Digital Technology - Find the way

Annette Rawstrone
Monday, January 7, 2019

Digital technology in early years settings divides commentators, but the strength of opinion backs children using it in creative ways, finds Annette Rawstrone

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Mention the use of digital technology (DT) in the early years and it’s like Marmite – practitioners tend to love it or hate it. While some view it as bad because they think DT is turning children into passive consumers, others argue that we are inhabiting a digital world and should be embracing technology by using it to support children’s learning.

‘Using digital technology in the early years sector continues to be a controversial issue,’ says Dr Kate Cowan, senior research fellow at UCL Knowledge Lab. ‘The loudest views often come from polarised extremes, with some people celebrating DT as revolutionary and completely positive, and others expressing serious fears about the effects on young children’s lives.’

Ben Clay, pedagogy manager at LEYF, believes a conversation is needed in the sector about how we use DT to benefit children. ‘Our job as early years teachers is not to sweep technology under the carpet but to use it with our children and to talk about what is and is not appropriate behaviour,’ he says.

Marc Faulder, early years teacher and Apple distinguished educator, agrees. ‘Three-year-olds have access to devices at home, but we are not teaching them to balance their use and think of their well-being. There needs to be a balance between using devices to consume information, for example watching videos and playing games, and creating something. Early years teachers need to rethink what young children are learning to do with devices.’


The controversy around DT is not helped by there being no mention of it in the revised Early Learning Goals, which Dr Cowan regards as ‘worrying’. She says, ‘DT needs to be recognised as an important part of children’s everyday lives both now and in the future, and a valuable way of exploring and expressing meaning in combination with non-digital forms. Rather than being removed from the EYFS, DT should be woven carefully and meaningfully across all areas of learning. This should be supported by a DT agenda that offers guidance developed by researchers, teachers and teacher-educators, presenting a critical, creative and balanced perspective on DT in the early years. There is also a need for ongoing research exploring the ways DT is being used, to understand more about its role in learning and to share case studies of practice with the early years community.’

Prof Jackie Marsh, professor of education at the University of Sheffield, says she does not understand the ‘rationale for the omission’ and urges practitioners to challenge it. ‘The Government needs to recognise that research evidence demonstrates clearly that technology can be used for learning,’ she adds. ‘I see it as a children’s rights issue because we are living in a technological society. A child who is three years old will need to navigate an even more technological world in 15 years’ time and has the right to be educated to equip them for that.’

She adds that children will struggle to meet the ‘demanding coding curriculum’ in primary if they don’t already have the building blocks in place from the early years.


The US Department of Education has published ‘Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners’ (see Further information), which informs practitioners that DT can be used to aid learning with all children. It takes the position that thoughtful use of technology can engage children in key skills such as self-expression, creativity and computational thinking. The guidelines recommend children’s learning is enhanced when their use of DT is supported by an adult.

‘Early years practitioners should use technology alongside children and support their developing technology skills,’ agrees Professor Marsh. ‘Practitioners need to think how it can be used to meet children’s learning outcomes and choose software that is appropriate to children’s needs. But probably not all practitioners feel confident in technology, which can be a barrier. They need to be given more support in developing skills with technology.’


Lorraine Kaye, retired senior lecturer at Middlesex University, argues that DT is a tool and that children need to learn from an early age what the appropriate tool is for the task.

‘It has been argued that using technology is passive, but why not ask children what they are doing when they are using a computer, just like we’d do if they were engaged in sand or water play?’ she says. ‘Find out what they are exploring, what they know and talk to them about it.

‘Practitioners need to develop the confidence to ask questions around technology and steer children’s DT play into areas that are not mind-numbing. It’s a balance – we don’t want children to be playing on iPads all day, but nor would we want them sat in a sand box all day.’

She believes that DT has ‘never been more suited to the early years’ because it is hand-held and portable. ‘Children can take an iPad into the garden, photograph flowers and use augmented reality to find out further information on the flower. Learning can be made even more amazing through the use of technology. It can support investigations and collaboration,’ she says.

‘I’ve seen early years children practising a play outside while another child is recording them on an iPad. They have then played it back, watched it together and discussed what they’ve done.’

Mr Clay agrees that at LEYF they want to use DT to support teaching rather than substitute real experiences – such as colouring a picture or doing a jigsaw – or use it as a ‘babysitter’. LEYF is planning on introducing interactive learning tables into two of its nurseries to explore how they can be used to support the children’s development and learning.

When practitioners at its Stockwell Gardens Nursery in south London started using tablets to record observations, many of the children showed an interest, so now they are using them collaboratively to support their investigations.

‘We want to teach children how to create things and retrieve information, to be active users of DT rather than inactive,’ says nursery manager Michelle Samuels. ‘Children enjoy using the tablets to take pictures of each other and objects of interest, which highlights their fascinations and can be used to stimulate conversations.’

She plans to continue to embrace DT and look at other ways to combine children’s traditional play with technology, such as turning their stories into films.

Mr Faulder likes to see children using DT for communication, making animations, taking photos and working collaboratively with devices. ‘I want them to be covering all the areas of learning through actions and not just clicking or watching. I want to see children taking photos outside and bringing them in to print and use in their own books. Videoing their role-play experiences or puppet shows and using that to reflect on how to make it better next time,’ he explains.

‘It is so important to have a curriculum that places the use of technology in all areas of learning. We need to embrace the world we live in now.’


Reggio Emilia, Italy

Dr Cowan witnessed a ‘balanced approach’ to DT during a visit to Reggio Emilia, where she saw pre-schools and infant toddler centres exploring its possibilities as part of an enquiry-based pedagogy. Technologies such as digital microscopes, projectors, sound recording equipment and editing software are used in combination with traditional resources such as clay, wire, paint and fabric.

‘Educators in Reggio were articulate about their use of digital technology and what it offered that was different from traditional tools,’ she says. ‘For instance, they explained that using a digital microscope projected onto a screen supported shared perspectives and group discussion. Reggio has always celebrated materials such as clay and wire and they saw editing software as offering a new digital form of transformation.’

Stockholm, Sweden

One-year-olds are offered digital tools alongside other materials at Katarina Vastra pre-school. Dr Cowan was interested to see an iPad used to explore sound alongside more traditional instruments. She also watched pre-school children using a digital microscope to examine and capture images of ice crystals. Instead of restricting the children’s interest in Pokémon, educators encourage them to create representations of the characters, make up new ones and have introduced stop-motion video recording to make their own films.

The educators spoke to Dr Cowan about the importance of finding open-ended apps that combine multiple modes – such as image, moving image and sound – rather than closed procedural apps. She saw children using audio mixing app MadPad and Brian Eno’s Bloom app to create patterns and melodies by tapping on the screen.


‘Guiding Principles for Use of Technology with Early Learners’,

‘Education for a Connected World: A framework to equip children and young people for a digital life’,

Young Children in a Digital Age: Supporting learning and development with technology in early years, edited by Lorraine Kaye. Routledge

Nursery World Show masterclass

To find out more about the learning potential of digital technology, join us at the Nursery WorldShow, where the theme of Saturday’s masterclass, on 2 February, will be ‘Playing and creating in a digital world’.

Professor Elizabeth Wood of the University of Sheffield will look at the emergence of converged play, the Balham Nursery School team will explain creative and complex ways to support children’s investigations and learning, and Dr Liz Chesworth, also of the University of Sheffield, will report on the MakEY project, which is exploring new pedagogies to inspire creativity and advance digital learning in line with best early years practice.

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