The Debate About Digital Technologies In The Nursery

Childcare Environments

The Debate About Digital Technologies In The Nursery

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There has been much discussion about the use of digital technologies such as iPads and tablets in settings and schools, with research into a variety of aspects. As equipment becomes cheaper and omnipresent for both children and adults, so in some sectors the concern grows for how this may be affecting children. Part of the problem, as with anything that we provide for children, is that we can only guess at the effects that today’s experiences will have on them in the future.

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Where there is already plenty of longitudinal evidence, we can be assured that the guesses are going to be relatively accurate.

However, when there is something brand new, such as the explosion of readily available technology for even our youngest children, how can we possibly predict the long-term effects?

digital technologies in the nursery debate

One way of doing this is to weigh up the potential benefits and potential pitfalls, and drawing conclusions from these. Here I am going to consider first some of the identified and potential benefits of using technology in a setting, and then some of the arguments against it.

Argument For Digital Technologies in the Nursery

We cannot be Luddites about new technology. It is here to stay and it is only growing in the range of uses, accessibility (both in terms of cost and ease of use) and its part in Western society. Whatever it looks like in the future, it will be part of our children’s future and we would be negligent to deny this.

The time for discussing whether or not children should be exposed to digital technology has passed

In some arenas, it will be impossible not to keep up to date. Think of cameras, for example, it is very difficult to buy 35mm film for a camera and to get it developed. The massive benefits of being able to capture photographs and video to then review immediately, store easily and share with others will almost certainly make 35mm film obsolete soon.

In some cases it can be argued that the technology enhances the children’s experiences, for example interactive storybooks bring a whole new dimension to story telling. It has also been shown that when books are consumed digitally, boys respond better and are more likely to engage in reading for pleasure as a result (Picton, 2014: 5). Similarly, there are a growing number of apps that meet or exceed the Literacy Trust’s six engagement features of Fun, Playing together, Interactive, Loads to do, Creative and Make it your own (Literacy Trust, 2016).

digital technologies literacy apps Literacy Trusts 6 key engagement features[/caption]

Digital technology is not just a new way to access literature, phonics programmes or maths games. Used to its full potential, digital technology such as iPads, smart phones and tablets can be used to expand creativity and imagination, for example to store and play music from around the world or to illustrate different genres of art, including educational and instructive videos.

For some children, your setting or nursery may be the only place where they have access to both digital technologies and an interested adult to help them. It is therefore vital that the most use is made of this, so children can learn how to use smartphones appropriately, for example. This is backed by recent research (Livingstone et al., 2015: 4) which has recommended that schools should ‘take a more active role in promoting creative and educational uses of digital technologies as well as addressing safety matters at home with parents and carers’.

In addition, sharing videos or experiences, both from home to setting and setting to home using digital technology (whether that is a dedicated tablet or an office computer) can be incredibly useful, especially if there is a potential language barrier. You may see a whole new side to the children when you see video clips of them interacting at home, in their home language.

Argument Against Digital Technologies in the Nursery

The amount of ‘screen time’ that young children are exposed to, and especially children under-three, has been under scrutiny by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) for some time – and is still being reviewed (Shifrin, 2015). This indicates that even paediatric experts are still unsure as to how screen time affects young children.

“Whilst there are many safety features already available, there are also many loopholes”

Safeguarding children is paramount, and exposure to images, other people on the Internet and cyber bullying are growing concerns. Whilst there are many safety features already available, there are also many loopholes, experienced practitioners must establish the age appropriateness of the apps before children can safely use them.

It has been shown that ‘learning to read’ apps are only effective for pre-schoolers and above, even though the temptation by some will be to use these apps with younger children in a misguided attempt to encourage reading at an earlier age.

Teaching children how to use devices is a waste of time because these will change so rapidly that the information is only current for a short while. Children will then have to learn a whole new set of skills for more current devices. You only have to look at how touch screens have made the mouse redundant to see how devices have changed in the last few years alone. And who knows how we will be consuming digital data in the future?

digital technologies in the future

Although the apps may be suitable and age appropriate, the digital technology still needs to have the four ‘Cs’:

  • The individual Child
  • Content of the technology
  • Context in which it is delivered (where and relation to real life)
  • Community
From Guernsey and Levine (2015)

This is not always evident in technology that is being provided for children.

Practitioners need to apply their own professional judgement and knowledge when using digital technology with their children; however, this is dependent on practitioners themselves being up to date with the use of digital technology. If practitioners are not competent or confident on use of technology, then this lack of confidence may be transferred to the children.


The time for discussing whether or not children should be exposed to digital technology has passed. We now need to be discussing how we make it more effective for our children, based on the latest research, combined with our own pedagogical perspectives.

Digital technology is most effective when used as a joint experience, with an interested adult using appropriate intervention and support. It must not be used instead of things such as physical activity, quality interactions with adults and peer-to-peer interactions i.e. as an electronic babysitter.

45663146 - toddler girl watching a tablet computer

In a setting you need to consider what the digital technologies are actually being used for. Passive viewing of a video has little learning potential. More creative and active activities such as role-play games and problem solving activities will stimulate more learning.

Most importantly, you need to constantly reflect and review your setting’s policies with new digital technologies and the suitability of the resources that you are providing for your current cohort of children.

Special Educational Needs in the Early Years

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Kathy Brodie is an Early Years author and training specialist. She delivers tailored training for practitioners to help them to gain the skills and knowledge to become a more effective practitioner in their unique setting.

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