early chldhood education

Meet our remarkable guardians of play, protecting children from screens

Digital technologies are a prominent and integral feature of daily living and are present in our homes, educational settings and communities. This week research from the Gonski Institute for Education at UNSW revealed parents see digital devices as necessary for their kids’ learning but worry about the distraction and activities they’re missing out on. So how soon is too soon for digital devices in the lives of young children?

Alongside considering age, it is even more important to consider how, when and why digital technology is being used – a child spending hours in solitary screen time consumption compared to video calling Nana and Poppy to share their latest LEGO creation are vastly different digital experiences. There are strong opinions voiced  on both sides, vehemently for or against children’s use of digital technology.

The push for digital technology integration

Policy developments, curricula and initiatives designed to develop children’s digital competencies have been implemented to prepare children to meet society’s digital demands. But should that learning be at the expense of play?

This blog post shares the research undertaken to investigate that question and reveals the findings of the study, published in the International Journal of Early Years Education.

Our research took place in Queensland kindergartens with early childhood teachers. We found that the narrative of concerns and negativity that can surround young children’s use of digital technologies was well-known and strongly articulated.

Children were seen to be enticed by digital technologies and highly motivated to play with them. Digital technologies were viewed as being all-consuming and concerns were raised that children would self-select digital experiences over non-digital ones and would spend excessive periods of time on digital devices if allowed. Children’s extended use of digital technologies were positioned as presenting a potential risk to children’s speech language, social, physical and emotional development.

Digital technologies were confidently used by the early childhood teachers to fulfil the requirements of their role; however, children’s engagement and play with digital technologies was viewed as contentious.

Traditional play-based teaching approaches were valued centred on children’s active engagement and socialisation – playing in the mud, talking to one another, learning to share. Whereas, digital technologies were viewed as being anti-social, and leading children to engage in passive consumption and screen time.

In response to the narrative of concerns about digital technologies, early childhood teachers implemented protective measures to restrict and regulate children’s access to, and time spent interacting and playing with digital technologies. Actions taken included physically removing digital devices from the classroom, and using a timer and roster to monitor, restrict and regulate children’s access and use of digital technologies. Play was positioned as being exclusive of digital technologies and outside the boundaries of delivering a play-based early learning program. 

“It is more important for people to become personable to other people, to share, to say hello, to talk, to play” (Heather, kindergarten teacher and director).

“I think it needs to be limited as well… a lot of children come from home and talk about how often they’re using their iPads… so I think this is a good environment for us to say, well we don’t have these things here, so we’re going to play” (Jasmine, early childhood teacher).

“When these brains are young and forming, I hate the thought that’s going to be something they spend copious hours on each day. I’ve reservations because I want this to be a place where children get their hands in mud and get dirty and play and have agency and talk to one another and I would never I think be happy for children to be sitting in a line of computers playing games, because I reckon they do it at home .” 

Aster, early childhood teacher and director

The expectation to support and facilitate children’s learning with digital technologies begins in early childhood settings with children aged from birth to five years, with the inclusion of digitally-focused learning outcomes in Belonging, Being and Becoming: The Early Years Learning Framework for Australia:

Outcome 4: Children are confident and involved learners:Children resource their own learning through connecting with people, places, technologies, natural and processed materials

Outcome 5: Children are effective communicators: Children use information and communication technologies to access information, investigate ideas and represent their thinking.                                                                                                

An expectation is placed on early childhood educators to be an active user and facilitator of digital technologies and to possess the skills, knowledge and techniques required to enhance children’s play and learning, and to explore new information and represent ideas. In light of curricular expectations and the increasing presence of digital technologies the question arose; how are early childhood teachers managing their changing roles with digital technologies?

They take this role very seriously and see themselves as guardians of play.

How was this research undertaken?

Semi-structured, in-depth interviews were undertaken with nineteen practising early childhood teachers at nineteen different kindergartens, including community kindergartens, kindergartens in a long day care centre and kindergartens co-located on a school site. Each early childhood teacher had a Bachelor’s degree qualification, and held the position of kindergarten teacher, responsible for delivering an early learning program to children aged three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half years old.

The early childhood teachers had between three and thirty-eight years of experience working in early childhood education. The early childhood teachers were interviewed in person, regarding how they were managing their changing roles with digital technology within their kindergarten.

The methodological approach of grounded theory was used to inform the processes of data collection and analysis and revealed the perspectives early childhood teachers held about digital technologies and the actions they took to guard children’s play from digital technologies.

Moving Forward

The counterargument to restricting and regulating digital technologies is to harness and support young children’s desire for digital play and engagement. As a profession we can move beyond a conceptualisation of digital technology as being ‘negative’ and a perception that children’s use of digital technology is ‘solitary consumption’ in need of adult regulation and restriction, towards a vision of children as agentic, capable and confident users and creators with digital technologies.

Professional development is required to support early childhood teachers to integrate digital teaching approaches in ways that work in partnership with their existing strategies, to deliver a play-based early learning program. In doing so, early childhood teachers can be empowered to reconceptualise the role of digital technologies and in doing so the need to monitor and regulate children’s digital experiences fades.

Allowing a child to spend hours, alone, watching cartoons on an iPad is a different situation to empowering a child to take photos using a digital camera while on a nature walk, to encourage investigation, appreciation, discussion, and reflection. How and why we are using digital technologies needs to be at the centre of decision-making to support, enhance and facilitate young children’s play, learning and engagement. 

Image of Vicki Schriever

Dr Vicki Schriever is a Lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of the Sunshine Coast. Her research interests include understanding how early childhood teachers manage their changing roles with digital technologies, pedagogical approaches and the role of digital technologies, and using digital technologies to foster relationships with families.