Early years practitioners have used ICT to support young children’s learning in diverse ways, writes Julie Steer

In 2005-06 the DfES funded 20 local authorities to research good practice in the use of ICT in the Foundation Stage, the results of which have been published on the DCSF website. This article summaries some of the good practice highlighted in this study to serve as an introduction to the vibrant and exciting full accounts available on the website. ICT in the early years is a rich area for debate, raising questions such as ‘What is the appropriate use of computers?’, ‘What does effective use of ICT in the foundation stage look like?’ One of the difficulties in understanding what constitutes good practice in the use of ICT in the early years has been the lack of research. The aim of the DfES research project was to investigate raising achievement in ICT through ‘… enquiry based projects [which] focused upon the embedding of observational assessment practices across the early years, and sought to involve children and their parents/carers in the process.’

Funding bids from each of the 20 local authorities had to demonstrate how ICT would be used to:

  • develop observational assessment practices
  • support the documentation of learning
  • support the Foundation Stage Profile.

Using ICT as a tool for observation and assessment and to develop children’s learning journeys Digital cameras are commonly used in early years settings but the project refocused staff on using them for observation and assessment. This improved both the ICT skills and the observational skills of practitioners and changed practice. Practitioners in North Somerset and Bath, for example, said, ‘It made us get on the floor with our cameras and watch them play’. Childminders in Bath were also given a digital camera to record learning journeys for their children; the childminders reported a greater understanding of children’s learning as a direct result of taking photographs. Nottinghamshire successfully used baby monitors as well as cameras to observe and assess a group of children from a distance. Some projects investigated the use of more complex ICT devices. Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Calderdale found using video useful especially for observing and analysing behaviour. One practitioner in Calderdale commented, ‘I can see what triggered him off,’ when looking at a child’s behaviour. They found video gave a holistic view and allowed timid children to shine. A Northamptonshire practitioner found that videoing had an effect on her own practice as well as its use as an assessment tool: ‘I will provide more opportunities for structured play rather than direct teaching.’ However, settings found it hard to build in the time for viewing video and some settings found that the best use was to discuss one video with all staff as part of continuing professional development, rather than use it directly for assessment.  Lewisham trialled the use of pocket PCs for assessment to record writing, moving and still pictures and sound. Their aim was to make electronic records that would feed into the Foundation Stage Profile but this proved problematic. The pocket PCs were not popular partly because of the time needed to become familiar with the equipment but also because of the time needed to view, listen to and transcribe the recordings. Over a longer timescale some of these issues around the use of more complex pieces of equipment could probably have been resolved.

Children as partners in the assessment process – giving children a voice
Practitioners in Sefton, in a simple but effective project, investigated children’s ‘magic moments.’ Children chose what to photograph as a magic moment to share with their parents. As one practitioner put it ‘This puts the C back into ICT; it gives children a voice’. The results were often surprising for the staff – following a visit, children were fascinated by details of a spider rather than the whole ‘visit experience’. The discussion about the choice of a magic moment was felt to be very valuable for children, staff and parents.

Oxfordshire found that the use of video for self-reflection was most effective for the physical and creative strands of the curriculum. One setting, for example, videoed children dancing, and the children then used the video to discuss the dance and find ways to improve it. Barnet used digital movie cameras and digital recorders to involve children in their own assessment; they found the sound recording facility particularly empowering. Practitioners felt it had helped children’s language development but also improved their ability to reflect on, and contribute to, their own assessment. ‘I did not realise how much young children could talk about what they had done,’ said one parent.

Promoting speaking and listening and self-reflection among children
In several case studies practitioners were interested in using ICT to develop children’s speaking and listening skills, especially in relation to their ability to become involved in their own learning. ‘Technology has an exciting part to play in giving a multimodal communication tool to children’ – overview of the Ealing project.

The Sandwell project investigated whether the use of ICT devices could improve children’s speaking and listening skills. Settings used talking buttons to create interactive displays. They took digital photographs of walks and then recorded the children talking about the photographs using software such as 2Create A Story. Practitioners used puppets to help the children record their own voices and they noticed that recording frequently helped children give a more coherent response. The project in Brent, which focused on using ICT equipment to observe a group of boys during outdoor play, found found that the project had a dramatic effect on the self-esteem and the speaking and listening skills of the children. The boys used voice changers, karaoke machines and video cameras to record themselves with great effect. ‘A… used the microphone as a prop to allow his voice out and now talks with ease in all vocal levels to adults and children’ – Brent case study. As in Sandwell, the practitioners noticed an improvement in the structure of their sentences as the boys discussed videos and reconstructed their play while watching them. The project boosted the boys’ self-esteem and concentration span and increased their interest in learning.

Sharing observations and assessment with parents: e-portfolios
All projects found that using ICT enabled them to share observations and work with parents, but some made it a particular focus of the research.

Barnet used email to set up a three-way conversation between parents, child and practitioner involving photos and children’s written comments. They also sent child-friendly ‘Digi Blue’ video cameras home. These approaches involved working parents very successfully and increased the engagement of carers who previously had been reluctant to come into the setting. All settings in the project in Redcar and Cleveland now use e-portfolios to share work with parents. Practitioners learned how to insert photos, text and sound into easily shared programs such as 2Create A Story and PowerPoint, which were then emailed home. In Wolverhampton, parents were given PDAs (personal digital assistants – small hand-held recording devices) instead of a paper-based scrapbook to record their children’s learning. One mother reported that recording with a PDA helped her notice patterns in her child’s play, while her child used it to help her recount to people what she and her mother had done. The Lincolnshire project researched whether using the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) was an effective way of sharing video information with parents. Although the settings reported successes in using the cameras, few had used the VLE because of technical difficulties. Similarly, the Oxford project originally intended to use video conferencing with parents, but this only happened twice during the timescale of the project.

Outcomes for children and practitioners
The settings universally reported that the children’s use of ICT improved and that they handled the equipment extremely well. It boosted their self-esteem and gave them a sense of responsibility to use such ‘adult’ equipment. One boy in the Redcar project, for example, was reluctant to do exercise but joined in after photographing his friends and then made a voice recording describing his exercise routine.

Although the original aim of the project was to show that the use of ICT had an impact on children’s learning, many settings commented that the timescale was too short to show improvement as measured by Foundation Stage Profile levels in personal social and emotional development and communication language and literacy. All settings reported increased confidence in the use of ICT by both staff and children, measured both informally and more formally by the use of the ECERS (Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale). The 20 projects have all proved extremely worthwhile for the participating settings not only in terms of increased confidence in the use of ICT by adults and children but also in stimulating debate about teaching and learning. Practitioners in early years settings are often isolated and the research enabled them to work together in a powerful way. 

The videos, photographs, power points, accounts and statistics are available on the Standards website. They are of great interest to all settings and will provide a good starting point for discussion and experimentation with using ICT in this rich and fulfilling way.

ICT equipment

  • Talking Buttons – sometimes called Talking Tins. Small boxes with 30 seconds worth of recording time available at the press of a button. Very easy for small children to use.
  • Digi Blue Camera – Hand-held video cameras especially designed for small children. They record about five minutes at a time. 
  • Voice changer – Tubes which electronically change the voice in various ways.
  • VLE – Virtual Learning Environment – shared web space across a local authority so that all schools and settings can upload and share files.
  • 2Create A Story Programme which lets young children make multimodal stories which can be emailed easily.

Further information

  • DCSF website
  • Assessing Quality in the Early Years: Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) Sylva, K, Siraj-Blatchford, I and Taggart, B (2006) Trentham Books, Stoke on Trent.