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Children, play and digital technologies

This article is about young children playing with digital technologies at home and in their educational settings. It draws on a series of research studies conducted at the University of Stirling over a period of 10 years with my colleagues Professor Lydia Plowman and Joanna McPake. We have a substantial number of academic and practice orientated publications available, some of which will be referenced in the article. We are happy to respond to requests for other publications.  In the article I will consider the current debate about the advantages and drawbacks of play with digital technologies then, using our research evidence, I will look at the factors that make a difference to children’s engagement with technology and highlight the key role that supportive and responsive adults make to children’s learning with these 21st century resources.

Digital technologies are part of the everyday experience of most young children in the UK. By the time they go to school children will confidently play on-line games associated with television programmes and may already have grown out some possibilities. They will have observed adults shopping on laptops, using tablet computers and mobile phones and many will have played games on a mobile phone themselves and become capable users of the nursery computers to practise phonics, counting and matching skills. They may be able to take and download photographs of their construction projects in the preschool playroom or first class in primary school and some will have, talked to grandparents using Skype and watched older siblings using games consoles. As Kalaš (2010, p 16) suggests ‘it is not necessary any more to prove that ICT matters in early childhood education. New digital technologies have entered every aspect of our reality, including families and lives of young people’.

Nevertheless, discussions about young children’s use of digital technologies typically involve claims of substantial benefit or anxieties about considerable harm. Resources such as the LeapPad TAG reading scheme are marketed as ways of support children to become enthusiastic readers and the integrated television and on-line shows and games provided by media companies such as CBeebies are ‘sold’ as educational and entertaining. Parents and early years practitioners are aware that screen-based activities are very attractive to many young children and offer learning and leisure opportunities. On the other hand, there are anxieties about children becoming socially isolated and physically inactive through time spent with digital technologies and computer games in particular. There are doubts too about internet safety and the developmental appropriateness of this way of exploring and learning about the world (see for instance, American Academy of Pediatrics, 2011; Palmer, 2006). 

This debate about the potential benefits and harm continues with little sign of agreement and it is fair to say that there are more claims about the potential of technology in early childhood education than studies offering evidence of clear positive evidence.  In our own studies we have found that children’s personal preferences, the practices within their family and the ways in which their encounters with technologies are supported and mediated in their educational setting all make a difference to their experience of a digital childhood. Reviewing the technological games and resources available and the limited research evidence about the impact that young children playing with technologies has led us to argue that rather than clear expectations of positive outcomes a more conditional and nuanced evaluation of their potential is appropriate.

We found that play with digital technologies did not dominate the lives of 3- to 4-year olds who took part in our studies of pre-schoolers using technologies at home (Stephen et al, 2010). Variety and a balance between digital and traditional resources was what most children chose and their parents preferred. Children had favourite technological and traditional playthings and the most striking finding in our surveys of the homes we visited for our research was the large number of toys and technologies, regardless of family income. In their homes we saw props for pretend play, puzzles, board games and jigsaws, construction equipment like Lego and Sticklebricks, books, paint, dough and crayons, cars and farms, dressing up clothes and much more.  Outside there were climbing frames, balls and bicycles. The proportion of playthings in any one family home that could be considered as technological ranged from just over 33% in one case to only about 10% in others. In 10 of the 14 families taking part in one study three quarters of the toys at home were traditional and only a quarter had some technological features. Similarly in their preschool educational settings there was a wide range of traditional toys and resources in the playroom and out of doors. The range of technologies available at home was typically wider than present in the nursery but most playrooms had one or two computers or laptops, digital cameras, toys that simulate interactive technologies like bar code readers by the till, programmable roamers and audio and video recorders and players. 

There is a tendency for adults to think of all young children as ‘digital natives’ able to make use of technologies in their home with ease and enjoying all forms of play with computer games or technological toys and often preferring these to other alternatives. However, often to their parents’ surprise, the children we researched were discriminating users with particular preferences who knew what they could do well and what was difficult or boring. They were put off technological toys and games that took too long, had controls that were difficult to manage or which involved tasks they could not complete or games they could not win (Stephen et al, 2008).  

The choices that families make clearly influence children’s digital experiences, although having resources at home does not mean that children necessarily make use of them. Some children had little or no interest in using technologies, regardless of the resources at home or the keenness with which others in their family engaged with technologies.  In other families access was time-limited or only offered in some circumstances, for instance when a parent was nearby to supervise. Our evidence suggests that there are three dimensions of family experience that make a difference to children’s digital experiences (Stephen et al, 2013).

  • Parents’ attitudes towards digital technologies and technological toys        In some homes certain resources were reserved for adult use and most families imposed some kind of rationing of time with technologies.  Where parents were convinced of the educational value of child-orientated technologies this influenced their spending decisions and the gifts they purchased.
  • Ideas about learning       Parents’ ideas about how learning happens and the ways in which they can help influenced how often and in what ways assistance with aspects of computer games was offered. Some children were left to explore and find out for themselves how to play with a particular technology, an approach that could result in frustration or confusion.  Others were given more direct instruction to ensure that they used the resources correctly and only introduced to a novel technology or skills when they were thought to be ready.  
  • Family practices     The opportunities which children have to engage with technology are shaped by the ways in which family life is managed. Some 3- and 4-year olds only had access to digital technologies only when their younger siblings were asleep or were encouraged to play outside as much as possible because their home was crowded. On the other hand, having older siblings could mean that there was a wider range of technologies in the home and more help available to use their high status resources. Some families used the Wii during shared family time, others watched DVDs together or pursued shared interests.  Other families prioritized spending time in physical activity like swimming or bike riding together.

Children bring these varied experiences and preferences to their preschool educational settings and first class in primary school.  What children choose to do with the technological resources in the playroom and classroom will be influenced by their previous experience. This might be having fun or frustration with technologies, exploring virtual worlds or matching sounds and letters, playing tennis on the Wii with older siblings or looking at photographs of pets or family. The technologies available in the playroom or classroom will be different from and often more limited than those present at home. Early years educational settings are also well-stocked with alternative activities and resources which are attractive to children and can provide play that satisfies when alone or interacting with others.

When we investigated 3- to 5-year olds using technologies in the playroom (Stephen et al, 2008) we noted how often their encounters with technology resulted in routine or passive engagement or children stopping before the game or activity was completed. They seldom asked the adults for help with a technological game and more often moved on to another option in their richly resourced environment. Working with the playroom practitioners, we investigated what was necessary to ensure that children had the kind of positive and engaging encounters with technology that are likely to result in learning. We found that having technologies available was not enough  - children needed the sensitive support of adults to scaffold their interactions with the technology, recognize their existing understandings and interact with them in ways that develop new competencies. They need this kind of support at nursery, school and home.

We have described the support needed as guided interaction:

  • Distal guided interaction is the kind of indirect support that educators offer when they make plans and decisions when children are not present. It includes practitioners choosing which resources will be most appropriate for a particular child, monitoring progress, arranging staff in the room so that adults can engage with children as they use the technologies and providing props to extend digital experiences (e.g. placing appropriate puppets alongside the listening box or audio player).
  • Proximal guided interaction happens when children and practitioners are directly engaged together. Support for learning with technologies requires multi-modal proximal guided interaction – through talk, gesture and facial expressions and touch. It includes finely-tuned actions that include modelling, explaining, prompting, sharing success and help to overcome anxiety.

With thoughtful support and finely-tuned interactions children learn how to use technologies, extend their curricular knowledge and understanding and develop positive dispositions to learn. For example, our data shows children learning to operate a computer drawing package, save photographs, match and sequence, rehearsing narratives, developing their understanding of the world and how to use language to accompany video images. The contribution of encounters with digital technologies to developing positive dispositions to learn was surprising but clear in the practitioner-generated profile data. For instance, staff commented on children persisting with a technological game, becoming more independent, growing in confidence and willing to take up a challenge through their engagement with digital technologies. We found the same kinds of learning occurring in the family context when appropriate support was available and in addition, at home children were learning about the role of technology in everyday life, including social practices and communication, study and work and entertainment.


Our research leads us to conclude that digital technologies have extended the play possibilities for young children rather than replaced traditional toys. Children and families respond differently to technologies. Using digital resources and playing with technological toys can support learning but our studies have demonstrated that these activities are enhanced when responsive adults offer distal and proximal guided interaction, ensuring that the learning activities match children’s interests and preferences and extend their competencies. Early years practitioners are not replaced by digital technologies – on the contrary there is a need for further development of existing pedagogic practices to make the most of the opportunities for learning afforded by evolving technologies.




American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media (2011) Media Use by Children Younger than 2 Years Old. Pediatrics, 128, 5: 1040-1045. 

Kalaš I (2010) Recognizing the potential of ICT in early childhood education. UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education, Moscow.

Palmer, S. (2006) Toxic Childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it. London: Orion.

Plowman, L., Stephen, C., & McPake, J. (2010). Growing Up With Technology: Young Children Learning in a Digital World. London: Routledge.

Stephen, C., McPake, J. & Plowman, L. (2010). Digital technologies at home: The experiences of 3 and 4-year-olds in Scotland. In M.M. Clark & S. Tucker (Eds.), Early Childhoods in a Changing World (pp. 145-154). Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

Stephen, C., McPake, J., Plowman, L. & Berch-Heyman, S. (2008) Learning from the Children: Exploring Preschool Children's Encounters with ICT at Home. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 6(2): 99-117.

Stephen, C. & Plowman, L. (2008) Enhancing Learning with ICT in Preschool. Early Child Development and Care, 178(6): 637-654.

Stephen, C., Stevenson, O. & Adey, C. (2013) Young children engaging with technologies at home: the influence of family context. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 11(2):149-164.

Christine Stephen
Christine Stephen is a Research Fellow at the University of Stirling. Her interest in pedagogic actions and interactions lie at the centre of her research into young children’s engagement with new technologies. With Lydia Plowman and Joanna McPake she co-directed a series of Economic and Social Research Council-funded projects researching children’s engagement with technologies, including Interplay: Play, Learning and ICT, which looked at children's experiences with technology in the preschool playroom.<br />In September 2013, she was a Visiting Academic at the Early Years Research Centre, University of Waikato, New Zealand.<br />

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