Technology and the early years

Philippa Thompson, Principal Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Sheffield Hallam University

"Are you worried about technology taking over children’s lives? Do you worry that children don’t go outside enough because of technology? Are you concerned that you can’t keep up with modern technology?"

Philippa Thompson, Principal Lecturer in Early Childhood Studies at Sheffield Hallam University

This blog explores the potential positive and creative uses of technology by engaging children’s interests in the early years. That is something you do know how to do! Linking to the clip below ‘Abdula paints a slug’ this blog aims to support you to feel more confident about how:

  • uses of technology can support creativity
  • technology can support communication
  • curriculum planning can engage with technology
  • practitioners can still have a mediator roll

Uses of technology to support creativity

Taking each area in turn it is interesting to watch the clip and see how skilled the practitioner is in supporting the child’s interest in the slug initially. This practitioner uses the skills that many of us possess as she recognises this interest has potential to develop in a myriad of ways and follows the child’s lead. At the same time the practitioner brings together a range of resources to enhance the child’s learning and fascination with the slug. It is a great example of how a starting point in the natural world becomes enhanced using technology to encourage mark making, observation and creative thinking. The practitioner asks, ‘What do you want to know?’ and whilst the child does not immediately answer the practitioner engages them by using an iPad to draw the child in. The Office for National Statistics (2019) tells us that the links between poverty and digital exclusion mean that access to iPads and other technology in settings can enable digital capability in those that may otherwise struggle.

Whilst you may have concerns around children’s potential excessive screen time, the creative use of technology seen here supports research by Marsh et al., (2016) who propose that children’s play is changing and should be inclusive of digital play to enhance creativity. How you use technology with children still needs to engage children. It is now such a part of their everyday lives that practitioners need to consider how they use it as that everyday item rather than a distraction or a method for engaging children in a particular subject area such as mathematical games. Things are moving fast!

What feels so lovely about this video clip is that it is as natural to the child and practitioner that the iPad is used as a tool in the same way as the book and the magnifying glass. Abdula does not suddenly become obsessed with the screen but uses it to enhance the observational painting (supported by the practitioner); to learn more about the details of the slug’s appearance and to see what other slugs might exist. The ‘awe and wonder’ response to the red slug is wonderful to watch!

Abdula uses the iPad to look closely at different types of slugs.

How technology can support communication

We use technology as a tool for communication in our everyday lives and we observe parents using this technology to communicate news of a new arrival, document their child growing up and sometimes as a tool to entertain their child in social situations where they may be concerned about how their child may behave. We are not here to judge these differing uses but we are here to think about how technology could be used to enhance children’s communication. In a post Covid era there are concerns about young children’s speech and language and some of this has been attributed to technology alongside lack of interactions due to isolation.

If we look again at Abdula there are so many examples of rich language and communication. This interaction begins with the fascination with the slug. The adult model’s language to support the child and gently repeats correct language usage when appropriate whilst never talking away the enthusiasm for the focus of the interest – the slug! Magnifying glasses move indoors perhaps introducing new vocabulary and then iPad is introduced. This introduction of technology develops the conversation further into considerations of antennae -mathematical language, language surrounding pattern and texture and then there is the digital language of zooming in. There are many more examples which I am sure you have noticed! Finally, Abdula has the confidence to ask a question, ‘Can I take a picture?’‘I know how to do it’. He then attempts this and again supported gently by the adult with some technical advice he frames his picture. In another interaction he also learns how to use his fingers to zoom in and look at the picture he has taken. He also takes a picture of the slug almost as a collation of images – he is hooked! Should we be worried? Not in my opinion. The slug is where he is hooked and the technology is supporting the interest to develop and encouraging the child to communicate and share knowledge.

Abdula takes a close up picture of the slug they found.

Curriculum planning and technology

Guidance in the Early Years Foundation Stage framework (Department for Education, 2023) is minimal around use of technology apart from the expected area of Understanding the World. Birth to Five Matters (Early Years Coalition, 2021:19) acknowledges that ‘Children will build on experiences in the natural, built and virtual world’ and with that suggests that practitioners should embed engagement with technology across their curriculum but in a cross curricular way as is demonstrated in the clip. This also can involve children’s agency and adults not being afraid to learn from the child. How many of us have teenagers who have taken the phone out of hands saying, ‘let me do it mum’ as they are frustrated by our lack of speed and skill – or is it just me?

The clip shows us how naturally Abdula takes the iPad and handles it but still needs the adult for some technical support. There are then probably things that Abdula could show the practitioner as confidence and skill grows. This supports self confidence and agency which it could be suggested could transfer to other areas of the curriculum. Rather than planning for a specific technology experience such as a whiteboard, we can see here how the practitioners have planned for integrated technological experiences with far reaching holistic results. The idea of individual pathways and the unique child spring to mind as the clip progresses and it is wonderful to watch how naturally this occurs.

Practitioners can still have a mediator role

Still worried? Technology engagement doesn’t mean always getting the iPad out.

  • Looking at how things work
  • Looking for technology when out and about
  • Talking about what technology our children use
  • Engaging with parents

Are all ways of understanding how well your children understand technology. This needs sensitive handling as parents can feel they are being policed. There are often online articles berating parents for using technology as a babysitter.  Imagine if you suddenly start being quizzed by your child’s key worker and you are feeling guilty for letting your toddler hold your phone in the buggy! Maybe you have parents who know lots about tech and can support you to keep updated? If we can, we need to evolve our practice and adapt our pedagogy. If we use technology to enhance learning holistically and bridge the gap for those who may be digitally excluded, then should that override our concerns about the overuse that’s constantly reported? Time to consider how Abdula would have had a very different experience if the iPad hadn’t been to hand…

Philippa Thompson B.Ed (Hons), MA, SFHEA

Philippa Thompson is a Principal Lecturer in Early Childhood and has a strong practice and academic background of over 35 years in early childhood (0-8yrs) both in the UK and internationally. She is a passionate advocate for recognition of a graduate workforce in early childhood in her role as the co-chair for the ECSDN. Her research and writing centres around a keen interest in partnership with parents with a specific focus on food allergies and anaphylaxis.

Philippa’s current book, edited with Helen Simmons,  was published in April 2023:

Partnership with Parents in Early Childhood Today (Learning Matters, Sage : London)

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