ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 9, Winter 2013

Game on

Game on

With technology becoming increasingly accessible, it’s not surprising children are becoming tech-savvy at younger ages. But what effect can this have on their early learning? Caitlin Ganter spoke to Associate Professor Susan Edwards about digital play.

There is a lot to be said for child’s play. Play is vital in early childhood education and in a world where you can surf the web with your refrigerator, it’s not surprising young children engage in digital play. 

With babies as young as 12-months-old readily engaging with technology, are the teachers and carers keeping up?

Associate Professor Susan Edwards, Principal Research Fellow from the Faculty of Education, is working with Associate Professor Joce Nuttall, Dr Scott Lee and Dr Ana Mantilla to find out how children engage in digital play. 

“For years play has been understood as the way our children learn, so teachers use play based experiences for education. For example, the blocks in the corner of the kindergarten help children learn shapes and sizes

“In essence, our research is examining how children aged between 20-months and five-years use technology in play so we can find ways to integrate this into early childhood education.”

Research such as this could have significant effects on early childhood education, yet it falls into an unexplored area. “There is not a lot of research into young children and digital play, people haven’t really thought about it. There is research about giving children access to the technology, but we are talking about how children understand and play with that technology, and how that feeds into their other play activities.

“Our study isn’t about putting an iPad loaded with a counting game in a playschool and seeing if this helps the children learn to count. We are looking at how children play with an iPad and what effects this has on their other types of play. We are trying to understand exactly what constitutes digital play, how this digital play relates to non-digital play, and how we can respond to it.

“Digital play has a lot of unanswered questions – how does a child access digital media and games and how does this influence the rest of their play? We need to understand the patterns and connections between the technology, what they access and how they play. 

“Early childhood education techniques are becoming dated. Modern conceptions and experiences of society have challenged traditional understandings about what constitutes play, as well as the type of play experiences that are considered necessary for supporting children‘s learning in early childhood settings.

“Children are not only playing with blocks or digging in the sandpit anymore. They are increasingly playing with digital technology and this is still not integrated in early childhood education. 

“The basis of our research is teachers are not used to thinking about digital play as ‘constructive’ play that they can use to support children’s learning.

It is the more traditional play forms that come to mind such as collage or building with blocks that teachers associate with supporting learning. Popular cultures – such as cartoon characters – are particularly shied away from by educators because of all the marketing and advertising involved, but if these characters capture the child’s interest they have the potential to be excellent play based learning tools.“So we are challenged with finding a way for teachers to think about digital play, so they can consider how it can be more easily integrated into play-based curriculum.”

Associate Professor Edwards, who has three children of her own, first became interested in the idea of digital play while at playgroups with her children.

“One thing that stuck out for me was how children choose a character and obsess over it. You see the little boy with a Thomas the Tank Engine hat, Thomas t-shirt and Thomas shoes and his parents tell you how much he loves Thomas cartoons and plays the Thomas video game. There’s also a good chance he loves pretending he’s Thomas. 

“This interested me in terms of how these characters can be used as a basis for play in early childhood education. When children watch a movie or play a game, it’s not uncommon for them to later include various characters or elements of what they have seen in a game. I became interested in how digital play influences their play, and how this could be used in education.”Associate Professor Edwards has recently completed a pilot study of 10 families from which she has developed a model to be applied in classrooms.

“I’ve been working with the families for the last year, finding out what are their children’s preferred activities, what are their preferred characters and what type of things the child is most likely to use when playing. I conducted a series of extensive interviews with each of the families and used these findings to development a model. 

“It is quite a complicated study; the data is very qualitative and one must interview a range of stakeholders including teachers, parents and children. There are also many variables. For example, each family has different rules for their child when it comes to digital play, and each child has access to different technologies. Essentially, I’m tracking what children play with and how.”

The study found some interesting trends, and Associate Professor Edwards has recently received a grant from Telematics Trust to research the use of the model with teachers in 20 early childhood education centres.“From the pilot, I developed a model which we are about to test by integrating it into the early curriculum in kindergarten, long day care and family day care settings. Although it’s a bit too early in the study to state any concrete findings, we are already noticing a few trends. 

“One thing my research shows is that children are really active in experiencing digital TV programs or movies in their own play. They see a movie and they may go and act out those characters or the theme. Information like this can be valuable, and we need to know how this sort of experience can be used to engage the child in other kinds of digital and non-digital play from which they can learn.

“Another interesting finding is that how early parents describe their children of being aware of technologies, which is as early as 12-months. Touch screen technology has allowed really young children to use these technologies quite competently. 

“Children’s language is also reflecting this and they can appropriately use terms like ‘Skype’. They also pick up technology concepts very quickly, for example two-year-olds recognise a loading sign on a computer screen.”

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