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The changing nature of young children’s learning ecologies, experiences and implications for pedagogy in the digital era

Lorna Arnott Ioanna Palaiologou Colette Gray

Digitalisation has changed the ways of everyday living in the 21st century, and has impacted on the constructions of childhood.* Characterisations such as ‘techno babies’ (O’Connor 2014) or ‘digitods’ (Holloway et al 2015) are given to define the digital generation. Young children’s experiences now include a repertoire of digital activities, and these artefacts, it is often argued, set this younger generation apart from their older counterparts. For example, from babyhood, we know that many children engage in screen-based communication such as video calls with distant grandparents (McClure et al 2018), and before their first birthday many young children can autonomously manoeuvre user interfaces by swiping (O’Connor 2017). Toddlers are known to access photographs and videos, navigate YouTube, and interact with and complete some age-appropriate digital games and applications (Harrison and McTavish 2018). This research demonstrates the competence of very young children as users of digital media.

In tabloid media and research, discussion of the role of technologies in children’s lives has increased in popularity, particularly since the introduction of the first iPad in 2010, after which digital devices became increasingly accessible for young children’s fine motor capabilities. Despite over a decade of research on this topic, perspectives on it remain polarised, with tabloid media perpetuating a moral panic and anxieties that digital technologies are damaging children and childhood (Shaban 2018). This thread percolates alongside the research agenda, which has moved beyond discussions of whether children should be using technologies, towards understanding how children should be using technologies to facilitate high quality play and learning experiences (Palaiologou 2016).

‘We need to understand how social ecological factors have shifted alongside the availability of technologies from birth that both shapes and is shaped by children’s play and learning.’

Despite attempts to attribute changes in childhood to specific societal changes such as the digital revolution, research is beginning to recognise that despite technologies holding cultural and social significance, the decisions and planning about how technologies feature in life and learning still sits with children, parents and educators. The experiences of children frame, and are framed by, cultural, social and interpersonal decision-making between children and their social ecological contexts. With this in mind, we cannot continue to causally attribute changes in constructions of childhood to the technological artefacts alone. Rather, we need to understand how social ecological factors have shifted alongside the availability of technologies from birth that both shapes and is shaped by children’s play and learning. We propose that childhood in the digital age should be understood as a ‘wholeness’ of influences on children’s digital lives, which is required in order to examine how to support children in their digital play adventures and learning journeys. We have argued that children’s technological experiences are oriented in different ‘moulded’ landscapes: mentally, physically, socially and culturally. Without an understanding of the multiplicity of these experiences, we cannot support children to become digitally responsible and creative users.

In an educational sphere, this means that we must recognise that digitalisation is a culturally significant factor that is contributing to the evolution of constructions of childhood. We need to acknowledge that in the digital age technology is one of the factors – alongside others – that contribute to shaping our constructions of childhood. How we plan for possibilities (Woods 2017) through our pedagogy and how we as agentic beings – both children and adults – frame the integration of technologies into young children’s play and learning will determine the significance of digitalisation in life, play and learning. In recognising that technologies feature in a broader social ecological world, instead of arguing about its role, our focus should be placed on empowering children and educators to utilise technologies in a manner that supports high quality play and learning experiences.

Technologies continue to evolve at a rapid rate, and rather than shy away from its potential dangers we should see this as an opportunity to engage with the debate and inform developers of how new technologies should fit with a pedagogy that will be beneficial to young children’s lives. Already we are seeing internet-connected toys taking us back to an era of tangible and tactile play, but now with these toys children move from real to virtual spaces and vice versa. We suggest that in education we need to recognise the potentialities of digitalisation and integrate them as resources alongside others that can support children’s play and learning experiences. Only by embracing the opportunities of the digital revolution in education can we contribute to the evolution of future digital toys and resources. In turn, this is how we frame children’s play and learning experiences in a digital world.

*This blog post is based on the article ‘Digital devices, internet‐enabled toys and digital games: The changing nature of young children’s learning ecologies, experiences and pedagogies’ by Lorna Arnott, Ioanna Palaiologou and Colette Gray, published in the British Journal of Educational Technology’. The article is now free-to-view to non-subscribers for a limited period.

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Harrison E and McTavish M (2018) ‘”i”Babies: Infants’ and toddlers’ emergent language and literacy in a digital culture of iDevices’, Journal of Early Childhood Literacy 18(2) 163–188.

Holloway D J, Green L and Stevenson K (2015) ‘Digitods: Toddlers, Touch Screens and Australian Family Life’, M/C Journal 18(5).

McClure E R, Chentsova‐Dutton Y E, Holochwost S J, Parrott W G and Barr R (2018) ‘Look At That! Video Chat and Joint Visual Attention Development Among Babies and Toddlers’, Child Development 89(1): 27–36.

O’Connor J (2014) ‘The Technobabies Project. How do your babies and toddlers use touchscreens?’, blog, Birmingham City University, 27 January 2014.

O’Connor J (2017) ‘Under 3s and Technology’, in Arnott L (ed) Digital Technologies and Learning in the Early Years, London: SAGE. 87–98

Palaiologou I (2016) ‘Children under five and digital technologies: implications for early years pedagogy’, European early childhood education research journal 24(1): 5–24.

Shaban H (2018) ‘France bans smartphones in school’, Washington Post, 31 July 2018.

Woods A (2017) Child-initiated Play and Learning: Planning for Possibilities in the Early Years, Abingdon: Routledge