Meaning-Making and Digital Languages. Technology as a Creative and Expressive Language: New Research

Creative-Technology2The digital environment is often offered to children as a tool to find and consume information and as a fun and interactive way to develop skills and techniques though games.  Often, iPads are used by teachers in increasing ways for assessment systems and record keeping – a one stop shop for teaching and measuring.  For young children, the dominant discourses focus on limiting screen time and the effects of devices on children’s communication, social skills and language development.  


I am working with 5 Early Childhood settings in the West Midlands in the UK and 5 Pre-Schools in Stockholm, Sweden on a collaborative research project funded through Erasmus Plus to approach the use of digital technologies in different ways.   We are choosing to research how digital technology can be used with young children through creative and expressive approaches in an enquiry based approach to learning.  We are focusing our research around a meta project that is researching children’s relationship with the natural world of growing, sustainability and ecology.  We are focusing on the close connection between materials of the world, the world of the digital and traditional languages/materials that we use with young children.  Therefore this is not a project that separates out ICT from other areas of learning but rather one that connects it to a creative and reflective pedagogy facilitated through active exploration, within a culture of hypotheses and experimentation.  We feel that this approach is active in its choices to propose poetic contexts, where everyone is a co-protagonist that can investigate the relationships of the world through multiple points of view, sensorial sensibilities and playful, curious interests.


The research, with its tools and languages will explore areas of real/virtual/ imaginary contexts, 2D and 3D dimensionality, graphics, sounds, musicality, dance, drama, storytelling, seeking always the unexpected and diverse ways of children’s meaning making.  We aim to look for relationships, patterns, between the subject under investigation that challenges traditional categorisation.  We welcome the idea that there are many multiple and simultaneous ways of seeing and thinking.  We see uncertainty as a place of possibility and knowledge as a fluid and ever evolving state open to variation, diversity and change.

The digital space and the technological tools available are an invitation to explore these just as one might research the children’s approaches to clay or drawing as a way of making and expressing meaning, as a language of finding out about the world, of constructing together a narrative of learning.  We hope therefore to challenge the dominant methodologies and discourses and propose new pedagogies of the digital.


The Schools involved are:

Ashmore Park Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Hillfields Nursery School and Children’s Centre, Coventry, UK

Madeley Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Phoenix Nursery School, Wolverhampton, UK

Woodlands Primary and Nursery School, Telford & Wrekin, UK

Lange Erik Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Barnasinnet Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Vintergatan Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

Smh Vänner Pre-School, Stockholm, Sweden

EU flag-Erasmus+_vect_POS

We are very happy to be funded by Erasmus Plus in our shared research into new digital pedagogies with young children.


Children as Ideas Makers: TEDx Talk

IMG_0055I was invited to speak at TEDxBrum, Birmingham, UK where I shared my passion and thoughts about what happens when we value and take seriously children’s own curiosity and enquiry and turn our schools into environments that generate, foster and make visible children’s enquiry.  You can see the video uploaded to You Tube here.

In the 20 years I have been working with young children and families, I have noticed, and come to believe that:

  • Children are born with the desire to learn.  That is why they generally come out screaming “I’m here!”  Have you ever not seen a baby want to put everything to its mouth to find more about it?  They are born to learn, we could say they already have 9 months of learning by the time they are born.  Children are born innately curious about the world around them

Very young babies are motivated to engage in social communication from the beginning.  Children are born wanting to connect, to feel a sense of belonging, to feel connected to the world they find themselves inhabiting.   Colwyn Trevarthern (Edinburgh University) has the most wonderful research footage of hours old babies just doing that.  Children are sociable and seek connection with others

  • Children are born with the intent to make sense of their experience of the world and to interpret and explain (represent) their ideas about the world by themselves and in relation with others.  They crawl and make discoveries, reach out, hold and grasp, they notice their actions, the actions of others and ask why over and over.  Children are makers and expressers of meaning, in doing so the create ideas of their own

But there is something, that for some children steals these dispositions they have inside of them.  It’s called education or rather the quality of an education that desensitises children to the world and the stuff of the world.  Ken Robinson speaks a lot about this, how creativity is stifled, killed off with the result of anaesthesia and dullness to the patterns that connect (Bateson).

When children become disconnected from the learning experience it is because they feel no connection with what they are doing, they don’t feel able or wanting to participate, and hence there is no motivation, no engagement.  What they are taught no longer makes sense, there is nothing meaningful about it.

What tends to happen when children seem unmotivated and disengaged is that we blame the child, and put in strategies and interventions that focus on improving behaviour, or that trick the child by making something quite dull and boring be shiny and fun instead.  I tell you what – talking through a dull subject with children is still dull even if you have a puppet on your shoulder throwing glitter about!

IMG_0053What if we instead of deciding what children should learn we listen instead to their ideas?  I think we have much to learn from children about approaches to understanding and seeing and thinking about the world differently.  They might just be the answer to our adult problems of ‘getting stuck’ and continuing in directions that continue to damage the ecological systems of the world or that keep those in situations of poverty.  You know, we might just save an awful lot of money doing so too rather than inventing programs that teach children resilience, motivation, curiosity.  Now there is an idea!

This is Ash, she is 3 years old and lives in Wolverhampton, UK  She has something to say about ideas.

“Ideas come from my imagination and stay in your head.  They can come back and back and back.  Ideas do come out of your head but you never run out of your imaginations…not even a single bit.  Ideas look like a brain, they are really useful so you know what to think about.  Your imagination is really good because you can think about things fast.  Ideas will really protect your brain and they live in your head…They don’t eat anything because they’re just ideas…they’re happy…you never lose your ideas.”

I find this incredible, don’t you?

IMG_3064When I was asked to this TEDx talk I decided to ask teachers and families at schools I have worked with to ask their children about their ideas about the world.  I have been truly humbled by the response and honoured to share some of them here with you here in the live talk and the video now available on You Tube. 

Loris Malaguzzi,  Teacher, Founder and First Director of the Infant-Toddler Centres and Pre-Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy reminds us all that:

 “Ideas fly, bounce around, accumulate, rise up, fall apart and spread until one of them takes a decisive hold flies higher and conquers the entire group.”

What I see, and interpret in these examples I share is the ability of children to think big.  If we have children thinking about big ideas, then why do we in schools teach them little ones.  Do we think the children are stupid? We need to let their ideas rise up.

Thankfully there are so many great teachers out there and fantastic schools doing the kind of work that creates the conditions for creativity and for the expression of ideas and theories, that evolves greater capacity for critical thinking and enquiry.  But we need more…

I am passionate about the world of early childhood education and in how we can all help develop our places of education as amiable places for young children that has as its approach to teaching and learning the value of listening to children, of valuing their ideas.

There is a very real danger I am aware of the global pressures and trends to standardise education, a one size fits all, a curriculum of facts and figures to be fed to children, to be digested and regurgitated when asked.  It is of course easily measurable but it creates a normalising effect that denies children the kind of education that enables democratic thought and action.  The kind of thinking that enables children to do things for themselves.

So, what can we do to make our education system shift from the paradigm of consuming pre-packaged knowledge to one that considers the child as capable of thinking and expressing their own ideas.  Maybe each of us can think about how we must:

Listen to children, to come to know their potential

Generate the right kind of educational environments that foster ideas to accumulate, bounce around and rise up

Share what is possible, to make visible the competencies of children so that others may listen to.

By listening to children, by generating the fertile conditions for their ideas to be born and grow and by sharing these with others we can change the paradigm of education to one that sees the creative, thinking child who is capable of ideas worth sharing.