Play is seen as the way children learn in early childhood (Wood, 2013) and with more and more settings providing children with technologies, educators need to understand how children learn to use them through play.
The ‘Digital Play Framework’ (DPF) provides a list of behaviours that children exhibit as they are learning to use various technologies through play (Bird & Edwards, 2014). The DPF was developed by combining Hutt’s (1966) understanding of play, where children learn the functions of an item before they use it for imaginative play, and Vygotsky’s (1978) ideas around tool use, where he believed when people learn to use tools, what they can do with those tools changes.
So when children learn the functions of the technology and what it can do, they master the technology as a tool and then can use it in their imaginative play.
The DPF has a list of children’s play behaviours as they learn to use iPads, computers, digital still cameras and digital video cameras.
The children begin learning to use technologies through epistemic play or play where they explore the functions of the device and learn how the device works. These behaviours include exploration, problem solving and skill acquisition. When learning to use an iPad, this includes random pressing, asking for assistance from others and beginning to recognise what images represent.
Once children have practiced these behaviors (and others) and mastered the technology as a tool, they move to ludic behaviors or what educators recognize as imaginative play, for example, symbolic and creative behaviors. It is through these behaviors where the most learning occurs. For example, in the app My PlayHome, a child moves the people to the kitchen and feeds them.
The (DPF) can be used as an assessment tool, as the observations taken of children learning to use technologies can be mapped against the listed behaviors. For example, when a child swipes across the screen to find their favourite App, shows they are displaying ‘skill acquisition’ behaviour and are in epistemic play activity. When that child begins to use the skills they have been practicing to create an imaginary scenario, for example, a puppet show in Puppet Pals they are displaying ‘symbolic’ behaviors, indicating they have moved through to ludic or imaginary play.
Children may move to ludic play behaviours and then return to epistemic play behaviours as they practice new skills, before being able to use them for their imaginative play.
When a child’s play behaviors are mapped on the DPF, educators can identify the stage they are in (epistemic or ludic) and then plan targeted activities to encourage the child’s learning. A child displaying epistemic behaviours would benefit from Apps where they have to practice manipulating objects on the screen or sequential pressing to find the desired function.
Check out Jo’s observation tools for using the Digital Play Framework.
Jo Bird is a lecturer in the School of Education at the University of New England, Armidale Australia. She is completing her PhD through Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. Her research explores children’s use of technologies in their imaginative play and the educators’ provision of these devices. Jo was an educator in early childhood settings for over 15 years prior to becoming a teacher educator. Her research interests include children’s play and learning, early childhood leadership and the use of technologies in early childhood education.
Bird, J., & Edwards, S. (2014). Children learning to use technologies through play: A Digital Play Framework. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(6), 1149-1160. doi:10.1111/bjet.12191
Hutt, C. (1966). Exploration and Play in Children. Paper presented at the Symposia of the Zoological Society of London, London, England.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wood, E. (2013). Play, Learning and the Early Childhood Curriculum (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.