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A Very APP-y Christmas

The following is part of an article in the November 2017 edition of the magazine Melbourne’s CHILD. The article is called “Early bird: An early education update” by Natalie Ritchie.

Lisa Kervin, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy and Head of Education Research with Early Start, University of Wollongong. She’s nearing the end of the three year study with educational psychologist Irina Verenikina, and doctoral student, Clara Rivera, into how young children use technology not just as consumers but as creators, as they conceptualise the phenomenon of “digital play”.

Many parents worry that screens are “bad”. What is the current consensus (or disagreement) on the role of digital devices in early childhood?

As parents, we tend to view technology in young children’s lives in fairly distinct binaries – it’s either a “good” or a “bad” thing. However, a lot of our evidence is drawn from TV watching behaviour. Often, parents’ concern about screens derives from a fear of sedentary behaviour. Our research team’s work is pushing back on that. Screen time is a reality in children’s lives. Our team is arguing that not all screens are equal. The quality of the content, and what kids do with it is what’s important.

Children’s apps make the biggest share of the market on iTunes. Many of them are labelled “educational”, but there maybe no real basis for that label. People ask us for a list of recommended apps, but with the market changing so quickly any list is outdated the minute you create it. So instead, our team has created guidelines to help parents and educators identify useful apps. We know that imaginative day is of fundamental importance for three to five year-olds. At that age children are engaged at their highest cognitive levels in imaginative play.

To choose a good app, look for these criteria;


  • What situation does it present to the child? Is it spontaneous, self motivating, requiring self initiated actions and imagination? Does it allow the children to experience something they wouldn’t otherwise experience, like being a train driver?
  • Is it open-ended? Does it make children make their own decisions? Our team is a little worried by levelled games, when goals are predefined and the motivator to play is the sticker or the points.
  • Does it give children opportunities to produce, to bring their own photos in, to invent their own experiences and create? Children like attractive graphics that they can easily manipulate. An uncluttered screen design that doesn’t have children tapping and swiping just to get to the action is the thing to look for.
  • Our team argues very strongly that digital play that is solitary and quiet is not a good thing for young children. If it’s play that allows them to invite others in, such as a simulation where kids can talk and find one another, that can be exciting. Talk with other children and adults Is fundamental to a child’s development.


We used our criteria to analyse the top grossing apps on iTunes. Not all of them matched the criteria, but we were left with some that we were able to trial with children as we closely observed their play.

We’ve captured some neat examples where on screen-play has been the motivator for off-screen play. For example, kids might extend an eco-system from a digital game into the real life home, and on-screen language has infiltrated other off-screen play scenarios. That’s exciting for us.

If you could improve early child-care tomorrow, what would you do?

The more time children have to play, the better.

The current generation is the first to grow up with technology. It’s not in every child’s hand, but it’s in many children’s hands. Just as we make good choices about physical play equipment and furniture, we need to support children by careful and judicious choices for digital play. We need to activate those higher cognitive levels that come with imaginative play.