Apps assisting early childhood learning

Teachers who are allowed the space to exercise their professional judgements in the use of technology, in a way that complements the play based nature of kindergarten, are seeing its benefits in early childhood education applications. Journalist Sara El Sayed speaks with members about their experiences using two apps in the early childhood context: the Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) app, and the Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) app.

What is ELSA?

The Early Learning STEM Australia (ELSA) is described as a play-based digital learning program, in the form of an iPad application, for children in kindergarten and preschool.

ELSA’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) practices aim to encourage children to ask questions, make predictions, experiment, and form reflections.

The app has been developed by the University of Canberra to support the National Innovation and Science Agenda’s Inspiring all Australians in Digital Literacy and STEM measure, which seeks to increase the participation of Australian children in STEM and improve their digital literacy.

The program is currently in its pilot stages, with a number of centres across Australia participating.

Four iterations of the app were to be released throughout 2018.

The first app was based around patterns and relationships, and the second around location and arrangement. At time of writing the third app was to be released within September, and the fourth by the end of the year.

IEUA-QNT member and Director at C&K Oakey Kindergarten Christina Petrie said while technology can provide a great opportunity to share and learn, it’s important to be conscious of guiding children so that they use technology wisely.

“We model the responsible, creative and curious use of technology.

“We want children to actively use technology, not just passively consume it.”

Complementing play

Concerns surrounding the use of iPads in classroom generally stem from questions of children’s screen exposure throughout the day; however, when professionals can control the way these apps are used within their own centres, the benefits are there to be realised.

Petrie said the program allows for learning about STEM, which can be extended through play-based practices.

“We embed STEM practices within our kindergarten environment already, and the app extends children’s understanding and thinking while using Information and Communications Technology (ICT) and providing fresh ideas on implementing experiences around STEM.

“For example, we link the app content to engagement with our centres ‘loose parts’ area, a space where children can make patterns, sequence and sort objects.

“Children also build on these concepts through activities such as retelling The Hungry Caterpillar story using a felt board.

“Learning about ‘location’ has also been further explored through the children creating their own maps – where they draw directions leading to a special toy or treasure – as well as discussions about ‘location’ during bush walks.

“We have aimed to provide STEM learning activities within our daily program, always providing activities and invitations for play-based around the current apps and trying to bring the STEM language across in our discussions with children.

“There has been a real increase this term with our children being ‘pattern sniffers’ – you can see that they are now applying their knowledge to their current learning as they will often now notice and point out patterns without needed scaffolding. “

IEUA-QNT member and teacher at Balonne Kindergarten Tina Kirby said although the implementation of the app had some initial issues, adapting the app to her centre’s needs made all the difference.

“I’ve found that the best way for our centre to engage with the app is to do it in group time – we gather on the carpet and I display the app on the big screen.

“This allows the children to ask questions, and listen to others’ questions.

“There will be times when one child will understand a concept or question, and they then explain it in their own words, which can help others in the group understand as well.

“To me the app gets the children started talking about those concepts – patterning, direction and mapping – and we can extend this learning further through their play.”

How are the children reacting?

Petrie said her centre had found that not all children were interested in applying their time to the apps, while other children enjoyed engaging with them.

“It seems to depend on the child’s age.

“Most children have particularly enjoyed the Directions activity in the Location and Arrangement ELSA app where children go on an excursion to the zoo and follow directions to get to each animal on map.”

At Kirby’s centre, some of the children were finding the activities in the app too simple.

“Kindergarten aged children can be a lot more clued-in than people may think – and the simplicity of some of the activities can make them a bit boring for some children.

“This is why it’s always best to build on these concepts further through play – to allow teachers and staff to educate in a way that makes sense to each child on an individual level.”

What is ELLA?

Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) is a digital, play based language learning program.

It aims to help children become more familiar and comfortable with different languages early in life so that they can stay engaged with learning languages in later years.

Children in the ELLA program learn language through apps called The Polyglots. They are currently available in nine languages: Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), French, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Modern Greek or Spanish.

About 2500 preschools (80,000 children) are participating in the 2018 ELLA program.

The ELLA program has been available for early childhood centres to access since 2017. When it was released, the reception of the app had been mostly positive from students’ perspectives, but some concerns had been raised as to whether educators were properly equipped to implement it into their classrooms.

In its second year of operation, the ELLA apps seems to be proving itself as a useful resource to teachers.

IEUA-QNT member and teacher Katlyn Lennon has been running the ELLA program at C&K’s Redbank Plains Kindergarten for two years.

“I was really quite interested in it because I liked the idea of bringing technology into the room, and how that would work with the children,” Lennon said.

“I thought being able to share another language with them would be an excellent opportunity, but I did hesitate at first.

“I was initially concerned about how long they would have had to sit in front of a screen for it to be effective.”

Within the first two weeks of enrolling in the ELLA program, Lennon surveyed the children’s parents.

“I asked their families if they were actually interested in their children participating, and the response was overwhelmingly ‘yes’.

“Some of their responses reflected my concerns about screen time – but this was something that I intended to manage.”

Children engaging effectively

Lennon said the program this year had taken on a life of its own.

“It has definitely been effective.

“The children not only use the selected language (Spanish) while they’re playing with the app, but they’re using it in outside the program as well.

“They start counting in Spanish with me just for fun and I think ‘this is really working’.

“They can take that learning outside the classroom and do it in the real world.”

Quality depends on resourcing and time

The positive outcomes from these applications are clear, but these could not have been realised without staff having the space to exercise their professional judgements, and the time and resourcing to enable them to deliver a meaningful program.

A 2016 Deloitte report of the trial of ELLA stated that educator unfamiliarity with the languages being taught and the correct pronunciation had limited confidence in the apps’ implementation.

“As a teacher I like to know and understand what I am teaching,” noted one participant in the report.

“I felt that I didn’t have enough understanding of the language and to gain a strong understanding of this one area of my program would take a lot of time.”

It is essential for staff feel properly equipped to roll out these programs.

The apps require centres to supply their own tablets. Internet access for some kindergartens can also be an issue.

Lennon said having up-to-date technology was essential in having the program run smoothly.

“We did have brand new iPads, which definitely helped in the implementation.”

Time to attend professional development was also key.

“I participated in both of the face-to-face learning conferences held in Brisbane, which were really important as they explained so much more about the program.

“Our early childhood assistant also participated in the online training – and she said that was a huge benefit.

“This resourcing was essential for us and without it we, or any centre, could not facilitate the program with such success.”

To learn more about the ELSA and ELLA programs visit and