By Debi Keyte-Hartland, Early Education Associate
I have always been interested in children’s creativity and their ways of expressing their working theories, thoughts, and feelings using artistic languages and materials such as clay, charcoal, paint, sound, movement, and loose parts. These materials bring opportunities rich in playful learning and meaning-making that are at the core of experiences in the early years for young children. However, children’s digital creativity and expressive uses of technology are not always considered in the same light.
Discussion and descriptions of play in learning have often also been separated from children’s playful engagement and the use of digital technologies and media. There is a gap between an educator’s pedagogical understandings of play and how young children engage and play with digital technologies and media (Edwards, 2013). However, as digital technologies advance, educators will need to explore their potential to help children become critical appraisers to use these evolving digital possibilities in creative and expressive ways, as they combine their digital and physical worlds.
Combining digital and natural worlds
Educators in the schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy, have considered these gaps between children’s play, their creativity, and digital technology. They have been exploring projects for many years now to research how digital media can be used to create meaning, to communicate and exchange knowledge in creative, expressive, and imaginative ways (Reggio Children, 2013). Their research activates connections between the natural world and the digital world through the exploration of nature investigated through technological tools.
Notions of ‘nature’ and ‘digital’ would seemingly occupy two opposite and contesting fields. Yet the work in the infant-toddler centres and pre-schools of Reggio Emilia make visible how technology can be blended with non-digital materials and tools, where both play and learning, the natural and digital, shape and co-evolve each other. This blending of approaches of both the digital and non-digital with nature involves tools such as data projectors, digital microscopes, webcams, and drawing apps that combine with clay, small world, and block play, as well as with leaves, soils, and buds. These offer opportunities for exploration, generating ideas about the properties and interactions of light and art-making, two dimensions and three dimensions, reality and virtuality, logic and imagination, and the intersections between sound, image, dance, narrative and scenography (Reggio Children, 2018).
Children as creators of digital content and not just consumers of it
In a joint three-year project between early years settings in the West Midlands and in Stockholm in Sweden, young children’s creativity and their expressive languages was the focus of research into digital technology and media funded by Erasmus+. It was an interesting collaboration that I coordinated that explored how to embrace the ever-evolving digital landscape in ways that placed children at the heart of creating digital content and how it could be used to foster their creative thinking. The collaboration and findings of this project dedicated to creativity in digital play and learning are documented on the website We Think Everywhere.
We think everywhere concluded that when used with and alongside clay, paint, drawing, or loose parts, digital media and technologies added layers of complexity to the children’s experiences. Combining the digital and the physical gave children opportunities to make comparisons, discover similarities and differences, connect, and collaborate on their ideas and thought processes. It enabled them to transfer their learning between the different “languages“ of expression. As children explored in sensorial and multimodal contexts, combining digital media and technology with other expressive materials, they could investigate a concept, idea, or phenomenon in many differing ways. They questioned and elaborated their own working theories, broadening and evolving their knowledge across valuable transdisciplinary learning contexts.
Possibilities for playful and creative practice
Early years settings need to consider how digital technologies and media are part of children’s playful, creative, and expressive engagement with the world and with each other. Here are some possibilities to explore with your children:
- Making the ordinary extraordinary – using digital microscopes to explore hidden worlds and invisible details such as snail shells, moss, germinating seeds, and the different kinds of skin of fruit and vegetables.
- Telling and creating stories – apps such as Puppetpals enable children to animate their own drawings or clay models and insert them into backgrounds of their own design to create digital stories that blend traditional ways of drawing and mark-making with digital storytelling.
- Exploration of scenography – using data projectors and webcams to create narrative worlds and scenes in which stories and playscapes can emerge that blend light, projection, film, image, onto objects and surfaces.
- Making a plurality of marks and images – digital drawing and graphic exploration that enables play with filters, colour and effects, and ‘impossible’ paintbrushes. Resizing images, playing with repetition, and variables gives opportunity for creating multi-modal communications involving still and moving images, with text, sound, and movement.
Engaging with technology can be daunting, but if we approach it in playful ways, just like children do, then we can discover new possibilities and ways of engaging with children in their learning and exploration of the world.
Edwards, S. (2013). Digital play in the early years: A contextual response to the problem of integrating technologies and play-based pedagogies in the early childhood curriculum. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal. Vol. 21, No. 2. pp. 199-212.
Plowman, L. (2020). Digital Play. University of Edinburgh.
Reggio Children (2018). Bordercossings: Encounter with Living Things. Digital Landscapes. Italy: Reggio Children.
Debi Keyte-Hartland is an Associate of Early Education, developing professional learning and training on supporting children’s creativity, their playful inquiry with the world and their 100 languages of learning, expression, and communication. She works with CREC (Centre of Research in Early Childhood) on the MA in Education (Early Years) as a specialist tutor in creativity and the arts and has recently completed a 3-year study with Reggio Children as a teacher-educator of the approach.
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