iPads are child’s play

Today’s kids are surrounded by more technology than ever.

Even children ages 3-4 years old can pick up iPad skills quickly and intuitively in classrooms.Researchers at Brock University set out to explore how technology affected young children’s literacy learning. Their big question was: If you introduce iPads into early years classrooms, what happens?

“[The kids] are very inquisitive [and] very interested in learning new things, so they get right in there and start touching, and playing, and swiping,” says Debra Harwood, a researcher in early childhood education and the principal investigator of the iPad study. “They don’t have any kind of inhibitions about trying things out, which is perfect because that’s what an iPad invites the kids to do.”

Harwood and her colleagues employed a 21st-century definition of literacy that goes beyond just reading and writing.

“To me, traditional literacy has always been an ability to read printed words and to write printed words. That’s a very 20th-century mindset,” says Jennifer Rowsell, Canada Research Chair in Multiliteracies and member of the research team. “I would argue that literacy today is much more about being communicatively competent.”

Harwood and Rowsell presented some preliminary findings at Congress 2014 in St. Catherines.

They’re seeing a new world of play for young children where the boundaries between what’s real and what’s virtual are blurred. They refer to this as “convergence of play.”

They might be playing with Lego building blocks, for instance. Then they’ll grab the iPad and go onto the Lego app. They seamlessly move back and forth between the app and the concrete world.

lego app

“Sometimes as adults, we have preconceived notions about digital technology. We would say things to them, if they’re colouring on the iPad: Wow that looks like real colouring! And the child would kind of look at us and say: It is real!” says Harwood.

While there is an abundance of articles that highlight the negative effects of technology on children, Harwood argues that in the classroom context it’s all about the way they’re introduced as a tool to facilitate learning.

The researchers and educators controlled the apps that were on the iPad depending on the interests of the children. They chose apps that would foster collaborative play.

“For example, when spring came, the kids started going outside more so we were able to add apps so that they could photo-document trees, birds, those types of things, and then write stories around them,” says Harwood.

Social interactions are also an important part of the learning process. For this reason, not every child was given an iPad, but rather one for every three to four children. They saw that kids were able to problem-solve how they were going to share the iPads, either by helping their friend or negotiating a time when they would get access to it.

kids and ipad

“So [that level of self-regulation] for me was really quite interesting because we’re talking about such young children,” says Harwood.

Another key aspect in introducing this type of technology into classrooms is teacher training. Although the tools are constantly changing in this past-paced world, it’s becoming increasingly important to train teachers in using technology as a tool to support learning.

Turns out, iPads can be a useful tool to promote literacy. It simply offers another lens for kids to explore ideas or create their understanding of things.

“I’ve always known how clever young children are. It reaffirmed that thinking on a level that I couldn’t have imagined,” says Harwood.

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