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Digital Technology and Play in Early Childhood

Fiona Louise Scott, PhD, MA, BA (Hons), FHEA

The School of Education, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of Sheffield, United Kingdom

April 2021

Introduction

Young children1 engage with a broad array of technology including, but not limited to, television, film, internet accessed on any device, video games, tablet or smartphone apps and games and associated artefacts (e.g., books, toys or physical games relating to characters or brands). Play is complex to define2 and is discussed in diverse ways in different contexts.3 Many agree that play is distinguished by being fun, freely-chosen, serving its own purpose and being subject to (internal) rules.4

Subject

From birth, children have increasing access to a range of digital technologies. This inevitably impacts the landscapes of their play.5 Since play is universally acknowledged as being important for children, it is necessary to understand the nature of children’s play in relation to technology. Families need support for parenting in the digital age6 and early childhood educators must know how to embed digital technologies in their own professional practice.7

Problems

There are numerous tensions and provocations in the study of young children’s digital lives and play. Technology has sometimes been presented as antithetical to play.2 More recently, the benefits of children’s engagements with technology have been recognized, although not always their playful potential. Research has highlighted how specific characteristics of play contribute to children’s development and learning8 and how digital play may serve educative purposes if it is designed with specific learning outcomes in mind.9 There is a risk that tying digital play’s value too closely to a narrow definition of learning might risk ignoring the other crucial functions play fulfils.2 However, highlighting specific formally educative impacts of digital play might be essential to reversing the trend towards reduced opportunities for play in many education systems.10

Research Context

Historically, much experimental, psychological research assumed that technology use by young children was primarily passive, in contrast to the active nature fundamental to children’s play. A range of large-scale surveys and qualitative observational studies have summarized digital use in the Global North,11,12 but play is rarely their primary focus. One recent exception13 researched five topics related to play with technologies in the UK and South Africa. Recent approaches in smaller scale work have brought new insights into the nature of digital play. Ecological,14 ecocultural15 and sociocultural16,17 studies have considered how social and cultural factors shape digital play. Digital literacies18 researchers have considered the new and unique forms of play made possible by particular digital contexts.19

Key Research Questions

Three questions are considered: (1) which technologies do young children play with and how do they play with them? (2) Is play with technology similar or different to traditional (non-digital) play? (3) What are the implications of digital play for children’s development?

Recent Research Results

Recent European,11,20 Australian21 and North American12 data suggest that many young children are growing up in media-rich homes, frequently accessing moving image media20 and using a range of digital technologies.22 Use continues to diversify: young children spend increasing time using smartphones and tablets,12 while smart speakers have recently emerged as important.20 Diversification inevitably invites previously undocumented examples of play, such as children asking smart speakers to count to 10 while they play hide-and-seek.13 Such examples show that digital contexts do not limit the types of play that are possible; rather, the precise nature of play changes.23 Many studies have focused on ‘screen time’ as a displacement of time that might be better spent on ‘real world’ activities including non-digital play.24,25 However, play is one of the primary ways that children use their digital devices.5

The precise nature of that play is complex and contested, having sometimes been criticized as ‘less than’ traditional play, constraining creativity26 or limiting social interaction.27,28 Certain digital contexts are viewed as less playful, such as television watching, when compared to applications on tablets,5 smartphones and consoles.29 Scholarly observations counter these commonly held perceptions. For example, children carry the narrative themes of television into their imaginative play.30 Empirical work has highlighted children’s highly creative play with computer games, apps, digital cameras, coding toys and more.5,31,32 Meanwhile, numerous sources13,33 document the social nature of young children’s play with technologies. The social contexts of children’s digital engagement also play an important role.29,34 Parents and carers have been shown to support the development of particular skills by engaging with their children’s digital play,35,36 although children’s free-play with technology also holds important benefits.13 Analyses of children’s play with technologies suggest that all of the play types37 typical in non-digital play can also be found in their digital play.23 

Implications for young children are complex. Children develop a wide range of skills through their digital play,13 including: subject knowledge and understanding; digital skills; and holistic skills (social, emotional, cognitive, physical and creative). Research has called attention to a range of social, cultural, political and economic issues associated with digital play. A recent study highlighted disparities in relation to digital play in the Global North and South.13 For example, South African children spent less time playing titles such as Minecraft, Roblox and Fortnite than their UK counterparts. Studies suggest that girls and boys sometimes make different digital play choices.38,39 Certain types of play with digital technologies, such as play based on adult television40 or playing ‘shooter’ video games,41 have been constructed as deficit or even dangerous, as in the case of the digital play of African American boys.42 While there is a need to support children in using technology safely, a wide range of play practices hold value in diverse ways, not least in relation to identity formation.43 There are, then, risks associated with the narrow value judgements sometimes implicit in formal education, if some young children’s play practices are embraced and expanded upon in the classroom, while other types of play are discouraged.29 The commercialization of children’s play with digital technologies has been subject to long-standing critical review,44 with recent work highlighting issues related to features of video game play, such as ‘loot boxes’.45

Research Gaps

Much research concerns older children (9-16 years).11 There is a lack of empirical work focused on the youngest children (0-2 years), although exceptions exist.46 There is a need for device and platform specific research focused on the play afforded by emerging technologies, for example Augmented32 and Virtual47 Reality. Much has focused on the skills and knowledge acquired through digital play and specifically in relation to self-styled educational technologies.25 However, there is also a need to research children’s play holistically across a broad range of digital and non-digital contexts,48 particularly as the presence of the digital in everyday life is such that it is no longer feasible to distinguish between the oft intertwined digital and non-digital.49 Research should consider broad benefits of play beyond the formally educative. Given the diverse daily life-worlds of children, there is a need for more research across geographical contexts beyond the Global North,5,50 particularly the Global South. 

Conclusions

Children’s play in relation to digital technologies is at once similar to non-digital play and distinct from it. Scholars have mapped traditional play types against digital play and found that all are represented. However, digital contexts afford previously undocumented examples of play worthy of study in their own right. The digital and non-digital are intertwined in young children’s lives and it is thus useful to consider play more holistically. Ongoing research is needed to deepen knowledge and understanding of the precise nature of young children’s play in relation to the digital - both generally and more specifically in relation to the identified gaps in knowledge. 

Implications for Parents, Services and Policy

Much information for parents and carers warns of potential harms and provides guidance on how to mitigate the risks of children’s technology use. The research reviewed here suggests that a greater emphasis on the possible benefits is warranted. Families need information about how best to support and mediate their children’s play with digital devices. The benefits of children’s solo free-play with technologies can also be highlighted. The value of digital play for developing specific knowledge as well as physical, social, emotional and creative skills should be communicated to families and early childhood professionals. 

Digital play is often ignored in early years policy, yet it holds value for learning and contributes meaningfully to young children’s lives in broader ways. Policy-makers must attend to digital play, and in a way that is representative of a broad range of play practices. Training programs for early years educators would benefit from some consideration of how educators can build productively on children’s home digital play practices. 

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How to cite this article:

Scott FL. Digital Technology and Play in Early Childhood. In: Tremblay RE, Boivin M, Peters RDeV, eds. Rvachew S, topic ed. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development [online]. https://www.child-encyclopedia.com/technology-early-childhood-education/according-experts/digital-technology-and-play-early-childhood. Published April 2021. Accessed July 25, 2021.