toddler computer

Picture this. A 2 year-old child is tucked up in bed, and his mum sits next to him reading a bedtime story. They look at the book together and the 2 year-old lifts the flaps to reveal the pictures, asks questions about what’s happening, and helps turn the pages. When the story is finished, the mum kisses him goodnight.

It’s a ritual repeated in homes throughout the country. Even parents without any educational expertise are aware that the act of sharing a book with a child has value: children learn that books give pleasure, they learn how books work, and they learn from the parent-child interaction of asking questions and receiving answers.

But we now live in a digital age, and many parents would like their children to become as familiar with technology as they are with books. There is, however, no digital equivalent of the bedtime story for learning about technology. So what are parents doing?

Here is some interesting research by Sarah Eagle about how parents support their children to learn with digital technologies. She describes the natural process (for most) of reading to, and with, young children and how puzzling the advent of new technologies are for many parents.

Sarah wanted to look at how parents were introducing these technologies to children, and at whether they used the same collaborative techniques traditionally used by parents introducing books or puzzles to their children.

Using video footage she observed that when left to themselves (surprise) young children ‘explored in their own way’ rather than completing set tasks devised to develop literacy and numeracy. They reacted against being told what to do either by the parents or by the disembodied voice.

In this particular case, the mother left the camera running when she went to answer a phone call: “I could see what the little boy was doing when he was left on his own, and he lost interest quite quickly. The child was much more interested in socialising with his mum than exploring the machine,” says Sarah.

So devices marketed as ‘educational’ were seen by the children as just good fun. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that of course, it’s just that these games aren’t necessarily doing the job they claim to do. It is more experienced learners who teach a love of  learning not machines.

The problem is the lack of a middle ground – a technological equivalent of a child’s picture book, enabling parents and children to collaborate in learning together. Sarah is now further exploring the idea of ‘junior’ versions of adult practice: the idea that the activities we carry out with children (such as reading story books) bears a relationship with what we want them to do in future. Because we don’t know what technologies are going to emerge in future, or how we might eventually use them, says Sarah, this is a bit “like juggling with jelly”.

Nonetheless, we need to research the process of how children learn about technology, because there is such variety in the kinds of early exposure children have to it: “You can’t assume that everyone is going to come out the same just because they live in this technological world. It’s complicated and unequal and people’s experiences impact negatively on their education in formal settings. We do need to understand it.”

 ‘Never assume’ is the message.