Children as playful users of digital resources for literacy development

Play is an integral part of children’s lives, writes Lisa Kervin, Associate Professor in Language and Literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong.

Through play children make sense of their world and their relationships with others around them. Playful activities are essential to children’s development of communication, language and collaborative skills. Vygotsky (1978) helped us understand that children learn through socially meaningful interactions and that language is an important facilitator of learning. Language learning is social and children need to be literate to enable them to use their knowledge of language to learn and communicate in family, educational and community contexts.

So, what does play look like when technology enters the mix? Over the past decade, there has been an increasing body of research into digital interactions (mostly games) and play across a range of age groups. However, research focused on technology use with younger children is still emerging. This is significant when we consider the developmental importance of play in the lives of young children and the opportunities that exist for literacy development within digital environments. What it is that children can do with digital resources to enhance their literacy development demands our attention.

Play has assumed new guises, structures and contexts with the expansion of technology. The distinctions among forms of technology, and what these mean for the content and the user, have been blurred by multi touch screens and movement activated technologies. While I agree that we need to be aware of the time children spend on passive, non interactive technologies and screen media, I would also like to propose that parents and early childhood educators need to be open to a reconceptualisation of screen time when we consider the affordances of technology and digital resources and the playful opportunities they offer to young children. In what follows, I’m going to discuss digital resources as potentially powerful tools for children’s literacy learning when four key areas are taken into consideration.

1. Digital play as an extension of ‘real life’

Through play, children experience and make connections with their environment. Children naturally want to explore what is around them and through their play assume different roles which may represent important people in their lives (a parent or grandparent or sibling), in the community (for example, a firefighter or train driver), a character from a book or from popular culture. Regardless of the role, children who are putting themselves in someone else’s place are developing feelings of empathy and learning to consider others.

Children’s imagination is enhanced when they engage with situations of make believe, acting and interacting in an ‘as if’ situation. Digital resources have the potential to expand children’s opportunities to explore and manipulate a range of ‘real life’ scenarios. Digital resources enable additional dimensions and affordances to familiar objects and activities. For example, children can learn about familiar trades (such as train driver or hairdresser) in game-like apps; they can practice specific skills (such as games that simulate sports), and communicate with significant others from a distance (through Skype or FaceTime), to name but a few.

The introduction of any digital resource to a child should expand their access to new information, experiences and areas of interest to them. It is essential that apps, games and websites provide opportunities for children to be creative, to explore and be playful. The content of the digital play should have some real world application where the child can recognise and incorporate elements into their imaginative play. It should be discovery oriented and include opportunities for problem solving.

2. Digital play as a spontaneous, self initiated and self motivated activity

Children should have time to play and ultimately want to play. When play is self initiated they are able to move between play scenarios and resources. The portability of many technologies (such as tablets and iPad) has dramatically changed the nature of technology use. For example, children and adults can capture photographs and video snippets of their experiences with mobile technologies that can be revisited later for multiple purposes (for conversation, sharing, editing into a slideshow, movie or book).

Play is not necessarily goal oriented and should be risk free. Play that allows children to take control of the scenario as they make choices is powerful. As children set up play contexts, negotiate roles and interact (with others and artifacts) in those roles, they use and develop language skills.

3. Digital play as an opportunity for collaboration

Play can also enhance children’s social development as they learn about their social world. Playful social interchange begins from birth, and provides opportunities to explore different contexts, rehearse social skills and learn about acceptable peer behaviour firsthand. With age and experience, children’s awareness of peers playing around them increases. This leads to more opportunities for interactions between and among children and collaborative play.

It is through communication and collaboration with others that children become confident and competent language users as they develop their understanding of text, image and symbols in a range of real world contexts.

Digital play therefore, should not happen in isolation. There is power in authentic and truly engaging interactions with significant others (both adults and peers). Children should not be passive consumers. Rather, digital resources should encourage interactivity with opportunities to include others in the play, stimulate dialogue and even create new content.

4. ‘Quality’ in the digital experience

The range of digital resources (apps and games) increases daily. However there are varying degrees of ‘quality’ in what is available for young children. In making any decision about a digital resource the age, developmental level, needs, interests and abilities of the child need to be carefully considered. The opportunity for digital play should provide the child with a valuable and worthwhile experience, something more than they could get without the technology.

There are also some screen design features which ensure the quality of digital experiences. These include an uncluttered screen design with simple background, attractive colouring, and graphics which allow for manipulation of visual images that children produce rather than consume.

Towards a criteria on digital resources as tools for literacy development

This is the first time in a very long time that children have had such a different kind of play to engage with. Participation in digital play provides the opportunity for children to communicate and develop their ideas and understandings in new, interesting and different ways. As children negotiate digital play, they negotiate a range of technological literacies (for example, the device and how to interact with it, what application or software program) and a range of content and activities (for example, specific applications and games).

In helping to make decisions about a digital resource for a child, I encourage reflection on the following:

What literacy activities are promoted? Consider whether there are opportunities for talking, listening, reading/viewing, writing/composing.

Does the resource reflect and build on what the child already knows?

Are there opportunities for the child to explore, imagine and solve problems?

Will it maintain the child’sinterest? How?

Does the resource involve many senses and include sound, music and voice?

Is the resource open ended, with the child in control of the pace and the path?

What opportunities for interaction does the resource promote? How do you imagine the child using it?

What opportunities are there for them to engage with others?

Partcipation in digital play provides the opportunity for children to communicate and develop their ideas and understandings in new, interesting and different ways.

Through careful selection of digital resources we are able to see what the learning potential may be for children. The ways children are motivated to use digital technologies to investigate, create and communicate within the context of real world application and collaboration guides the selection of quality digital resources. When we understand the learning opportunities that assist children’s development in connection with digital resources, we are in a position to support, inform, reform – and perhaps even transform – the digital play experiences offered to children.


Vygotsky LS1978 Mind and society: The development of higher mental processes Cambridge MA, London: Harvard University Press.

Lisa Kervin

Lisa Kervin is an Associate Professor in Language and Literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong, where she is an active member of Early Start Research. Lisa’s current research interests are focused on young children and how they engage with literate practices and she is currently involved in research projects funded by the Australian Research Council focused on young children and writing, digital play and transition.

This article is informed by research funded by the Australian Research Council Conceptualising digital play: The role of tablet technologies in the development of imaginative play of young children (DP140100328) and recognises Irina Verenikina and Clara Rivera as research collaborators.