Mixed Reality Play in the LEGO House

Playing the Archive

Children’s playworlds are a complex interweaving of physical and digital dimensions, with the border areas between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ becoming increasingly blurred. The popularity of apps like Pokémon Go and the growing use of these apps by young children suggest that mixed reality play is an expanding area. In these hybrid spaces, the distinctions between online and offline, physical and digital, real and virtual become increasingly hard to discriminate, with play moving across boundaries of space and time in new ways.

In March 2018 Kate Cowan will explore perspectives on mixed reality play through a short research visit to Denmark funded by the DigiLitEY COST Action. Linking with researchers from the University of Southern Denmark and toy designers from the LEGO toy company, this visit will focus on the newly-opened LEGO House in Billund which aims to bring together play, creativity and learning through exhibits spanning physical and…

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Toddlers and touchscreens: A parent’s guide

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Scrolling stories.

Natalia Kucirkova, UCL and Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield

Mixing toddlers and touchscreens can be a tricky – not to mention sticky – situation for today’s parents. Adults often find themselves glued to their smart phones and tablet – and aren’t sure what to do when it comes to sharing those devices with their children.

Should they follow the (somewhat surprising) example of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and ban them completely? Or is it better to go the way of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, who seems keen on sharing the magic of social media with his young family?

To help us understand the concerns and possible benefits of touchscreens, we need to consider both the context and content of their use.

Touchscreens are multifunctional and their uses are often multiple. Many of these do not have a strictly educational purpose, but they can enhance children’s self-regulation skills (as well as parenting strategies).

Some parents use touchscreens to extend their children’s play at home. Some use them as a portable television – and some to teach their children letters and to develop a love for reading.

Tablets are also used for calming or distracting toddlers during travel or medical procedures. Ultimately, it is up to each individual parent to decide what is important for their child, them and their family.

That said, it can be helpful to ensure that touchscreens are used for a variety of activities. Merely using them to play repetitive games is an under-use of their potential to support so many more activities. These include apps which can be used for a variety of activities such as creating simple books or drawing and colouring.

At last, some time to myself just to read….

To help support children’s reading for pleasure for example, there are many good quality apps available, some of which are reviewed on sites such as Literacy Apps and Children’s Technology Review. On Common Sense Media Review parents can browse reviews of apps by skill type, subject, device, price and rating scores.

Research and development

Age-related recommendations for length or frequency of use vary by country. This reflects different attitudes towards state responsibility for family policy, but also cultural expectations about childhood.

The American Academy of Pediatrics interprets what it perceives as a lack of conclusively positive research as a reason to take a precautionary approach. It currently suggests that children younger than 18 months should be discouraged from screen media, other than for video-chatting. Across other countries there is a growing consensus that we need an international approach towards technology use with young children.

One European research network group is dedicated to this mission – and some progress has been made, with guidance for parents to be launched later in 2017. In the meantime, its website has publications on issues such as children’s engagement with virtual reality, and the “internet of toys”.

In the UK, parents of the youngest children (under two year olds) are most worried about the health implications of digital media. Yet there is evidence that many infants are already using touchscreen technologies. For children of all ages, but especially younger ones, supervised use is recommended – for example, adults and children sometimes playing games and engaging in other activities together.

A number of apps, such as CBeebies or Toca Boca, focus on the development of appropriate skills, such as hand-eye co-ordination, and draw on well established games for toddlers such as hide-and-seek and peek-a-boo.

Family functions

Research on technology use is still new and requires agreement on what we measure and how. This is compounded by the problem that we would need repeated and longitudinal studies to have guidance that is only about touchscreens and applies to all children. But some research has already begun to unearth evidence about touchscreens and particular learning skills.

For example a study found that use of touchscreens can accelerate children’s fine motor control, hand-eye coordination and visual attention. Another has shown that toddlers can learn new animal names from tablet e-books. Yet other studies found that toddlers can retain knowledge and transfer to the real world what they learn on touchscreens only if the interaction is supported by adults.

Tech support.

Organisations such as the UK’s National Literacy Trust and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in the US therefore focus on encouraging positive shared use of technology in families, whether it is for joint reading of e-books or playing games together.

The use of touchscreens in families is changing rapidly, as is the functional capacity of touchscreens and quality of their programmes. We are yet to build a comprehensive road map of risks and opportunities.

The ConversationBut despite the excitement and novelty of these technologies, one thing is certain. We must not forget the enduring needs of parents and children to communicate with each other – and share in the joys of everyday objects which don’t come with a screen.

Natalia Kucirkova, Senior Research Associate, UCL and Jackie Marsh, Professor of Education, University of Sheffield

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Guidelines for Children’s Use of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Apps and Resources

By Elizabeth Milovidov, Digital Parenting Consultant and Coach

Currently, there are no real guidelines, legislation or codes of conduct for the introduction of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) into children’s environments (including whether VR and AR are used for gaming, research, educational or marketing purposes to children), but an excellent starting point for recommendations on how to handle VR and AR can be offered by an adaptation of the EU Kids Online interactive report.

I have slightly modified the text, exchanging VR and AR for internet to illustrate the appropriateness of the recommendations to this new technology. This emphasises how far-reaching the EU Kids Online recommendations are.

CHILDREN AND YOUNG PEOPLE are encouraged to: Maximise the benefits that the VR and AR afford through diverse activities that expand their digital skills to more participative and creative uses. Share responsibility for the online safety and welfare of others, particularly in contexts of online bullying and harassment where as bystanders or participants they can have decisive impact. Respect age limits for online services and seek advice from parents and teachers about the suitability of services and content they would like to access. Develop proactive coping strategies such as deleting messages, blocking unwanted contacts and using reporting tools. Seek help from a parent, trusted adult or friend if they have been bullied or encounter something problematic online. Review online privacy settings on a regular basis; share personal information only with friends; and never post another’s personal information, including pictures, without consent.

PARENTS should: Support children’s exploration of VR and AR from an early age and inform themselves about the benefits and the risks that VR and AR offer. Focus on enhancing children’s opportunities, coping skills and resilience to potential harm. Think less about risk and focus instead on engaging, fun activities and positive content. Communicate regularly with children about what they may find problematic online. Be clear about expectations and rules relating to online behaviour. Treat media coverage concerning online risks critically.

EDUCATORS should: Promote positive, safe, and effective use of VR and AR by children in all educational contexts including homework, using public libraries, computer clubhouses, ICT workshops, etc. Integrate online safety awareness and digital skills across the curriculum. Ensure the benefits of digital technologies reach all children. Ensure provision of ICT and digital skills development for teachers, supported by awareness raising about risks and safety for young people online. Develop whole-school policies regarding positive uses of technology as well as protocols to deal with instances of online bullying and harassment. Form partnerships with trusted providers and sources of expertise in the delivery of internet safety education.

AWARENESS RAISERS AND MEDIA should: Increase parental understanding about the risks young people face online without being alarmist or sensationalist. Focus first on the many opportunities and benefits that VR and AR afford and only second on the risks to be managed and harm to be avoided. Represent and present young people’s perspectives about online experiences in ways that respect their rights and their privacy. Ensure reporting and awareness raising is based on reliable evidence and robust research.

GOVERNMENT should: Coordinate multi-stakeholder efforts to bring about greater levels of VR and AR safety and ensure there is meaningful youth participation in all relevant multi-stakeholder groupings. Review adequate legislative provision for dealing with online harassment and abuse. Ensure provision for youth protection in traditional media can also support online safety provision. Continue efforts to support digital inclusion of all citizens while providing support for socially disadvantaged parents and households. Promote positive online content, encouraging broadcasters, content developers and entrepreneurs to develop content tailored to the needs of different age groups.

INDUSTRY should: Ensure ‘safety by default’ and enable customisable, easy-to-use safety features, accessible to those with only basic digital literacy. Promote greater standardisation in classification and advisory labels to guide parents. Ensure age limits are real and effective using appropriate methods of age verification where possible and accompanied by sufficient safety information. Implement tools so that under-18s can remove content that may be damaging to their reputation and/or personal integrity. Ensure commercial content is clearly distinguishable, is age-appropriate, ethical and sensitive to local cultural values, gender and race. Support independent evaluation and testing of all specified safety tools and features. Develop a shared resource of standardised industry data regarding the reporting of risks.




Call for regulation on securing children’s data in personalised reading


While children’s reading experience is being transformed with digital reading formats, personalised and interactive books allowing for more personalisation, there are risks around the data this releases. Natalia Kucirkova and Rosie Flewitt identify four main areas of concern and call for regulation. Natalia is Senior Research Associate, and Rosie is Reader in Early Communication and Learning, both at University College London, Institute of Education. [Header image credit: B. Flickinger, CC BY 2.0_08].


Digital reading formats mean a child’s reading experience can be ‘personalised’ at many levels. Their name can be added into a popular fairy tale, or they can even add their own drawings to a story, make their own voice-overs or replace the main characters’ names with their own (e.g. Mr Glue Stories). Personalised books are now available as interactive digital books downloadable on touchscreens (e.g. Put Me In The Story®) as well as classic printed books (e.g. Lost My Name). This can make reading more enjoyable for young children, and the personalised data that is generated can be used to create adaptive algorithms to match texts to each child’s reading level, language scores or genre preferences (see the iRead project).

Key concerns

On 16 March 2017 we hosted a meeting with some of the UK’s key players in the children’s app and print publishing industry, international researchers and representatives from Book Trust and National Literacy Trust. There was a strong consensus that there is an ‘urgent need for policy recommendations and regulations concerning children’s personalised (reading) products’.

Four key areas of concern were identified.

Risk to security and privacy

Parents are often unaware of the security risks of popular educational products, including behaviour management tools for classrooms and the ‘Internet of Toys’. These include: lack of personal safety; non-transparent and illegal terms and conditions; lack of control over access to personal data; and making this kind of surveillance seem a ‘normal’ part of everyday life.

There are no official national guidelines regarding the amount, storage or sharing of data collected by publishers and producers of personalised books, so parents and other caregivers must trust the integrity of individual companies that their family data won’t be misused or misplaced.

One designer remarked, in conversation with a producer of personalised books:

‘Because talking to you I have to trust that in a way you are using the company’s own ethical standards to do it rather than anything external. Which does raise the risk.’

‘Marketisation’ of childhood

The interviewees were not so concerned about the risks of childhood being ‘commercialised’ by simple personalisation models, but by how children’s data is aggregated:

‘It’s not about your photos but patterns of behaviour that predict what you will buy.’

Another designer-parent, commented:

‘It’s not inconceivable that a family’s aggregated data could be shared and could personalise the experience for the consumer, little consumer, the child.’

Reduction in design innovation

The lack of formal regulation and guidance also hampers the work of publishers and producers who are interested in the creative and innovative design of children’s reading products, but do not want to put children at risk:

‘There is a lot of stuff that we will not be able to do because it has that fear level to it. It kills it straight out. So I think when it comes to various aspects of data and how the data can be used I certainly think some comprehensive regulation and thinking around that and extending beyond what COPPA does and keeping it more comprehensive.’

Reduction in learning benefits for the child

The data captured through children’s book usage could be used to coordinate their choices with suggested further reading, which may then contribute to stronger learning benefits for the children. As one app designer admitted, however, the potential of this data for enhancing learning has not yet been explained:

‘I think it’s an interesting point because we could be using the data more effectively to see what they are enjoying, what they are not enjoying.’

A need for well-informed regulation

In sum, researchers, parents and the producers and publishers of personalised books and reading materials lament the lack of formal regulation. We need:

‘… regulations around the security around data as well and what can be captured and if you are capturing data how is it then stored, so that we make sure that everything that is personalised is stored very securely.’

As one app producer commented:

‘If I’m gathering a lot of data from my children at home and that can be shared with school in a way that helps my children in their formal learning environment that’s fantastic, I would like to do that, I would like to know how it’s done in a secure way.’

Some progress is being made, and the General Data Protection Regulation will apply throughout the EU (including the UK) from 25 May 2018. This may, however, need to be accompanied by a directive or list of required safety measures specific to personalised reading resources, including examples (perhaps from other sectors or areas) where personal data is being used in secure and sophisticated ways.

Developing a visionary and not simply restrictive and prohibitive guidance should mean increased collaboration and communication among a range of stakeholders.

This blog has been re-posted from the Parenting for a Digital Future blog:  http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/2017/05/09/call-for-regulation-on-securing-childrens-data-in-personalised-reading/

Fostering Industry and Academic Partnerships

Jackie Marsh and Dylan Yamada-Rice

Arguably, there has never been a more important time to foster industry- academia research in the field of children’s digital and media practices that now. Fast-changing developments in technology have led to significant changes in young children’s lives, and it is hard to keep up with some of these transformations. One way of ensuring that we do keep up-to-date in our knowledge and subsequent actions is to exchange knowledge across sectors, and across disciplines. This was one of the key reasons for setting up the COST Action DigiLitEY, as our network engages actively with industry partners.

What kinds of industry-academia collaboration are required to address some of the key questions that we face in the area of children and digital media? We would suggest that the three main kinds of collaboration are as follows:

(a) Engaging in joint research projects. Some of the ‘wicked problems’ and challenging issues we face in contemporary society can only be understood by engaging in interdisciplinary, inter-sector research in which each partner brings their own understanding and expertise to the subject. Take, for example, the question of how young children can develop an understanding of what the risks and opportunities of online life are. Researchers can approach the topic from their disciplinary bases, but if we are to understand fully what kinds of risks children take as they engage in online practices, then industry information about how their services are used is invaluable. Such collaborative research projects are not easy, as they take time to develop, but the kinds of knowledge produced can then be important for both industry and academia (see the Technology and Play project as an example of this). David Kleeman, Senior Vice-President of Global trends for Dubit, offers his views on some of the key findings of this project at Huffington Post.

(b) Engaging in discussion on key issues. If there is not time to undertake collaborative research, then at least taking the time to talk to each other can bridge understanding across industry and academic domains. For example, it is clear that virtual reality is a growing area of interest for children and families, and therefore DigiLitEY recently teamed up with an industry partner, Dubit, in order to organise a seminar which gave academic and industry participants time to talk about the emerging issues in this area. This valuable knowledge exchange opportunity enabled new insights to emerge, which can inform future collaboration on this topic (the Think Tank report will be published on the DigiLitEY website in due course). Even if it is not possible to plan joint seminars, then at least attending the conferences of a different sector to your own can extend industry-academic knowledge.

(c) Engaging in joint writing. There are numerous opportunities for industry and academic partners to collaborate, communicate and engage with each other through writing. Blog posts offer one such opportunity, as this contribution demonstrates. Twitter can foster inter-sector discussion, which, through the use of hashtags, can be made very specific to particular topics. Finally, joint books written by academic and industry partners can be highly illuminative, offering both sectors time and space to deliberate on issues at length. A good example of this is a book edited by Dylan and Eve Stirling, Visual Methods with Children and Young People: Academics and Visual Industries in Dialogue, in which insights from academic experts and established professionals from visual industries enabled an in-depth exploration of a range of issues from visual ethics to children’s interaction with place.

These provide just a few examples of the way in which industry and academic partnerships can be developed in order to enhance joint understanding of young children’s digital literacy and multimodal practices. In order to offer further guidance to both industry and academic colleagues, we have written a short booklet which includes a number of ‘tips’ on collaborative working. And if you have further tips to offer, please use the comments function of the blog to share them!

RIP, Club Penguin

by Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK

On 31st January, 2017, Disney announced that it was closing Club Penguin, the virtual world that was originally launched by an independent Canadian company in 2005, acquired by Disney in 2007, and which, at the height of its popularity, had over 200 million registered users.

Inevitably, given that it had been an iconic part of many children’s lives in the 2000s, there was a great outpouring of grief on social media for the demise of the virtual world, including numerous nostalgic posts on the Twitter hashtag stream #ClubPenguinMemories.


I could understand these emotions, having spent many hours observing children playing in Club Penguin as part of my research over the last decade. This was a virtual world that enabled social interaction and play for young children, when numerous other social network sites ostensibly excluded them due to their age. During my prolonged periods of conducting research on its use, I observed children having fun, playing games, playing at making dens in their igloos, hosting parties and fashion shows, and engaging in play fights – all activities they enjoy in the physical world, and easily transferred to the virtual arena (if interested, see publications below for discussions of young children’s use of Club Penguin).

The world of Club Penguin extended beyond the site, of course, and spawned a whole host of fan-related activities including the machinima Club Penguin Music Videos (CPMV), fan fiction, and even alternative servers where penguin avatars could swear and not get banned (now offering a Club Penguin Reborn service for those who just can’t let go). This kind of peer-to-peer online cultural production is now commonplace, but in the early years of Club Penguin, it was a relatively new phenomenon.

The use of this virtual world enabled children to develop and practice a range of skills and it was utilised by teachers as a means of engaging children in a range of learning activities, from writing to mathematics. Some argued that the commercial nature of the site meant that these kinds of opportunities were more limited than in relation to other kinds of virtual worlds such as Minecraft, and there has been extensive discussion of the marketing intent of producers and how that limits opportunities for in-game creativity by expert analysts such as Sara Grimes. Notwithstanding these points, this particular virtual world’s value for all kinds of learning was clear in the observations I undertook. Further, I would argue that children’s use of Club Penguin offered an early introduction for parents to the world of children’s online social networks, and enabled them to engage in important critical reflection on these issues in the years when such activities were just emerging for the under-eights. Therefore, it can be seen that Club Penguin offered an early significant prompt for the analysis of many of the themes and issues that are pertinent to any contemporary study of young children’s online lives.

There are various theories about why Disney decided to close the site, including those who believe it was down to Russian hackers. However, a major part of the decision must have rested on the fact that Club Penguin was originally designed for desktop PCs and was produced in Flash, which is not supported by many mobile devices. In a world in which young children are largely online using smartphones and tablets, things needed to change. Disney have now launched an iOS and Android version of Club Penguin titled Club Penguin Island, but the app has been criticised by some die-hard Club Penguin fans as not being as much fun to use as its predecessor.

Perhaps this won’t matter in the long run. With the advent of Virtual Reality, soon online games that enable a user to experience an environment through the use of an avatar whilst the user sits firmly in the physical world will be old hat. Already, users can walk through virtual worlds themselves, donning a headset. When Virtual Reality meets Club Penguin Island or the like in the years to come, who needs a penguin avatar?


Relevant publications

 Marsh, J. (2014). The discourses of celebrity in the fanvid ecology of Club Penguin machinima. In R.H. Jones, A. Chik & C. A. Hafner (eds) Discourse and digital practices: Doing discourse analysis in the digital age. (pp. 193–208) New York: Routledge.

Marsh, J. (2014) Researching young children’s literacy practices in online virtual worlds: Cyber-ethnography and multi-method approaches. In Albers, M., Flint, A. and Holbrook, T. (eds) New methods in literacy research. New York: Routledge. pp195-209.

Marsh, J. (2013). Breaking the ice: Play, friendships and social identities in young children’s use of virtual worlds. In Burke, A. & Marsh, J. (eds) Children’s Virtual Play Worlds: Culture, Learning and Participation. (pp. 59-78). New York: Peter Lang.

Marsh, J. (2013). Online and offline play. In A. Burn & C. Richards (eds) Children’s Games in the New Media Age: Childlore, Media and the Playground. (pp. 109–132.) London: Ashgate.

Marsh, J. (2012). Countering chaos in Club Penguin: Young children’s literacy practices in a virtual world. In Merchant G, Gillen J, Marsh J & Davies J (Eds) Virtual Literacies: Interactive Spaces for Children and Young People.(pp. 75-88). New York: Routledge.

Marsh, J. (2012). Purposes for literacy in children’s use of the online virtual world ‘Club Penguin’. Journal of Research in Reading. 37 (2), 179-195.

Marsh, J. (2011) Young Children’s Literacy Practices in a Virtual World: Establishing an Online Interaction Order. Reading Research Quarterly, 46(2), 101–118. doi: 10.1598/RRQ.46.2.1

Marsh, J. (2010) ‘Young children’s play in online virtual worlds’, Journal of Early Childhood Research, Vol 8 (1) pp:23 –39.

M-learning at a lower primary level in Poland: An example of an outstanding primary teacher

Izabela Jaros

Mobile technology is spreading in the contemporary world at a fast rate. It is present in even very young children’s lives. Researchers have noticed the need to examine the impact and influence of this trend upon children’s media literacy. Thus, a number of reports, devoted to a study of the use of multimedia among the youngest users, have emerged in various countries in recent years.  The most significant international and national studies are as follows:

J. Okuniewska's class 1

Although much more slowly, but also in the area of formal education in Poland, technology is gradually being used to deliver learning content and reach teaching objectives. Currently, the use of tablets in Polish primary schools or kindergartens is not a common phenomenon. These devices are used rather rarely and are usually sourced in the following ways:

  1. Centralized: government-led initiatives aiming at providing access to modern technology (e.g. within the ministerial program “Digital school”)
  2. Commercial: commercial suppliers provide devices at no financial cost in return for the teacher testing and developing the use of technology  within the classroom (e.g. the Samsung programme  “Coding Masters”)
  3. Contest – related: the class received tablets as a reward (e.g in a competition organized within the eTwinning programme),
  4. Institutional funds: educational institutions invest their own funds to purchase mobile devices,
  5. Bring Your Own Device – students bring their own tablets to school on one selected day of the week (e.g. “tablet Fridays”).

Regardless of the source, the implementation of mobile technology in pre-primary or lower primary education has had a novelty dimension in Polish educational institutions so far. The teachers who are aware of educational potential of m-learning make attempts to harness this technology to enhance the teaching process. They find their way to add mobile technology to education; therefore they are often referred to as pioneers in this area.  Their actions are examples of good practice and an incentive for inexperienced practitioners. Nowadays, their actions prove crucial, since, in the light of the new core curriculum, valid from September 2017, technology has to be widely integrated into the teaching process from grade one of primary school.

Lower primary teachers who use tablets in the teaching process often document their experiences in the form of blogs or class websites. The materials available on the internet are a source of information for other teachers who search for some ideas about how to add mobile technology to their teaching practice. They can find out what applications have educational value and how they should be used with young learners. It is a source of knowledge for less experienced teachers, who are taking their first steps in the digital environment. The applications described on teachers’ blogs are classroom tested so inexperienced practitioners can benefit a lot. In addition, the teachers’ experiences, described on blogs, can be perceived as examples of good practice and ought to encourage those educators who have some sort of  barriers, preventing them from  employing new technologies in their teaching process.

J. Okuniewska

Jolanta Okuniewska’s blog “Tableszyt w okładce w motyle” (http://tableciaki.blogspot.com/) is an extremely interesting documentation of a Polish pioneer teacher in tablet education. She has used these devices for several years on a daily basis, mainly in the tasks done as a primary class teacher but also while carrying out eTwinning projects. The teacher often highlights that she perceives and uses a tablet as “a modern piece of equipment of a pencil case”. She teaches her students that a tablet computer is not a toy but an educational tool.

In 2016 she was nominated for the Global Teacher Prize, organized by the Varkey Foundation, and became one of Top 50 Finalists in the competition.  The committee appreciated the fact that she pioneered integrating tablets in her primary school classes to enhance learning through self-developed and free e-learning resources. Although the main prize went to another nominee, J. Okuniewska has become one of the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors and a member of the advisory board – as the only European teacher in the group.

Jolanta Okuniewska’s actions are tangible evidence that integrating digital technologies into early education enhances the teaching process and is beneficial both to young learners and the teacher. However, she emphasizes that this process, in order to be carried out in a wise way, requires quite a lot of preparation and is a real challenge for the teacher, a challenge that any teacher can face, regardless of the length of professional work experience.



Community Empowerment: Digital Citizenship for our Youngest Children

By Vitor Tomé, Algarve University, Faro, Portugal, and Belinha de Abreu, Sacred Heart University, Fairfield, Connecticut, USA

In a small community, Odivelas, which can be found within Lisbon area, Portugal is an on-going community based research project on digital citizenship. The focus of the work is on children ages 3-9 with the purpose of empowering them to become active digital citizens in their mediated environments. This project is an undertaking between researchers and the local community whose goal is to bridge a communication gap that is frequently seen when students are not given operational capacity for discerning digital practices in all facets of their lives.

This endeavour has been focused on school, family and out-of-school contexts, it also aims to contribute to identify best practices in all these venues, to influence public policies, and to integrate digital citizenship education in the curricula. This ongoing work is intended to be replicable in Portugal or abroad.

Our research looked at the child, family, and school triangle through the understanding of these three questions:

  • How can in-service teacher training on digital citizenship education improve teachers’ digital literacy practices in classrooms?
  • What are the digital literacies practices of young children in school, family and community contexts?
  • How do both formal and informal learning contexts shape children’s digital literacy practices?

The methodological approach used followed the research model developed by Sefton-Green, Marsh, Erstad and Flewitt (2016), in Establishing a Research Agenda for the Digital Literacy

Practices of Young Children, according to which individual production and reception of media messages, whether in formal and in informal settings, are based in its:

  • Operational capacities and skills needed to read, write and interpret messages from different media and its various platforms;
  • Ability to interact critically with texts and digital products, seeking to answer questions related to the power and agency, representation and voice, authenticity and veracity;
  • Cultural concerns interpretations and actions that develop according to its involvement in digital literacy practices in specific social and cultural contexts.

Early results

Our work began with training 25 Preschool and Primary school teachers (January-February 2016) who developed digital media literacy activities involving 366 of their students (147 pre-schoolers and 219 primary schoolers). Activities focused on producing and discussing media, online news analysis, communicating and learning through media and advertisement critical analysis. In March the longitudinal action research began involving eight out of the 25 teachers who agreed to develop digital citizenship activities with their students. Parents (42) and their children (45, of which twenty-five are between 3 and 6) were interviewed on digital citizenship practices and mediation. Results showed the following:

  • All teachers agreed that the media have educational potential in the pre-school and Primary school, but media content was used with sporadic frequency in their classrooms;
  • Most teachers considered that the lack of time and resources explained the minimal use of digital technologies;
  • Through professional development training, teachers were able to develop digital literacy activities without deviating from their previous pedagogical plans;
  • Most teachers were surprised by the increased use of digital technologies by children;
  • Most children are frequent users of digital media and technologies, sometimes without adult supervision, especially those who live with older siblings;
  • A small group of children do not engage with or barely use digital technologies, primarily the youngest ones due to their parent’s decision;
  • Most parents are really concerned about digital media use by their children, feeling they lack information on risks and opportunities using these tools, and therefore they try to protect their children limiting media use;
  • Most parents admit they do not talk with their children about their digital media practices;
  • There’s a wide gap in the communication discussion between parents and teachers regarding children’s media use.

Between March and June 2016 our work continued with eight of the 25 teachers (three Preschool, three Primary teachers, a teacher of Special Education and a teacher librarian), working in the same school, in the development of activities with their students (e.g.: advertisement analysis; creative written). In the meantime, having in mind the data analysis (teachers, children and parents) an intervention plan was designed.

During the first term of the school year 2016/17, activities with students were focused on the theme “What means to be a citizen in the digital era?” Teachers organized activities involving students, their families and other community members in order to discuss how citizenship and media evolved in the last three generations (grandparents, parents, and children). Results were published in a school print newspaper and shared with the greater community.

Next steps

During the second term of the school year (January-April 2017) the activities, developed in partnership with the local Health services will focus on Human Rights, Children Rights, respect and anti-violence actions at school. These topics will be the main focus of the second edition of the school newspaper to be published in April of 2017. During the third term (April-June 2017) the main theme will be advertisement, media and freedom of expression.


After the publication of the school newspaper in December 2016, the project attracted the attention of the local school board, which organized a meeting with all teachers and researchers involved in the project, as well as the coordinators of the other three Pre/Primary schools. After the meeting, we all agreed to extend the project to the other three schools who were not part of the original project.

We are also developing another in-service teacher training course involving 26 Primary and Secondary school teachers from another Odivelas Municipality school that will be formally integrated in the project next March.

Moving Forward

As this project has progressed interest has extended beyond the school and into other community agencies. A partnership has been developed which will include one of Lisbon’s largest public libraries that will work in partnership with one of the selected schools starting from September 2017. This extension might be seen as a first step to replicate our project in other municipalities as well as continuing the development of partnerships that encompass agencies which have direct and invested interests in schools.

Core results of the project will be presented during a local conference that will take place in February 2018.

Parent as field collaborator when interviewing the pre-verbal and early verbal child

By Donell Holloway and Kylie Stevenson, ECU University, Perth, Australia

This blog features two research strategies developed for interviewing pre-verbal and early verbal children (0-3s) for our research project titled Toddlers and Tablets. These strategies (among others developed for the project) recognise the competence of even the youngest touchscreen users as informants and utilises modified, ethnographic research strategies that echo (as far as possible) the child’s everyday life in the family home. The project, funded by the Australian Research Council, is investigating family practices and attitudes around very young children’s Internet use in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The main aim of the interview process with the parent and the child was to capture the child’s digital multi-literacies around touchscreen devices as they happen in their process of maturation, not in a conclusive question-driven narrative but instead by sketching a picture that echoes their everyday life through a fluid ‘free narrative’ (Cameron, 2005, p.601) interview conversation with the child.

The two strategies outlined below involve the use of parents as field collaborators in the research process: how the child’s proximity to their parent during the initial parent interview help develop researcher/child rapport (albeit in an indirect or vicarious manner); and how the parent’s proximity to the child during the child interview helped to scaffold understanding between the researcher and child.

Child proximity during the parent interview


We found that conducting the parent interview with the parent’s very young child in close proximity was a crucial element for rapport building with the preverbal and early verbal child. Held at the beginning of the family visit, the parent interview tended to echo an everyday, at-home interaction, as it was usually held at the kitchen table or other communal space over a cup of tea. In this way, the interview mimicked a conversation that parents may have with other adults visiting the home. A parallel activity was provided for the young child while the interview took place, freeing the mother’s attention somewhat and creating rapport with the child. The child often moved on and off their parent’s lap throughout the parent interview, and was free to interact in the interview space with the parent or the interviewer during this time.

The informal conversational style of interview with the parent also confirmed to the child that this person (the interviewer) was safe to engage with. This made the unusual (the interview) usual for the child by echoing an ordinary occurrence that the child is familiar with.

Isabelle, mum of Emma aged 2 ½, was interviewed by Kylie at the kitchen table of the family home before Emma and her siblings were interviewed. Emma sat beside her mother during the parent interview, enjoying a colouring-in activity provided by the interviewers. Isabelle was initially somewhat shy of Kylie but gained confidence as Isabelle and Kylie continued their conversation.

Parental proximity during the child interview

The interview with the child flowed seamlessly on from the parent interview. This was a very fluid, dynamic and child-led process. Picture cards depicting various devices and other non-digital play activities were used at the interview outset. The interview then flowed into the child demonstrating their use of their favourite devices and apps. This play-led strategy established for the child the interviewer’s interest in the child’s own play world.

Some children, particularly those 0-1, chose to sit on their parent’s lap. Others were happy to sit side-by-side with the parent. In all these instances parents tended to act as field collaborators who facilitated communication and play between the interviewer and child. They encouraged and praised their child and joined in with the play activities.

Emma began her interview on Isabelle’s lap. With a security blanket and dummy in her mouth looked at the cards Kylie showed her. Two minutes into the interview, Emma took out her dummy, smiled and began to converse with Kylie. She still held on to her security blanket. At some stage, Isabelle slipped Emma onto a chair beside her, but remained close and supportive. When she judged Emma was comfortably engaged with Kylie, Isabelle moved away but stayed in kitchen area. Emma happily continued with the interview.


Parents also tended to scaffold their child’s understanding of the interview process and the interviewer herself by reinterpreting things for the child. They also translated (for the interviewer) their child’s own responses and communicative efforts—in order to add further depth and completeness to the interview process. Parents both scaffolded the child into the interview context but also scaffolded the interviewer into the child’s discursive world. This field collaboration by the parent enhanced the child’s confidence, by improving her ability to understand the interview/play process and to communicate effectively to the researcher.

Sometimes, the parent slipped away once they are happy that the child was fully engaged and comfortable with the interview process and it then became a one-on-one interview with child and interviewer.

Emma 2½ showed Kylie her favourite iPad app, a Mickey Mouse storybook app. Emma then tried to show Kylie another favourite activity, laughing baby videos on YouTube. She opened the app but was not able to find the laughing baby videos. She turned to her mother indicating that she needs help. Isabelle stepped in momentarily, put ‘laughing babies’ in search box, then Emma used the side menu to choose her videos.

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These two strategies take advantage of the social and physical world that pre-verbal and early verbal children live in. They utilise the everyday home environment and a supportive framework provided by the parent who acts as field collaborator in the research process.



The Internet of Toys: Implications of increased connectivity and convergence of physical and digital play in young children

By Bieke Zaman, Donell Holloway, and Lelia Green

Meet Kibo, a robot that children can program by means of tangible blocks, or Trobo, another smart robot but one which interacts with children in joint storytelling and learning. Or have a look at the Osmo puzzle, which intelligently combines digital instructions and feedback with embodied learning.

These examples all belong to the emerging phenomenon called the Internet of Toys. This is made up of internet-connected smart toys that include hybrid products ranging from remote / app controlled toys like Sphero, or Hatchimals, to hybrid video games like the toys-to-life Skylander series.


Children’s traditional play objects are increasingly shaped by technological inventions like 3D printing, sensor technologies, and the Internet of Things.

These technological opportunities can add a new dimension to children’s play practices. Plush cuddly toys, play cubes, board games and figurines are no longer characterized solely by physical components, but can also include digital and online layers.

In this blog post, we shine a critical light upon young children’s engagement with the Internet of Toys. In doing so, we loosely follow Boczkowski and Siles’ (2014) theoretical framework of 4 intertwined perspectives for studying new media- and communication- technologies: at the intersections of production and consumption (of meaning), and content and materiality (of toys).

 Children and parents as consumers

Firstly, the meaning making from play with internet-connected toys includes both physical and digital experiences. These processes are shaped by the play context, and may differ depending on whether smart toys are being used at home or in school. For instance, in the WOOPI project, we learned that hybrid play is facilitated by the variety of roles that both children and adults can take.

However, when we surveyed almost 1400 Flemish parents, 70% preferred that their child engage in physical play because of perceived benefits in terms of activity levels, health profile, creativity and imagination, and social and emotional development. Parents of young children have mixed feelings about digital technology. On the one hand, they want their child to develop strong digital skills; on the other hand, they favour ‘old-school’ physical activities such as playing football outdoors. Parents don’t generally want their child to sit in front of a screen for long periods of time.

Vai Kai Toy

Game, toy, and technology industry players

The second of our intertwined perspectives looks at the Internet of Toys from an industry perspective. It reveals that developers and innovators actively seek business opportunities from children’s emerging, converged media practices. The use of internet-connected toys allows industry to establish a contract for a child’s prolonged and developing use of the toy, with regular updates and ‘unlocked’ play potential in a freemium model. The cost of the toy is not solely the price paid. This model provides the traditional toy industry with a way to reinvent itself, compensating for a decrease in sales caused by the partial de-materialization of play. But parents need to check the running costs of an internet toy before they bring it home!

Discourses surrounding hybrid media content

The third quadrant in Boczkowski and Siles’ intertwining framework addresses the culturally ‘encoded’ and ‘decoded’ meanings of smart toys through discourses that surround their content. Bleumers et al. (2015) analyzed online reviews for 27 hybrid play products aimed at 4-6 year olds, selecting the top 10 ‘most helpful’ Amazon.com reviews for each toy (270 reviews in all). The analysis shows that parents like smart toys which: support children’s bodily movement and cognitive development; facilitate creative play; and entice children away from static screens.

Reviewing the media discourses around the Internet of Toys, however, Holloway and Green (2017) note concerns regarding the data privacy of children and families, the ownership of data produced through interactions with smart toys, and concerns about the terms and conditions imposed by industry players upon consumers.

Hybrid play affordances by design

Finally, from a technological perspective, we distinguish between how smart toys are being programmed and designed versus how these functional characteristics invite children to use them in particular ways. The user tests in the WOOPI project revealed that sensor-based interactive bracelets may encourage bodily movements, that interactive card games with a display-figurine have in-built feedback possibilities and allow for prolonged use, and that an interactive robot is likely to afford open-ended play. Although these findings cannot be generalized beyond the scope of the test situation, it clearly shows that the toys’ design characteristics shape play practices.

Unfortunately, Holloway and Green (2017) note that there is no evidence of ‘privacy by design’ and suggest that toy companies and their partners will continue to collect the data of very young children (too young to give their own consent) unless there is stronger regulation.

In conclusion, parents are generally welcoming the Internet of Toys into children’s lives because it offers new modes of play, learning, and the possibility of extreme personalization. Even so, our multi-perspective approach indicates that the dominant optimistic discourses surrounding the marketing of these toys distracts many consumers from paying attention to a range of potential risks, including privacy, economic cost and the dangers of hacking.

In this context, it is unfortunate that parents are often not aware that smart toys may compromise online security at home. Further, parents often don’t know how the toy company and its affiliates might use the personal data they collect. To account for that, the DigiLitEY consortium is creating a repository of tips and tricks that may help parents and educators create safe and enjoyable online experiences for their children.