Born into a digital world

With some children accessing technology for disproportionate amounts of time at home, how important is it for settings to try to combat the negative effects of screen-time?

The subject of technology can often be a contentious one in early years.

Children are now born into a digital world and are immediately immersed in technology.

With smartphones, apps, video sharing platforms, television and video calling, children are quickly becoming digital experts from a young age. This exposure to technology at home means many are joining an early years setting as confident users.

As practitioners, we need to accept these competencies and capabilities, acknowledging them as a part of the child's early life. However, we also need to be aware that not all children come to us with the same experiences of technology.
Emma Davis

Weighing the impact

While there is no denying that tech has enhanced our life experiences, there are also negative implications. It might not come as much of a surprise that a recent study, by the University of Sheffield, discovered that one third of children under five own their own tablet.

Teachers and practitioners will have seen the impact of this with children negotiating their way around a tablet with ease, swiping the screen and accessing apps.

This increase in children's use of digital devices has given rise to the question of their impact on communication and language. With children watching content online and playing games – both solitary activities – the opportunities for interaction with others can be limited. It's little surprise that links between tech use and speech, language and communication needs are beginning to escalate.

As some children are spending an increasing time engaged with technology at home, implications for health, both physical and mental, are being documented more widely. It is now suggested by research that an increase in screen time can be responsible for a rise in obesity, with more than 90 per cent of two to four-year-olds in Britain failing to meet the bare minimum recommendations for physical activity (Sigman, 2019). This increase in screen time can also be responsible for a lack of sleep, eye problems, type 2 diabetes and eating problems.

With some children accessing technology for a disproportionate amount of time at home, we need to consider what place technology has in a setting. Do we need to negate the effects of an increase in screen time at home by offering fewer tech based experiences in early years?

Discovery approach

First, let's consider what we mean by technology – it's not just ipads and screen time. Some of the resources I have in my setting which children regularly engage with include:

  • Ipads
  • CD players
  • Metal detectors
  • Cash registers
  • Electronic weighing scales
  • Remote control toys
  • Bee-bots
  • Torches
  • Recording devices
  • Home corner resources – microwave, hoover, telephones etc.
  • An interactive screen
  • Laptops and printers
  • Cameras
  • Lightbox
  • Illuminated mark making boards
  • Walkie Talkies

The way these resources are used varies according to the context. Some items such as those in the home corner are accessed independently through continuous provision. Children are confident in their use and able to engage in role-play scenarios, involving this tech in their play with others. It inspires communication and language, sharing, development of fine motor skills, imaginative play and reliving and recreating past experiences.

Some of our tech resources are used alongside an adult and modelling plays a big part in this. In order to fully access tech such as an interactive screen, children rely on the adult to facilitate engagement and learning. The role of the adult is to model the use, enabling children to take control and explore the tech through a discovery approach.

The role of the adult

Adults in my setting play a vital role in introducing children to technology, facilitating opportunities through planning, modelling and reacting to interests. It is embedded in the pedagogy and culture of the setting. By embracing it, we are empowering children to become confident learners in a digital world.

Adults need to…

  • Allow children time and space to play, explore and develop their skills
  • Facilitate experiences through planning and responding to interests and characteristics of effective learning
  • Provide a range of technological based experiences in a variety of contexts
  • Enable understanding of technologies and the context in which they are used. This involves exposure to a range of tech, in and out of the setting, bringing children's attention to equipment such as CCTV, automatic doors, digital screens, supermarket tills, traffic lights….the list is endless!
  • Take children from playing and exploring with a technological resource to using it purposefully
  • Be prepared to learn alongside children through exploring cause and effect, talking together and using open ended questions
  • Interact positively, facilitating joint learning and engagement and showcasing the possibilities tech can provide us

An adult's role, therefore, when it comes to tech is one of facilitating, enabling and discovering together. However, it's important to also consider the knowledge of the adults in the setting. What are the skills of the adults in the setting – are they confident tech users? Because I am expecting all adults to engage confidently in tech-based learning, it's important to consider learning and experience in order to offer support and training if necessary. This doesn't have to be costly, sometimes it can be achieved through supervision and peer observation. What is important is that all adults are on board, embracing the power of tech and its role in the lives of children.

The experiences of children

The world is very different for children in comparison to our childhoods. They begin their lives observing those around them using technology, seeing it as the ‘norm’. From a very young age, some children are watching television, recording and watching programmes independently, using parents’ smartphones and downloading content. Children, therefore, have a different perspective to many practitioners. We are learning to live in a digital world whereas children are born into it.

Because of the easy access to tech all around young children, we need to consider how to provide a balance between technological experiences and more traditional experiences and active play. Digital devices can easily engross children and we need to be mindful of this by not using them as a replacement for meaningful interactions with adults. The National Literacy Trust advises that ‘…just like a book, technology is used as a tool for learning and play, rather than as a replacement for adult interaction.’

I like to use the experiences of children as a basis for further learning. Children can communicate instructions and plans with others, explain concepts and be a source of rich language. We document learning with the children, recognising the value of the Mosaic Approach (Clark & Moss, 2011). Children use ipads independently or in small groups to take photos and make videos. Through this process, we can gain insight into their likes, dislikes, areas of interest and preferences. The photos can be made into a slideshow and played on the interactive screen while children engage in talk about where, who, when and how.

Acknowledging the obstacles

Unfortunately, it's not easy for all settings to include a range of technology resources and equipment in their provision. Reasons could include cost, particularly in the current climate with budget cuts, low funding rates and the impact of 30 hours childcare. Even though fundraising could be an option, there are often other needs which take priority over technological resources.

The views of the adults could be seen as a factor in how tech is used in a setting. Where there is a lack of knowledge, confidence or value seen in it by those leading a setting, there is less likelihood that resources will be seen as a priority.

The increase in the number of children engaging in screen time at home could influence the views of practitioners which we need to acknowledge. As practitioners, we all have different life experiences which influence our values and perspectives. Some practitioners may have strong views on screen time, seeing it as detrimental to a child's learning and development.

Leaders need to listen to these views, seeing them as important to the practitioner but offering reassurance about the links to the curriculum and the valuable learning tool technology can be.

It should be embraced and integrated through all areas of learning and accessible for all children. We can negotiate a balance whereby tech is accepted as a part of our changing world but not to the detriment of other opportunities, such as outdoor play.

Striving for balance

Technology resources and equipment can be used as a positive tool to facilitate play and development. With knowledgeable, confident adults, children can be exposed to rich learning opportunities in which they can explore, discover and learn concepts such as shape, colour, size and number.

Through these interactions with an adult, children learn skills they can then transfer to use resources independently through continuous provision, and modelling to others. It is through these reciprocal interactions that children experience the serve and return conversation essential for development.

Although tech is embedded in the culture of my setting, I strive for a balance. I don't see the need to sacrifice other learning opportunities in favour of it, or vice versa. In many cases, we incorporate technology into all aspects of our practice and provision. For example, we use an ipad to look up recipes for cookery activities, take photos at Forest School to look back on later, mark make using the interactive screen, develop our use and understanding of prepositional language with the remote control cars, use the electronic scales to weigh and recognise numerals and record instructions for our friends with the talking tiles.

Our use of online Learning Journeys has had a significant impact on not just our partnership with parents but the experiences of the children. We look through photos from home with them, as they talk about and relive past experiences. Similarly, parents can use the photos we upload as a talking prompt for the child's day.

This use of tech is proving to be beneficial in engaging not just children but parents and staff as well.

Key points

  • Technology can hold a valuable place in settings but should not be to the detriment of other opportunities
  • Adults play a vital role in facilitating opportunities so confidence in technological resources and equipment is vital
  • We need to accept that not all children come to us with the same experiences and exposure to technology
  • Technology is more than computers and ipads

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!