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Experience, represent, apply (ERA): A heuristic for digital engagement in the early years

Presenting a powerful new mechanism for encouraging play-based learning that reflects a more up-to-date and holistic view of technology use in the early years.

Tom Lowrie, STEM Education Research Centre, University of Canberra Kevin Larkin, Griffith University

Although a large body of research exists in relation to the use of digital technologies in a range of educational contexts, less is known about the use of tablet devices and apps in teaching science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in early years contexts. In our recent article in the British Journal of Educational Technology, ‘Experience, represent, apply (ERA): A heuristic for digital engagement in the early years’ (Lowrie & Larkin, 2019), we propose a heuristic that can assist early childhood educators with embedding STEM learning in play-based contexts, in ways that move beyond ‘passive’ screen time. The heuristic contributes to a richer understanding of the use of digital technology by encouraging authentic connections between on- and off-tablet activities in play-based environments.

‘The ERA heuristic is a powerful mechanism for encouraging play-based learning (in STEM and elsewhere) in ways that incorporate children’s digital and non-digital experiences in authentic ways.’

Given the more recent research into digital play (Fleer, 2018), descriptions of ‘passive’ versus ‘active’ screen time as a measure of educational appropriateness have largely become redundant. Instead, when evaluating the effectiveness of technology, educators should consider the play-based learning that happens ‘before’ and ‘after’ engagement with that digital technology, as well as the play-based learning that occurs ‘during’ (in this example) on-tablet engagement. Our way of assisting educators implement this more holistic view of technology use is via the creation of a heuristic: ‘experience, represent, apply’ (ERA).

The three stages of the ERA heuristic are cyclic in nature. The intent of each phase can be briefly outlined as follows.

Experience (E)

This is what children already know. Children’s lived experiences are used as the foundation for concept development through language and social engagement. Children participate in a range of play-based, off-tablet experiences that provide opportunities for them to use language in ways that connect personal experiences with new understandings.

Represent (R)

Children play a variety of activities on the apps to engage with, and represent, various STEM concepts. These representations include creating images, interpreting pictures, visualising and using symbols. Children have opportunities to create their own representations to use within the apps via the microphone and camera tools on the tablets. We refer to these personal representations as user-generated content (UGC), where young children create and import their own content into the on-tablet activities. UGC is critical for play-based learning engagement that can best leverage the affordances and minimise the disruption of digital-devices. Our use of UGC in early years apps is highly innovative, since the process allows children to decode other children’s digital representations. The ability for children to incorporate their own UGC also ensures that screen time is a highly active experience for young children.

Apply (A)

Children build on their learning from the on-tablet activities through a range of off-tablet activities, guided by their educators, their families and their friends. Engagement with the visual and symbolic representatives on the app serves to promote new child-centered play-based experiences.

***

In summary, using the ERA heuristic, we have provided opportunities for children to initially experience a concept first, largely in authentic contexts using their own, non-domain-specific language. This concept is then represented on the tablet in a play-based format. The digital experience is then followed with opportunities to apply the idea to the children’s own contexts.

Although closely related to notions of digital play (Fleer, 2018) our stance is that children play, and that sometimes that play happens to involve a tablet, or the apps on the tablet, because the tool supports how the children wish to play. In our view, digital technologies are never a substitute for play-based engagement in the physical world, nor does their use constitute a separate play experience for children. Rather, digital technologies are part of the larger set of resources (blocks, bundles of sticks, dress up clothes and so on) available for children to use as they play (see Arnott, 2016). We suggest that the ERA heuristic is a powerful mechanism for encouraging play-based learning (in STEM and elsewhere) in ways that incorporate children’s digital and non-digital experiences in authentic ways.


This blog post is based on the article ‘Experience, represent, apply (ERA): A heuristic for digital engagement in the early years’ by Tom Lowrie and Kevin Larkin.

It is published in the British Journal of Educational Technology, and is free-to-view to non-subscribers for a limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Wiley.


References

Arnott, L. (2016). An ecological exploration of young children’s digital play: Framing children’s social experiences with technologies in early childhood. Early Years, 36(3), 271–288.

Fleer, M. (2018). Digital animation: New conditions for children’s development in play-based setting. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(5), 943–958. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjet.12637

Lowrie, T. & Larkin, K. (2019). Experience, represent, apply (ERA): A heuristic for digital engagement in the early years. British Journal of Educational Technology. Advance online publication. Retrieved from: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/bjet.12789