Digital manipulatives: A new approach to digital literacy

by Cristina Syllacristina-sylla

Centre for Child Studies / engageLab, University of Minho, Portugal

Digital manipulatives (Resnick et al. 98) are objects or surfaces enhanced with computational properties that allow manipulating digital content. This new interaction paradigm has changed the way users interact with technology, being particularly adequate for young children, as they provide a more natural and direct interaction. Besides, due to its physical nature, digital manipulatives support and promote collaboration between peers.

The use of manipulatives can be traced back to educators as Friedrich Fröbel and Maria Montessori. Fröbel created the first kindergarten in 1840, he investigated the relation between children’s play and the development of cognitive structures, concluding that the manipulation of objects facilitates the development of cognition. Maria Montessori created the Casa dei Bambini in the first decade of the 20th century, Montessori shared Fröbel’s pedagogical principles and considered the sense the most precious of all senses.

The theoretical foundation that supports the use of digital manipulatives is also given by educational theories such as Constructivism (Piaget), Constructionism (Papert), or Embodied Cognition theories. The latter considers that the body is the basis of all cognition.

Digital manipulatives aim at empowering young children, promoting exploration, exchange of experiences and collaboration. One recent example, which targets the creation of narratives is TOK – Touch, Organize, Create.

cristina-sylla-pic-2-jpgTOK is a collaborative digital environment, which offers young children a playful and rich environment, for embodied collaborative language exploration, experimentation and tangible narrative creation. The system is composed by an electronic platform, and a set of 23 picture-blocks, which represent scenarios, characters and objects from familiar stories. The familiarity of the characters allows recreating narratives, variations from the original stories, or simply to create completely new stories.

Placing a block on the platform displays the corresponding digital content on the computer/tablet screen, creating a visual narrative, which unfolds according to the sequence of blocks placed on the platform; as such there are no predefined stories, leaving space for children’s own creativity. When a block is removed from the platform it also disappears from the screen.

Five different scenarios (a castle landscape, a forest, a desert, the woods and a circus) allow locating the stories in different settings, a block with the moon, turns the day into night (by removing the moon-block it becomes day again). Specific objects like a caldron or a flowerpot can be used to knock down bad characters. A bad object (poisoned apple) diminishes the health of a character, and a good object (carrot) increases it.

Studies carried at preschool for the period of one year and involving two preschool classes showed that the digital manipulative promoted a high degree of engagement, encouraging peer collaboration and motivating children to involve in the creation of narratives.

Interestingly, children’s narrative construction occurred in three levels as children became directors, actors and spectators of their narratives. Namely, by choosing the characters, the location, and the props, children acted as ‘directors’ of their stories, simultaneously they performed as ‘actors’, by embodying different story characters, and finally by observing the stories they were creating children became spectators of their own narratives.

The sharing of the input devices (blocks) promoted peer collaboration, while giving children equal control of the performance and orchestration of the story, empowering each of them to have an active role in the creation of the narrative.

Given the potential of the system to engage children in the creation of narratives, ongoing work carried at two primary schools aims at investigating how such systems can be used in the classroom to promote the development of literacy.

For more information about the project please visit:

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