Understanding the World

When screen time meets playtime

During the precious summer months with our granddaughter Daisy, we experienced many fun days of play followed by relaxing time ‘down time’ together; during those special, cosy periods we might watch Sarah and Duck on TV or find something downloaded on the family iPad to watch.

It was during these moments that I realised just how much Daisy’s understanding of technology had developed. She’d really started to master the skills we’ve all become used to over the past decade: tapping and swiping to pause, rewind and re-watch.

When we last visited Daisy she had just discovered that similar techniques could be applied to Mummy’s smartphone (a device she had already started to experiment with as a camera).

From reality to role play

It’s a reminder of the capabilities of preschool children; they have a natural curiosity to know how things work and only need to watch an adult demonstrate those skills a couple of times before they are ready to have a go themselves

They also love to role play the new skills they’ve learned, even if the devices in question aren’t to hand! One example is Daisy’s use of a magnetic drawing board as ‘her iPad’ from which she ‘sends’ her pictures to family members by sliding the eraser bar.

Recent changes to the UK’s regional and national lockdown status mean that currently we can’t stay in the same household together (just as we couldn’t earlier in the year), but that doesn’t stop a tech-savvy child like Daisy from staying in touch!

Her new skills at operating touch screens have resulted in us receiving plenty of animal emojis and the occasional one-word message, autofilled as Daisy happily taps away (with supervision) at the screen on Mummy’s phone. 

Apps, games and screen time

Along with Daisy’s messaging, I’m now having to rely on Mummy and Daddy to keep me updated on changes in my granddaughter’s technological skills. As well as sending emojis and spelling out her name on any nearby smartphone, recently Daisy has become interested in exploring the calculator and stopwatch apps as she becomes more fascinated with both numbers and time.

Last year, Mummy and Daddy briefly experimented with allowing Daisy to use the family iPad for simple CBeebies games. After observing her response to the constant availability of these games, they decided to remove them until she is a bit older and the inevitable discussion of boundary setting around screen time can be clearer. Daisy is still allowed to play iPad games occasionally with an older child when she is at her childminder.

This week, Daddy sent me a lengthy voice memo of Daisy playing with her doll’s house and its contents. These audio recordings are a special opportunity for me to share Daisy’s play from afar; they’re always entertaining and often enlightening.

A child's wooden doll's house, populated with dolls and animals
Daisy’s doll house is hub of activity

Daddy in the doll’s house

From this recording it was clear that the technological world has entered into Daisy’s imaginative play, as she explored the processes and gestures of tablet-based games and enacted her own version of such a game with her daddy. She combined digital process instructions and directions with the physical play and manipulation within the doll’s house. It was fascinating.

While Daisy’s interest in this type of play may have been prompted by her experience of playing tablet games, this session may also have been prompted by watching several episodes of a colourful cartoon called Tinpo, earlier that afternoon. 

Tinpo is set in a digital world where engineering dilemmas are indicated by icon markers appearing above characters’ heads (these icons must be ‘tapped’ to be dismissed) and virtual drawing boards materialise out of the air to help the protagonists visualise problem-solving approaches.

Tapping, dragging and swiping

Daisy led the play session, supervising her Daddy as if he were being given prompts to complete an iPad game that she was familiar with. The play was focused on her doll’s house, and involved ‘tapping’ and dragging dolls around like icons or characters in a game.

A wooden baby doll next to a tiny replica wooden doll's house, a tiny wooden train set and her little wooden crib, all within a large doll's house
Baby was the focus of the play session

First Daddy had to ‘tap’ to get the baby doll out of her cot, on the second floor of the doll’s house, and then he had to tap the baby, to change the pattern of the baby’s pyjamas from stripy to spotty. 

Next, Daddy had to tap to move the baby around the house and into a grownup’s bed on the floor below (where a Mummy dolly was already positioned, asleep). Here, Daisy introduced a dilemma, as she role-played the dissatisfied parent already in the bed: “I need to snuggle down!”, she complained, and so Daddy had to solve the conflict by tapping the baby back out of the bed and downstairs, to the ground floor!

Here, Daisy introduced a new puzzle, Daddy had to keep ‘tapping’ until he positioned the stairs correctly to allow the baby to descend. Through trial and error, he was able to place them at a satisfactory angle, and he won some praise from Daisy for persevering: “Well done!”

“Try turning it off and on again”

Then a new task for Daddy: make a visit to the vets – this was a Duplo set positioned next to the doll’s house. With this in mind, the baby needed to be tapped into a small trailer that was attached to a miniature tricycle in front of the doll’s house. 

“You need to get someone to drive her!” Daisy pointed out, so then Daddy had to tap and drag an adult dolly over to sit on the bike.

Daisy continued using simple game-style prompts to encourage Daddy’s problem-solving attempts (“Now, tap this again”) before creatively introducing an accidental error: with the adult seated on the bike and ready to transport the baby, Daddy’s tapping accidentally disconnected the trailer! “Daddy, your tap made it loose!” she exclaimed.

This was an interesting run of creative play: from observation, Daisy understands that sometimes tapping and dragging on a screen isn’t always successful and some things need to be remedied or repeated to get the desired outcome.

Finally, Daisy introduced a scene change – explaining that the dolls house and the nearby vets were on “different bits of the iPad” – and the game moved into a new phase that was less focused on tapping. 

Although not before Daisy introduced one final humorous flourish, telling Daddy that “we have to turn it off for a second – now, turn on!” 

Again, Daisy is drawing from real-life experiences by role-playing the familiar requirement to reset a device to get it to work – this is something she’s observed with countless types of technology, from smart TVs, phones and tablets to her family’s wireless router.

Isn’t it funny how this experience – which most of us find to be a niggling annoyance of modern life – is just grist to the mill of a child’s imaginative play?

Granny Smith says…

  • Helping our grandchildren to understand and successfully use technology isn’t just limited to smart phones, tablets and personal computers. There can be other opportunities to introduce young children to the technology in our environment. Grandpa showed Daisy how to put a CD into the player and use the remote control to make it play. The fascination is only in this process, so we usually only hear the start of a track before Daisy asks to take it out and replace it with a different CD. 
  • As you explore technology together, encourage children to speculate on the reasons why things happen or how things work.
Screen time meets imaginative play - two colourful doll's house wooden dolls are shown playing atop an iPad tablet computer.

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