Preparing young children for a digital world | Hello World #21

How do we teach our youngest learners digital and computing skills? Hello World‘s issue 21 will focus on this question and all things primary school computing education. We’re excited to share this new issue with you on Tuesday 30 May. Today we’re giving you a taste by sharing an article from it, written by our own Sway Grantham.

Cover of Hello World issue 21.

How are you preparing young children for a world filled with digital technology? Technology use of our youngest learners is a hotly debated topic. From governments to parents and from learning outcomes to screen-time rules, everyone has an opinion on the ‘right’ approach. Meanwhile, many young children encounter digital technology as a part of their world at home. For example in the UK, 87 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds and 93 percent of 5- to 7-year-olds went online at home in 2023. Schools should be no different.

A girl doing digital making on a tablet.

As educators, we have a responsibility to prepare learners for life in a digital world. We want them to understand its uses, to be aware of its risks, and to have access to the wide range of experiences unavailable without it. And we especially need to consider the children who do not encounter technology at home. Education should be a great equaliser, so we need to ensure all our youngest learners have access to the skills they need to realise their full potential.

Exploring technology and the world

A major aspect of early-years or kindergarten education is about learners sharing their world with each other and discovering that everyone has different experiences and does things in their own way. Using digital technology is no different.

Allowing learners to share their experiences of using digital technology both accepts the central role of technology in our lives today and also introduces them to its broader uses in helping people to learn, talk to others, have fun, and do work. At home, many young learners may use technology to do just one of these things. Expanding their use of technology can encourage them to explore a wider range of skills and to see technology differently.

A girl shows off a robot she has built.

In their classroom environment, these explorations can first take place as part of the roleplay area of a classroom, where learners can use toys to show how they have seen people use technology. It may seem counterintuitive that play-based use of non-digital toys can contribute to reducing the digital divide, but if you don’t know what technology can do, how can you go about learning to use it? There is also a range of digital roleplay apps (such as the Toca Boca apps) that allow learners to recreate their experiences of real-world situations, such as visiting the hospital, a hair salon, or an office. Such apps are great tools for extending roleplay areas beyond the resources you already have.

Another aspect of a child’s learning that technology can facilitate is their understanding of the world beyond their local community. Technology allows learners to explore the wider world and follow their interests in ways that are otherwise largely inaccessible. For example:

  • Using virtual reality apps, such as Expeditions Pro, which lets learners explore Antarctica or even the bottom of the ocean
  • Using augmented reality apps, such as Octagon Studio’s 4D+ cards, which make sea creatures and other animals pop out of learners’ screens
  • Doing a joint project with a class of children in another country, where learners blog or share ‘email’ with each other

Each of these opportunities gives children a richer understanding of the world while they use technology in meaningful ways.

Technology as a learning tool

Beyond helping children to better understand our world, technology offers opportunities to be expressive and imaginative. For example, alongside your classroom art activities, how about using an app like Draw & Tell, which helps learners draw pictures and then record themselves explaining what they are drawing? Or what about using filters on photographs to create artistic portraits of themselves or their favourite toys? Digital technology should be part of the range of tools learners can access for creative play and expression, particularly where it offers opportunities that analogue tools don’t.

Young learners at computers in a classroom.

Using technology is also invaluable for learners who struggle with communication and language skills. When speaking is something you find challenging, it can often be intimidating to talk to others who speak much more confidently. But speaking to a tablet? A tablet only speaks as well as you do. Apps to record sounds and listen back to them are a helpful way for young children to learn about how clear their speech is and practise speech exercises. ChatterPix Kids is a great tool for this. It lets learners take a photo of an object, e.g. their favourite soft toy, and record themselves talking about it. When they play back the recording, the app makes it look like the toy is saying their words. This is a very engaging way for young learners to practise communicating.

Technology is part of young people’s world

No matter how we feel about the role of technology in the lives of young people, it is a part of their world. We need to ensure we are giving all learners opportunities to develop digital skills and understand the role of technology, including how people can use it for social good.

A woman and child follow instructions to build a digital making project at South London Raspberry Jam.

This is not just about preparing them for their computing education (although that’s definitely a bonus!) or about online safety (although this is vital — see my articles in Hello World issue 15 and issue 19 for more about the topic). It’s about their right to be active citizens in the digital world.

So I ask again: how are you preparing young children for a digital world?

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The first experiences children have with learning about computing and digital technologies are formative. That’s why primary computing education should be of interest to all educators, no matter what the age of your learners is. This issue covers for example:

And there’s much more besides. So don’t miss out on this upcoming issue of Hello World — subscribe for free today to receive every PDF edition in your inbox on the day of publication.

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