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:

Augmented reality apps – value beyond the hype?

By Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK

Augmented Reality (AR) consists of a blend of the physical world and virtual world. In this blended reality, three-dimensional images or environments are projected onto a physical object. The technology is not new, having been around since the 1960s, but tablet apps are now enabling children in contemporary society to engage in a range of AR experiences.

One of the most recent releases of an AR app, produced by Osmo, enables children to run a pizza shop, developing entrepreneurial skills as they do so. The tablet camera is used to recognise physical objects placed on top of a cardboard pizza that is placed in front of the tablet, and virtual customers let the player know if she or he has their pizza order correct. It promises to be a popular app, but questions remain about the quality and value AR apps for young children, given their relatively recent entry into this market.

In a research project undertaken last year*, I worked with a team exploring the potential apps had for enhancing the play and creativity of children aged under 5. We included a number of augmented reality apps in the study, given that little was known about their use with this age group and there was, therefore, a need for parents and teachers to be able to evaluate their potential value for young children.

We undertook a survey of 2000 parents of children aged 0-5 in the UK who had access to a tablet. A sizeable minority of parents reported in the survey that their children used AR apps (24% in total, 18.5% on tablets and 5.9% on smartphones). This figure is likely to have increased over the past year. As part of the study, we filmed children using AR apps and analysed the data to identify how far they promoted play and creativity. The AR apps that were reviewed were: AR Flashcards; Aurasma; Quiver (previously ColAR); Mattel Apptivity (Fishing Game); Meet the Animals; Squigglefish.

The types of play promoted by the apps were identified, using a classification system adapted from the playworker, Bob Hughes’ work, and creative thinking was traced through the use of Robson’s ACCT framework. We found that the apps varied in terms of how far they promoted play and creativity. Some of the apps allowed the children to do little more than bring characters ‘to life’, by holding a tablet over a 2D drawing in order to view a 3D representation (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Bringing Pudsey to Life

Whilst the children loved this due to its novelty, the app did not enable the children to do anything else. In contrast, the app Aurasma was found to engage children in a broader range of types of play and creative thinking. The app allows users to link a video or audio podcasts to a 2D artefact, such as a written text. The school involved in the project, Monteney Primary School, made great use of this app by staging an exhibition of children’s work for parents, in which parents could hold their smartphones up to children’s written comics on the walls, and use the Aurasma app to view videos of the children talking about their productions. Signs around the school (see Figure 2) alerted both children and parents to the presence of work that linked to virtual productions.

Figure 2: Sign around Monteney Primary School

We only have to consider the appeal of the Pokémon Go app to recognise that augmented reality apps can capture children’s imaginations. These apps certainly have potential to motivate young children and engage them in a range of activities that enhance play, creativity and learning. However, as suggested, our study found that the extent to which the apps could do that was dependent upon their design. Based on our work, we drew up some guidance for both parents and early years practitioners on choosing apps, the latter of which contains brief reviews of the AR apps we studied.

Of course, it may be the case that the development of new AR apps for children is overshadowed by the rapid production of Virtual Reality (VR) toys and games, with VR technology now being so widespread that it has even been adopted as a cereal toy. However, the two types of technology do offer very different experiences, which suggests that they will both have significant roles in young children’s play futures.

Whatever new developments occur, it will be important for parents and early years practitioners to take time to appraise the apps, toys and games that appear in order to determine whether or not they will be of fleeting interest, offering only a superficial engagement with the virtual, or whether they have the potential to extend children’s thinking and foster their imagination and creativity. Of course, children themselves will also make these kinds of judgements as they encounter new apps, but parents and teachers can help by guiding children to good quality apps in the first place.

There are organisations that offer guidance on choosing apps, such as Common Sense Media and the National Literacy Trust, and sites run by children’s media experts and commentators Stuart Dredge (apps playground) and Warren Buckleitner (Children’s Technology Review Exchange). These can be a helpful source of information for parents and teachers alike. However, we look forward to the development of sites in the future in which young children themselves can share their thoughts on the apps they use, including their AR apps!

*The report on the full study, ‘Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-School Children’s Use of Apps’, funded by the ESRC (Grant Number ES/M006409/1) can be downloaded here.


What are pre-schoolers doing with tablets and is it good for them? (A response)

iza-jarosBy Izabela Jaros, Jan Kochanowski University, Poland

The post “What are pre-schoolers doing with tablets and is it good for them?” focuses on a phenomenon that can be observed all over the world nowadays, namely the use of tablets by the very young.  I read the text with a great interest and would like to share some information concerning tablet use by children under the age of 6 in Poland.

Both access and frequency of use of mobile devices, especially among the youngest users, are increasing rapidly, regardless of the country. This mobile trend has been researched and key findings well documented in recent American or British reports, e.g. “Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America”, Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolers’ Use of Apps” or “Children and Parents: Media Use and Attitudes Report”.  Such documents provide crucial data concerning the types of mobile devices children have access to, the amount of time spent using them, kind of content and forms of activities children do on tablets/smartphones, the use of devices for educational purposes, the differences in this area resulted from  socioeconomic status of the family, specific characteristics of the apps for various age groups, potential threats and benefits of mobile technology for children development, parental assistance  – just to mention a few research areas.

In Poland two reports, focusing on similar research questions, have been published recently. The first one, issued in 2014,  is entitled “Szanse i zagrożenia w obszarze wykorzystania technologii informacyjno-komunikacyjnych (TIK), ze szczególnym uwzględnieniem aplikacji mobilnych (TIK-mobApp) przez dzieci w wieku 3-6 lat” (title in English: “Benefits and Threats in the Area of the Use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), including mobile apps (ICT-mobAPP) in Particular by Children Aged 3-6”). As the title suggests the authors: J. Pyżalski, M. Klichowski and M. Przybyła discuss thoroughly both possible beneficial and harmful impacts of mobile technology on pre-school children’s development. They concentrate on such areas of development as cognitive, emotional, motor, social and health. Another interesting aspect presented in the document is a typology of apps, according to their aims. The list embraces, among others,  such categories as: communication by means of shapes, colours, images and symbols, communication by means of speech (words, word formation, sentence building, storytelling) and script (letters, words, sentences), creating pictures (drawing, colouring), taking photos, making films, role playing (imitating patterns of behaviour), supporting physical movement (dancing, running, doing gymnastics), construction, building, matching or supporting special educational needs (SEN).

The other report “The Use of Mobile Devices by Young Children in Poland” was published in 2015 by Nobody’s Children Foundation. The online research was carried out by the research agency Millward Brown S.A. 1011 surveys from  parents of children aged 6 months – 6.5 years were received.  In the report, detailed evidence is provided on mobile media access and use by very young children.  Moreover, findings regarding parental assistance and views about their children’s media use are included in the document. The main research outcomes are as follows:

  • 64% of children 6 m – 6.5 years old use mobile devices.
  • 25% of the researched sample use mobile media on a daily basis.
  • 26% of children have their own mobile devices.
  • 79% of children use their tablets or smartphone to watch videos.
  • 62% of children play games or use apps on their devices.
  • Children spend about 1 hour on mobile devices at a time.
  • 69% of parents let their children use mobile devices in order to gain time for doing their own tasks.
  • 49% of parents allow their children to use tablets or smartphones as a reward.
  • 62% of parents always or almost always accompany their children using mobile devices, 35% of parents sometimes assist their children.

The research results clearly show that Polish children, like their peers from other countries, are growing up in mobile media environments.

More key statistics are available in the report:

In 2015, the same foundation launched a campaign entitled “Homo Tabletis” ( The main aims of this initiative are as follows:

  • to raise awareness among parents of children aged 0-6,
  • to warn against uncontrolled use of tablets or smartphones by youngest children,
  • to inform about ways of using mobile devices for the benefit of children’s development.

One of the key actions of the campaign was the creation of an animated spot presenting the emergence of  a new species of humans, namely ‘Homo tabletis’.  In the spot, the potential threats of introducing tablets to young child’s life are highlighted. The authors of the spot claim that in the upbringing process, tablets become a substitute for biological parents. It is difficult not to agree with such a statement. Tablets are often given to children to calm them down or keep them busy so that parents can concentrate on their own tasks or even eat a meal in the peace and quiet. Tablets can be perceived as a kind of excuse for parents or caregivers for lack of time to spend together and/or appropriate rapport with their children. Children acquire the ability to skillfully operate a touch screen almost in no time what is admired by parents. However, initial admiration gradually turns into despair, caused by lack of interest, on a child’s part, in the surrounding world. The brain receives mainly the images and sounds made artificially by a machine, instead of receiving a variety of stimuli and involving all the senses. One of the consequences of such inappropriate tablet exposure is a limited amount of neural connections formed in the brain, which leads to other limitations in pre-school or school life, including hindering memory, abstract thinking or reading and writing skills. Lack of contacts with real peers/people may lead to problems with developing proper social relationships and even solitude in adulthood. Therefore, the main message for parents is not to let children under the age of 2 have access to display devices, such as tablets or smartphones – what is in line with the recommendations of  the American Academy of Pediatrics. When parents decide to allow children to use mobile devices, they have to do it responsibly. It means that they should follow the following advice:

  • always accompany their children starting to use such devices,
  • the amount of exposure time should not exceed 15 minutes at a time and 30 minutes a day,
  • children should not have access to tablets every day,
  • the content must be checked by parents and appropriate for children at a given age,
  • children must not use tablets before sleep.

It is emphasized in the spot that too early and too intensive tablet exposure can have a negative impact onto a child’s development. However, age-appropriate content, provided under parental supervision and during limited sessions can be beneficial for young children.

To sum up, science has not delivered enough evidence with regard to the influence of mobile technology onto children’s development. Still there are more questions and speculations than answers concerning both the potential risks as well as benefits for young children.  However, this issue is of interest to various parties – parents, early years teachers, teacher trainers, policymakers, the children’s media industry and needs to be widely discussed and extensively researched. This blog is a perfect space for sharing knowledge in this area.

More information can be found at:


What are pre-schoolers doing with tablets and is it good for them?

Sonia Livingstone

The undeniable reality is that ever younger children are gaining access to tablets, becoming proficient tablet users, but is this really in their best interests, developmentally? Sonia Livingstone highlights the findings of a recent report looking into young children’s digital play and opportunities. Sonia is Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications and has more than 25 years of experience in media research with a particular focus on children and young people. She is the lead investigator of the Parenting for a Digital Future research project. [Header image credit: Parenting for a Digital Future]

Pre-school-aged children have taken to tablets like ducks to water. A while ago a video went viral showing an infant trying to ‘swipe’ a magazine with growing puzzlement – a magazine, it seemed, was an app that didn’t work. The image of children trying to swipe the television set or a book seems to capture how quickly the world is changing in terms of digital literacy. The sense that the very young are leading the way, that they seem to know where they’re going, may help explain why parents are buying digital devices for the home, even when they are unclear about the benefits and anxious about the risks.

Tablet use among very young children

A recent report reveals that 25% of 0- to 2-year-olds in Britain now owns their own tablet, as do 36% of 3- to 5-year-olds – and they use their tablets for over an hour each day. The tablet is taking over as the most popular digital device in many homes, to some extent displacing time previously spent on desktops or even laps. This is especially unsurprising when you think that pre-school children – who cannot read or write – hardly find the keyboard an intuitive interface, nor even the distanced relation between mouse and screen.

Young children’s digital skills

What’s more surprising are the digital skills that this report shows children to be gaining. I should first note that the report is based on an online survey of 2,000 parents of children aged 0-5, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and conducted by Professors Jackie Marsh and Lydia Plowman, together with CBeebies and others.

Among other questions, they asked parents which of a range of activities their children were able to do on a tablet unassisted (other options included ‘needs some assistance’ and ‘is unable to do/unaware of’). Figure 3 from the report below is fascinating in showing the wide range of things young children can do.


It also illustrates the new repertoire of digital skills and practices that today’s child must master – not only must they manage to open and close apps, but they also need to swipe, drag, tap, click, pinch, find and create content at will. Knowing how long it takes children to learn to read a book, hold a pencil or write their name, this new-found ability to manage content well before the age of five suggests a startling change in children’s competence, thus making the point that literacy (i.e., how well people can engage with meaningful texts) depends significantly on technology and textuality (how usable the technologies and how legible or interpretable the texts are).

Is being digital-savvy a good thing?

But even while adults marvel at little children’s new skills, they also worry about the consequences. Is this good for them, we are often asked by parents – and by journalists and others? While no social scientist can ever run that ‘perfect experiment’, where we randomly assign one group of children to a digital-free life while a matched group lives today’s digitally saturated life, so we can see how they grow up, there are lots of partial insights into both positive and negative outcomes.

Famously, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended a complete ban on digital screens for the under-twos, as well as a two-hour limit for older children (itself not far off what UK data suggest children spend online, not taking into account other media uses). But they have began an investigation to revise this, on the basis of recent evidence (as well as sheer pragmatism) to say a complete ban is not merited – what matters is the content children engage with and the context within which they do so.

The technology and play report gives little insight into contexts of use (although see our post here). But it does say, importantly, that for the most part, little children are using tablets with parents or other family members, presumably therefore as part of lively domestic interactions around the screen (which is what child psychologists would generally favour).

It notes what content 0- to 5-year-olds are engaging with on tablets and other digital devices:


Although the report stops short of judging these, any reader will form their own view of whether this is good or not. Consider the debate over unboxing videos on YouTube, for instance – is this an opportunity for creative fun or subtle marketing?

Where the report is most helpful is in recording parents’ uncertainty about what’s good or not for their child. Over a quarter say that the barriers to downloading apps for their children include:

  • not knowing whether it’s good quality or not (29% of parents say this);
  • too much screen time (28%);
  • not knowing whether it is suitable for their child (27%).

Such uncertainties represent a much greater barrier than being somehow against apps by comparison with books (only 14%) or other forms of learning (8%). So it isn’t that parents are resisting the digital, and nor are they very worried about inappropriate content (9%), but they are unsure how to make good decisions for their children.

Digital benefits

I’m tempted to stop here and say ‘more research is needed’ to inform parents! But the report has one more excellent contribution, building on both quantitative and also qualitative work with children, as well as a wealth of experience from the research team – a clear identification of the characteristics of apps that limit play and creativity and those that support them. This is something I know that many providers have also been thinking about and calling for.

Out of their many suggestions, I’ll end by highlighting these below – for providers to bear in mind, and for parents to ask themselves as they select apps and observe how their child interacts with them:



This text was originally published on the Parenting for a Digital Future blog and has been re-posted with permission.

What and how should parents be advised about ‘screen time’?

Alicia Blum-Ross
Sonia Livingstone

Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone explore current attitudes and advice to parents in relation to children and ‘screen time’ and asks whether it is still fit for purpose in today’s world. This blog coincides with a new Media Policy Project policy brief on the subject, authored by Alicia Blum-Ross and Sonia Livingstone. Alicia is a researcher and Sonia is a Professor of Social Psychology at LSE’s Department of Media and Communications. Together they lead the Parenting for a Digital Future research project.

In the past decade, the amount of time British children spend online has more than doubled. This growth has been accompanied by a contentious debate about the risks and opportunities of ‘screen time.’ There are dire warnings from politicians and in the popular press about the dangers of digital media to children’s health, relationships and well being. At the same time, many parents, including those with very limited time and financial resources, are investing in technology to help their children learn, connect and create.

Recently, the LSE Media Policy Project and Parenting for a Digital Future held an invite-only workshop on ‘Families and ‘screen time’: challenges of media self-regulation’. Bringing together leading researchers, policy-makers, industry and parenting organisations, the event analysed the current advice for parents on ‘screen time,’ identifying where the gaps are and how new guidance might respond to the hopes and concerns of the next generation of parents.

The event also invited feedback on a policy brief which presents insights from current research on families and digital media, including case studies from Parenting for a Digital Future. The brief summarises the diverse approaches parents take in ‘mediating’ (managing, restricting, encouraging and even joining in with) their children’s media use, including what the research shows to be effective. The brief also highlights how many of parents’ most pressing considerations – the age and gender of their child, their own household resources, whether their child has special needs and their own digital expertise – go largely unaddressed in the current ‘one size fits all’ advice, which largely ignores such diversity.

The following issues were discussed at the event, and are outlined in the policy brief:

  • ‘Screen time’ is an obsolete concept. As digital media become integrated into all aspects of daily life, it is more important to consider the context and content of digital media use, and the connections children and young people (and parents) are making, or not, than to consider arbitrary rules about time.
  • Advice for parents needs to move beyond an overwhelming focus on risk. Only a very small proportion of advice presents parents with a positive vision of how to integrate digital media into their family life. We argued that when parents are told that their role is to police and to monitor, they are left unsupported in helping their children access the unique benefits offered by the digital age.
  • A new generation of increasingly digitally savvy parents is challenging some long-held assumptions about how children, as ‘digital natives’, know more than their parents. Although not all parents have high levels of digital expertise, parents’ values and practices in their own personal and professional lives are changing around digital media, which influences how these conversations unfold within families. Even parents with low-levels of digital literacy can and want to be resources for their children.
  • Parents need support from policy-makers and from industry. Parents are already overstretched and need support to ease the ever-increasing burden of parenting. Regulators can limit access to some of the most objectionable content, so that parents have less to police. Policy-makers need to do more to provide resources and training for education and support professionals to help parents assess whether what their kids do with digital media is beneficial. It is also important that the resources already available are more widely promoted, linked to evidence, and supported by face-to-face contact with parents and professionals. The children’s media industries can help by providing high-quality, safe and age-appropriate content (and evidence of its ‘educational’ value if that’s the claim), working with parents to keep children safe, including from commercial risks like in-app purchases that can cause distress to parents and children alike.

Our final workshop discussion centred on whether parents view digital media as inherently risky, even when they lack evidence of resultant harm. We questioned whether parents might have a mental checklist to differentiate between problematic and ‘normal’ use. For example, parents could consider whether their children are:

  • Eating and sleeping enough
  • Physically healthy
  • Connecting socially with friends and family – through technology or otherwise
  • Engaged in school
  • Enjoying and pursuing hobbies and interests – through technology or beyond

If the answer to these questions is more or less ‘yes’, then perhaps the problem of ‘screen time’ is less dramatic than many parents have been led to believe.


This text was originally published on the Parenting for a Digital Future blog and has been re-posted with permission.

Digital books supporting reading for pleasure

By Natalia Kucirkova (Manchester Metropolitan University) and Teresa Cremin (The Open University), UK

Children’s apps started as a Digital Wild West, with minimal guidance on how to develop, choose and use them. Thousands were advertised as ‘educational’ and often the most popular ones focused on children’s literacy development from a skills based perspective.

Recently, The UK National Literacy Trust launched “Literacy Apps”, an online guide for teachers and parents looking for the best children’s apps that support reading for pleasure. The guide is for children aged 0-5 years and is the only online guide in the UK that is research-based. The Literacy Apps guide complements US app curation sites such as Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology review and guides based on  parents’ and teachers’ own reviews and ratings (Moms with Apps and Teachers with Apps). It targets reading for pleasure and invites feedback and ratings submitted from the user community, this means it is both expert- led and community-led.

 The criteria for evaluating the apps were adopted from a Knowledge Transfer Partnership project between the Open University and BookTrust in 2015 and a related research study, which identified six key features of digital books that support children’s reading for pleasure, namely: affective, shared, sustained, creative, personalised and interactive engagement. These six critical forms of engagement form the criteria which are also used by UK teachers who participate in the judging process of the UK Literacy Association’s Children’s Digital Book Award, the only app award judged entirely by the profession for the profession.

Three of these features- affective, creative and personalised- are particularly salient for teachers who are keen to support reading for pleasure in their classrooms. Such reading is in essence child-chosen and child-directed, intrinsically motivated and choice-led. It involves young people in making meaning and offers sufficient satisfaction to prompt them to return for more.  The meaning and pleasure children find in this process was explored in a project led by Cremin and documented in the recently published, award-winning book Researching Literacy Lives. The project explored how teachers can develop their knowledge of children’s everyday literacy practices in order to build on their practices and preferences in the classroom.

The project found that initially teachers were often ‘digitally blind’ in that they had to be helped to notice the presence of digital media in children’s homes and to see these not as home distractions but as part of literacy.  It may have been that the teachers’ own conceptions of literacy were book-bound and print related, so for example when a five year old was texting on their mother’s phone, or an older child was searching online for ‘cheats’ for a computer game, their engagement and the skills they used in these contexts were not recognised as being ‘valid’ or relevant to literacy in school. Over time, however, as they shared the data gathered in children’s homes, the teachers’ conceptions of 21st century literacy widened and they began to value the marked digital competencies of the young. They came to recognise the power in children’s personal, affective and creative engagement in texts, and that textual diversity in school is key.

The Literacy Apps guide taps into ongoing conversations with teachers about the value of digital books for children’s emerging literacy and with the general public about the importance of digital reading in children’s lives. Through conversations around digital books, teachers and parents can scaffold children’s personal responses to them, enabling children to make critical life-to text and text-to life connections.

Pokémon Go and augmented reality play

By Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK

Already, tales of mythic proportions surround the ‘Pokémon Go’ app. Reports abound of stabbings, robbings, shootings, people falling off cliffs and even finding corpses as they play the game. There are concerns about sex offenders targeting children, and children accessing dangerous spaces to get their next Pokémon monster. A New Zealand resident recently quit his job to play the game full-time, and people joined crowds to get to a rare monster in Central Park, fostering anxieties about addiction. Now even the police are using the app to catch fugitives. The moral panic surrounding the launch of new media titles is not new, as I have discussed previously when comparing the audience response to the Disney film ‘Frozen’ to that of the ‘Davy Crockett’ film launched in the 1950s, but what is of interest is the speed of this response, given that ‘Pokémon Go’ was only launched a few weeks ago, on July 6th. The rapid take-up of the app has occurred with little direct marketing.

For the uninitiated, the free-to-play app draws on augmented reality technology to enable players to capture and train virtual Pokémon creatures, whose images pop up, overlaid on the ‘real’ world, on a mobile device. Augmented Reality (AR) consists of a blend of the physical world and the virtual world. In this blended reality, three-dimensional images or environments are projected onto a physical object or terrain, but users are not immersed in the same way as they are with virtual reality experiences.

This is not the first app to use augmented reality to entice its users. We undertook a research study on under 5’s use of tablet apps in the UK, in which children’s engagement with augmented reality apps was examined. The research team watched as children, enthralled, made the popular charity figure Pudsey bear appear in 3D and dance to disco music using the Quiver app, or played with augmented reality animals that appeared in the ‘AR Flascards’ app. As we stated in a subsequent paper from the study which reflected on play in the digital age, “Contemporary play draws on both the digital and non-digital properties of things and in doing so moves fluidly across boundaries of space and time in ways that were not possible in the pre-digital era” (Marsh et al., 2016). Augmented reality technology is still at an early stage of development, but the hype surrounding it indicates that it has the potential to excite and is a feature that is bound to become more prevalent in the toy and game industry in the future.

The ‘Pokémon Go’ app is notable for its popularity across generations. It appeals to those who collected the plastic Pokémon monsters in the brand’s earlier incarnations, taking them back to a fondly remembered childhood pastime. It could even remind them of previous GPS location-based tagging games they may have played, such as ‘Foursquare’ (whose creator, Dennis Crowley, has said he is not at all bitter about the success of ‘Pokémon Go’). Such nostalgic media practices are nothing new, as numerous scholars have noted, but what makes this one particularly exciting for its adult fans is the transformation of their childhood monsters into virtual characters that live in their smartphone. The app is also drawing in a new Pokémon audience, one that knows little about the original television animation, video games or toys, launched initially in 1995. It offers opportunities, therefore, for family play, as noted by commentators who are keen to identify the game’s positive elements in the face of all of the media panic. And, as some have asked, shouldn’t we be pleased that the game has got people off sofas and into their local environments?

Of course, this calculated appeal to an intergenerational audience is one that is already paying off, with the app becoming more successful on launch than Candy Crush, and Nintendo, the original creators of Pokémon, estimated to be worth an additional $12 billion because of it. For both Nintendo and Niantic, the company that created the app, the real value of the game may not be in the microtransactions it embeds, with the possibility to purchase in-game features, but in the potential commercial use of the data it collects from the people who play it. This, as scholars of children’s media practices have pointed out in relation to other digital games, raises key questions about data privacy and children’s rights.

It would seem, therefore, that the launch of ‘Pokémon Go’ has resulted in the familiar tropes of panic and hype that surround many launches of new games and toys. The longevity of the app is difficult to ascertain at this point in time. When the excitement dies down, it remains to be seen what the impact of the app will be on future markets for this kind of game. ‘Pokémon Go’ has succeeded because of its combination of GPS and augmented reality technologies, linked to a very popular media brand that already involved collecting items – thus, players enjoy the familiarity of playing with the old alongside experiencing the excitement of engaging with the new. It will be difficult for other game studios to copy that specific dynamic, but no doubt there will be many attempts to do so, and we could see location-based AR games becoming further intertwined with popular culture as people search local communities for virtual representations of toys, musicians, TV and film characters, media icons and more. In time, apps may be made available that enable user-generated content, so that the general public can leave their virtual wares in physical spaces for others to gather. Given children’s appetite for media content created by other children, that would undoubtedly be a popular type of app, albeit one potentially fraught with all kinds of safety issues. It will be incumbent upon researchers of children’s media use to trace the risks embedded in such developments, but also to identify the opportunities they present for engaging children and young people in digital content creation.

Now, forgive me, but I really have to leave it at that and get ready to go to my local ‘Pokémon Picnic’ – who knows, I might catch an Articuno


Digital play

Jackie Marsh, University of Sheffield, UK

How is children’s play changing in the digital age? Are fundamental aspects of children’s play changing, or do many aspects of play remain the same? This is a question being asked by a range of people including parents, teachers, and the media.

In a recent research study on under 5’s use of apps, the way in which apps promoted play and creativity was explored. In order to study this area, the research team had to decide how to classify the play that they observed as they watched children use apps.

The team has recently published the paper ‘Digital Play: A New Classification‘. They adapted a typology of play developed by the play worker, Bob Hughes, in 2002, finding that the types of play observed by Hughes could also be identified in a digital context. They conclude that ‘what changes in digital contexts is not so much the types of play possible, but the nature of that play’ (Marsh et al., 2016), in that play now moves across space (physical and virtual) and time (diachronic and synchronic) in ways that are different to play in the pre-digital area. However, across these times-spaces, children are still playing imaginatively and creatively – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’!




Aims of this blog

We have a number of aims for this blog. First, we want to provide a space for reflection and discussion on research relating to young children’s digital literacy and multimodal practices. We will invite members of the network to contribute to the blog as it develops.

Second, we want to use the blog as a forum to share thoughts on emerging areas of technology, considering their value, or lack of value, for young children.

Third, the blog will offer opportunities for us to reach out to the various stakeholders who might be interested in the work of the network – researchers, policy makers, media industry partners, parents, teachers and early years practitioners, and teacher educators. We hope you will use the comments option to join us in reflecting on this very important area of research. We look forward to hearing from you!

Jackie Marsh (Chair of the Action)


DigiLitEY Cost Action

This blog is related to the COST Action ‘DigiLitEY’. The aim of the Action is to develop a network of researchers focusing on young children’s digital literacy and multimodal practices.

We will focus on children aged from birth to eight, an age group for which there has been comparatively little research in this area (Grimes and Fields, 2012; Holloway, Green & Livingstone, 2013). The early years provide crucial foundations for lifelong literacy learning, therefore it is important to ensure early education policy and practice across EU countries are developed in order to equip our youngest citizens with the skills and knowledge needed in a digitally-mediated era.

Across Europe, there is currently a scarcity of research data on the extent, range and potency of young children’s engagement with new media devices in homes and communities and the data available is concentrated in a few countries. We will address this gap in knowledge by building a framework for collaborative research teams to share expertise and develop coordinated research agendas.

For further information about the Action, see our website.