will reject what she perceives as
Enjoys portable technologies
Gets frustrated when can’t play
with technology as well as others
– sceptical about benefits of technology for learning
– particularly technological toys
– teacherly, very focused on teaching how to use
resources correctly, cautious about introducing
new learning only when ready, refers to
appropriate ages and stages, learns to use
resources herself so can support children, gives
staged instructions, prompts and extends,
encourages persistence, manages emotion levels
– plans time for family to play together – takes care
to ensure that Jasmine can take part along with
her brother, avoids emotional tensions
– TAG was a hit with Jasmine but got more out of it
because taught how to use it , some tasks not age
– Wii – use as family but children can get very
frustrated and need adult guidance
– Technological puppy – integrated into imaginative
Favourite activities and toys are
Becoming more competitive but
willing to continue with game if
efforts are unproductive
Sometimes unclear about purpose
or scoring of games
Not interested in soft toys but
enjoys TV and books
– training as early years practitioner, thinks
preschool children learn through
observation, exploration and practice
– leaves Arden to figure things out for himself,
unless he gets very frustrated, helps if
convenient, father gives brief directions
– Restricts access to technologies and
technological toys in house to avoid damage
by younger children
– Considers reading is something will learn at
school & does not foster at home yet
– TAG – Arden learned to move pen along to
hear story, neither parents or Arden expect
reading to develop at home
– Wii – has created interest in some sports,
Arden treats it a bit like watching TV
– Games console has taught some knowledge
e.g. healthy foods, but not an expert user,
mother unclear about use but gives
encouraging feedback
Learning at home with technologies
• Combining evidence from home projects
– Technologies don’t dominate children’s time at home
– Technologies and technological toys extend the range
of play possibilities but have not replaced traditional
– Access to technologies is not directly related to
income or socio-economic status
– Parents are aware of concerns about children using
technology – but think their family has the balance
– Young children need more support to use
technologies than the idea of ‘digital natives’ suggests
Technologies and playthings
Technologies and playthings
• Proportion of toys that were technological –
from 10% - 33%
• In 10 of the 14 families about ¾ of toys were
traditional and ¼ technological
Playing to learn, learning to play
• Evidence of engaging with technologies and
technological toys associated with 4 kinds of
– Operational learning
– Extending knowledge and understanding of the
– Development of dispositions to learn
– Role of technology in everyday life
Operational learning
• How to use technologies and technological
• How to get better at using technologies
Extending knowledge and
understanding of the world
• Finding out
• Practising and applying new understandings
• Reviewing and recollecting
Developing dispositions to learn
• Self-confidence & self-esteem
• Persistence & independence
Using technology in everyday life
• Communication
• Adult uses – work, making purchases
• Leisure and family time
Learning needs more than technology
• Learning with technologies needs support – guided
• Indirect support – choosing, providing, timing
• Direct support – multi-modal interactions
Demonstrating & modelling
Giving feedback
• Managing emotions
Dimensions of Difference
• Resources available – traditional and
• Gender
• Individual child’s choices and preferences
• Parents’ attitudes towards the ‘technology
debate’ and technology and learning
• Parents’ approach to support for learning
• Family practices and managing children’s choices
Children’s choices and preferences
Children’s choices and preferences
• Girls have different toys from
boys but no difference in
proportion of toys that were
• All children had favourites among
traditional and technological toys
Discriminating Users
– Swimming, in the garden, on the swings
– Indoors – computer games, television and DVDs
Dislike any play activity that is too hard or boring
– put off technological playthings when controls difficult to
manage, activity takes too long, not able to complete the task
Know what they are good at and that they are not good at all
the activities mediated through technology
Parents’ attitudes and expectations
The technology debate
• Being outside is better for
children than being inside
looking at screens
• Technologies offer children
experiences they can’t have
• Technology isn’t the only
way to learn
• Parents need to ensure a
balance in children’s play
Technology and learning
• Technological toys and
games limit children’s
• Technology only helps with
some kinds of learning
• Some activities can just be
fun – not everything has to
be about learning
• Knowing how to use
technology is an advantage
when children start school
Parents and pedagogy
Supporting learning
Engaging with children and
• Parents should let children
learn by exploring and
• Parents need to be involved
in their children’s learning
• Children need help from
their parents
• Children pick up how to use
the technology for
• Technology is good for
practising but children need
adults to teach them
– offering positive experiences
– Teaching children how to use
resources and checking their
Family life and practices
Implications for educators
• Playing with technology does contribute to children’s learning
but individual outcomes will be influenced by family context
and each child’s desires and interests
– Challenge for educators is to be ready and able to recognise
and respond to these individual outcomes and find ways of
building from individual starting points in nursery and school
• Technological play is one way to learn but the technology
alone is not enough – needs sensitive and responsive
• Technology does not dominate children’s play and learning
– digital childhoods include using a games console, taking
digital photographs, going on the swings and drawing with
In Conclusion
What does this evidence contribute?
• Articulates influence of context
 can’t treat ‘playing with technologies’ as a generic activity
 identifies elements of family context that make a difference to children’s
experiences with technology - contributing to ecocultural models and
understanding of socio-cultural mediation (including local practices, material
agency & social-emotional worlds)
 Makes clear need to understand ‘elements’ of contexts for learning and
development, asking what kinds of learning experiences are supported by home
• Demonstrates the value of specific methods for exploring the everyday
• Has implications for practitioners and educational practices
 By time go to school children will have learned different things and expect to learn
in different ways, each child’s encounters with and learning through technology will
be related to their family context and their preferences. Educational settings need
to be ready to recognise and respond to this conditional learning.

Digital Childhoods: What have we learned about young