Study says nursery staff and ‘affluent’ parents are spurning new technologies in early years.

While most pre-school children are playing with cars or drawing with crayons, a group of three-year-olds at a nursery in Bath are colouring in on iPads and navigating their way through an interactive storybook.

Snapdragons is one of the first nurseries in Britain to use iPads to teach children. It is buying touchscreen tablets for all of its six nurseries. “Digital technology is part of children’s everyday lives,” says manager iPads. “I think it would be negligent for us not to focus on it.”

The iPads are used for learning the basics about letters, numbers, shapes and colours, as well as drawing and even composing music. “Staff are also using it for interactive storytelling. The children can press the characters and see them move. I am not saying it should replace books, and we would never use the iPads to replace valuable outdoor time,” he says.

But a new study suggests many nursery staff – and parents too – see time spent using screens as a bad thing, liable to make children unsociable or, even, obese.

Dr Rosie Flewitt from the Open University says nurseries and pre-schools that engage with new technologies in constructive and exciting ways are “the exception rather than the norm”. Flewitt and her research associate, Dr Sylvia Wolfe from Cambridge University, found many early years practitioners lacked confidence in how to use technology, were uncertain about its value, “or feared the potential harm to ‘childhood'”.

Their study, Multimodal Literacies in the Early Years, found some parents and practitioners are afraid “new technologies might damage children’s wellbeing, social interaction and learning”.

Concerns have been raised in the past about how many children from poor families miss the opportunity to use computers and iPods, but this time it is educated, middle-class families who are in the spotlight, as well as nurseries.

“Some children from highly educated, affluent families had very little exposure to new technologies,” says Flewitt, “whereas some children from less affluent families were given excellent support at home to develop their literacy skills through diverse uses of new technologies.”

The study found the children who were the most computer savvy “were also the ones who took part in the greatest range of indoor and outdoor activities, and led extremely diverse lives”.

Flewitt says some parents have been influenced by books and the media that have explored how the modern world damages children. “Parents are very vulnerable to scaremongering about the dangers often associated with new technologies,” she says. And, according to Lydia Plowman, professor of education at Stirling University, for some parents and practitioners “technology is seen as responsible for children’s lack of social skills and emotional development, the loss of pleasure in books and reading, and attacks on their physical and mental wellbeing.”

Plowman, author of a study called Rethinking Young Children and Technology, says parents pick up concerns from media stories about couch potato kids who prefer computer games to sport and become antisocial and obese. And parents often draw on their own experiences of being a child to guide them: digital technology is not part of their childhood memories. “For parents who like to feel that they have a reasonable level of control over their young children’s activities, keeping up with all these changes can seem daunting.”

Flewitt’s study, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, concludes that parental beliefs had a huge impact on how children used digital media, with some children developing sophisticated skills, while others lacked both skills and confidence. Practitioners in nurseries and pre-schools are in an ideal position to bridge the growing gap, she says. But they are not given the support they need.

There is a lack of guidance on how to support literacy with digital technologies,” says Flewitt. The exception was with children with learning difficulties or physical difficulties, as practitioners had realised new technology could really help.

“If early years education continues to focus exclusively on traditional forms of literacy, then it will be failing to provide all children with the skills they will need at school and in their future lives,” she says.

Dr Richard House, senior lecturer in psychology at Roehampton University and founder of Open Eye, which campaigns against the Early Years Foundation Stage, often called the “nappy curriculum”, is one of those who believes younger children should not be using digital technologies.

He points to “an increasing body of research which shows that early exposure to these technologies actually compromises healthy child development in all kinds of negative ways”.

He believes the tendency to not engage with new technologies is a conscious decision “made by highly experienced practitioners with an intuitive feel for what is developmentally appropriate, rather than being the fear-driven, reactionary viewpoint that the researchers seem to be assuming”.

Literacy expert Sue Palmer, author of the bestseller Toxic Childhood, says Flewitt is “completely misguided”. “Too much engagement with this quick-fix technology is making it more difficult for some children to learn to read and write,” she says. “Learning to read and write is not easy. It is a long, slow process. We already have problems with children not being able to hold a pen or pencil. But we are giving our kids instant gratification all the time with ICT and it makes it harder for them to persevere with something that takes a while to learn.” And in any case, “Any digital skills that pre-school children learn will be out of date by the time they are teenagers,” she says.

Dr John Siraj-Blatchford, honorary professor at the University of Swansea centre for child research, believes the iPad and other new mobile touchscreen technologies have enormous potential in supporting children’s literacy. “Generally speaking, if technologies are suitable for three- to five-year-olds, adults don’t find them too challenging.” He agrees that “there is an articulate but relatively small minority of parents who are very concerned about children’s screen time”, but believes the new technologies will change attitudes. “The new mobile technologies often encourage interaction rather than the solitary and sedentary activity encouraged by arcade games,” says Siraj-Blatchford.

Megan Pacey, chief executive of Early Education, a national organisation for early years practitioners, says: “Technology in the early years is a very emotive area. There does seem to be a middle-class attitude that technology is not always good. But it is all about moderation and context.”

Source: The Guardian –