Short Paper for PLE conference 2013, Berlin

Download the pdf here




Observations on a child’s first experiences interacting with smart technology and mobile devices.


Pre-school, child-development, technology-enhanced learning.


This research looks at the experience of a pre-school child and how they grow to understand, interact and benefit from using technology.

At the time of writing, the main subject of the research is three years old and preparing to take their first steps in a formal education system.  They are already capable of using touch-screen technology to play games and they associate mobile-devices with instant access to music, video, games and grandparents.  In 15 years time they will be leaving compulsory education.  It is possible that they may then choose to attend a Smart University or maybe start work in a Smart City.  Given the advances of the past 15 years, the possibilities for this child’s future are vast.

Touch-screen technology is now a part of every day life, this intuitive interface between people and computers has made it possible for infants to be able to play computer games before they are capable of walking and talking.

Most games and apps are not designed with pre-school children in mind and those which are, can be unsympathetic to the abilities of those children.  One app (ZhiYong, 2010) designed “for babies” requires them to be able to manipulate an on screen car around a race track hitting alphabet letters in order, it is part of a series of educational games that also includes a simpler shape sorting activity which only requires the user to be able to touch the correct picture.  For an 18 month old, the one game could be considered to be prohibitively complicated while the other could prove to be too easy.  When you buy a toy for a baby it has usually undergone rigorous testing and will be labeled with an age suitability based on years of research into child development (BSI, 2012). When you give your baby or child a new app or game, you will often be left with no more guidance than what can be learnt from reading other users’ reviews and branding, which is not particularly strong in such a new market. With things like Google App Inventor and Android Market’s open platform, anyone can make an app (Mashable, 2010).

If a developer were to take on the task of creating an educational, age and ability appropriate smart phone application, where would they start?  The classical benchmarks in child development do not take into account the technological advances and modern day equipment now available to a 21st century child (Berk, 2012; NHS Choices, 2011).  With this in mind, the researcher set about re-writing the developmental milestones to include such achievements as the ability to unlock a mobile phone, switch on the TV or to play a game on a tablet.


This is a case study looking at one infant’s development and acquisition of skills relating to the use of technology.  The results are mapped against a chart of typical child development milestones and discussed in relation to Piaget’s cognitive learning theory.

Piaget has been chosen as a basis in which to frame the discussion because his theories specifically concern children and focus on development rather than learning.  The developmental milestones approach has been employed as it is such a commonly used format.  The two theoretical frameworks are complementary in their use of developmental stages, which suit the research method of recording developments at regular intervals.

Piaget (1952) suggests that children pass through stages of development, the first two are the Sensorimotor stage from birth to 2 years and the Preoperational phase, from 2 to 7 years.  Each stage in the Sensorimotor phase is broken into sub-stages, for example at around 8 to 12 months he suggests that a baby engages in goal-directed behavior and understands the concept of object-permanence (Ormrod, 2008)  – that is, where a child realises that when they can no longer see an object it has not ceased to exist (MacLeod, 2009).  An important development in the Preoperational phase is the “emergence of intuitive thought, or reasoning based on personal experience rather than on any formal logical system. Children reason according to what things “seem like,” according to their personal experience with the objects and events involved.” (Cook & Cook, 2005, ch5 p15)

The other key concept of Piaget’s theory is that babies construct schema, like checklists for every aspect of the world (MacLeod, 2009). They apply the schema to each new situation, (assimilation), realize the schema does not quite fit, (accommodation) and then adapt the checklist to create a new schema, (equilibration). Children construct an understanding of the world around them, then experience discrepancies between what they already know and what they discover in their environment. (MacLeod, 2009)

The subject of this case study is the researcher’s oldest child.  The researcher has attempted to keep the methodology scientific.  The researcher has tried not to actively teach or tutor the child in the use of technology, however it is inevitable that the researcher will have had some influence on the outcome.


A journal in the form of a blog was kept to record observations.  Particular emphasis was placed on new achievements where the subject was observed doing something with technology that had not previously been documented.  For the purposes of the investigation, technology was defined as “machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge” (Oxford University Press, 2013) to include devices such as television, telephone, smart phone, remote control, laptop, tablet, digital camera and e-reader.

Others were encouraged to comment and contribute their own stories through the blog and also to interact via a Facebook page.  The researcher has begun to conduct semi-structured interviews with other parents about their own observations, the results of these will be published as stories on the blog.  The researcher is also building up a collection of evidence in the form of articles published online which discuss the topic of pre-schoolers using technology along with other media such as uploaded videos (Rees, 2012).

The text of the blog was studied and developments relating specifically to interactions with electronic devices were noted. A table, Figure 1.1, was then drawn up showing the interactions by age in months. Columns were added to show the standard developmental milestones as outlined in child-development texts and Piaget’s stages of cognitive development for comparison.

The first entry is recorded at 12 months and the study has so far run for a period of two years.



Technology Milestones

Developmental Milestones



Telephone – Holds objects to ear – anything, the tv remote, a plastic cup to imitate a phone.Smartphone –  Can use a simple touch screen app on a smart phone where a sound plays when a picture is touched.General – presses buttons and expects a reaction. Stands holding furniture. Stands alone for a second or two, then collapses with a bump. Babbles 2 or 3 words repeatedly. Drops toys and watches where they go. Cooperates with dressing. Waves goodbye, understands simple commands Sensorimotor Phase Understanding of object permanence developed. Learning is through trial and error. Infant quickly begins to build up direct knowledge of world around them, by relating physical actions to perceived results of those actions. 8-12 months goal directed behaviour: They behave in ways that they know will bring about desired results. Also begin to combine behaviours in new ways to accomplish their goals.  Object permanence, the realization that physical objects continue to exist even when they are removed from view.


Telephone – can tell the difference between items that are real phones or pretend phones compared to everything else.TV – Is aware that some handheld devices are used to control things like the TV but can’t use it herself.Smartphone – Unable to unlock smart phone but taps the screen to get a reaction Can walk alone. Picks up toy without falling over. Gets up/down stairs holding onto rail. Begins to jump with both feet. Can build a tower of 3 or 4 cubes and throw a ball. Feeds self with a spoon. Speech “Jargon” many intelligible words. 12-18 months Tertiary Circular Reactions Beginning sometime around their first birthday, infants show increasing flexibility and creativity in their behaviours, and their experimentation with objects often leads to new outcomes


TV – Presses buttons on remote – knows that it works by pointing it at TV and pressing a button, knows what response required from TV but unable to manage it.Laptop – Can move cursor around screen using track-pad but no control over where they want cursor to be also no concept of what cursor is for.  Has now figured out that people on Skype can see and hear them and that they are not behind the computer screen. 18-24 months Mental Representation. develop symbolic thought, the ability to represent and think about objects and events in terms of internal, mental entities, or symbols. They may “experiment” with objects in their minds, first predicting what will happen if they do something to an object, then transforming their plans into action.


Smartphone – Gets response from voice activated game


Aware of ability of camera to capture images.Assumes calculator is a telephone


Telephone – Recognises (correctly or otherwise) device with buttons and screens as a phone.Camera – Recognises that camera lens is part of camera function.Smartphone – Fine motor skills developed well enough to intentionally side swipe button on touch-screen and unlock phone. Tapping screen more accurately to produce response, able to press in the right area of the screen to play a simple game.


Smartphone – Better control of the touch screen although can’t yet manage to unlock it on the first attempt. Aware that different pictures have different functions. Can swipe the screen sideways to navigate the home pages, Can interact with an app vocally and has a good understanding of the camera function. Able to run. Walks up and down stairs 2 feet per step. Builds tower of 6 cubes. Joins 2-3 words in sentences.


Aware of potential and ability for devices to show something they are interested in on-demand, eg video/picturesAttempts to swipe screen picture on a toy phone. Preoperational Stage egocentric child assumes that other people see, hear and feel exactly the same as the child does. Holds belief that inanimate objects (such as toys and teddy bears) have human feelings and intentions.


Smartphone/Tablet – Tries to fix crashed app or slow loading video content by tapping screen or switching device on and off.Laptop – Plays games – pressing same key over (space bar). Played interactive game via webcam Requests to see and talk to people on Skype.


TV – Can turn on the TV with the remote or the button and adjust the volume using button on the TV.Laptop – play simple single key press games, recognise letters and numbers on a keyboard.Smartphone /Tablet – unlocks touch screen, plays drag and drop games, pause and re-start a Youtube video. Switches things off when they have had enough of them.

Other – repeatedly attempts touch-screen action with non-responsive laptop screen


Smartphone/tablet – switches on, unlocks, chooses app, plays simple drag and drop game, plays music game, exits apps and switches tablet/screen off.Other – Recognises an e-reader as being different to a tablet


Interested in more complex games but cannot manage drag and drop using track-pad.


Requests photographs and is able to take photographs using touch screen. Plays virtual keyboard and drums. Can navigate app by recognising buttons with icons such as Play, Door (to exit), Camera, arrows, X to close. Goes up stairs one foot per step. Copies circle, imitates cross and draws man on request. Builds tower of 9 cubes. Constantly asks questions. Speaks in sentences

The results, in their original blog format (Rees, 2012) have been shared publically throughout the duration of the research and will continue to be so.  As a form of continual evaluation, comment and discussion from other families with pre-school aged children has been welcomed via social media and in face-to-face meetings.  In doing so the subject was compared to other cases throughout the observation period.  Often similar results were reported, particularly the phenomenon of children trying to move static screens and images with their finger-tips.

The results presented in the table are important as they show that the pre-school child in question has a wide range of abilities in relation to modern technologies. The feedback suggests that this is common amongst her peers although further research with a larger sample will help to refine the details.


Piaget’s theory can be seen in action if we look for example at the interactions between the subject and a computer screen.  We can assume that she already holds in her head a schema for a Tablet device, which could be; rectangular, flat-screen, black border, colourful pictures, sounds, lots of small icons.  It would be reasonable for her to assimilate or apply this schema to a computer screen.  When she realises that the computer screen does not respond to touch, the subject enters a period of unbalance as her existing schemas are unable to explain what she perceives.  A new schema will have to be made to describe her computer screen, Piaget calls this accommodation.  Once the new schema exists and the subject is again able to explain all she perceives, balance is restored or equilibration is reached.  This process is, according to Piaget, the way in which cognitive development, or learning occurs.

“Equilibration is the force which drives the learning process as we do not like to be frustrated and will seek to restore balance by mastering the new challenge (accommodation). Once the new information is acquired the process of assimilation with the new schema will continue until the next time we need to make an adjustment to it.” (MacLeod, 2009)

The same explanation can be used for the videos of a child trying to swipe a magazine (UserExperienceWorks, 2011), the child’s existing schema is that of a Tablet, she is trying to apply this schema to the magazine.

The implication of the research in relation to Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) is that technology enhanced learning is accessible to pre-school children.  As the subject interacts with a smart-phone app, she is learning certain conventions such as that a triangle is the symbol to start playing something, that an arrow will take her to a different level, that a door or a cross will allow her to exit.  She has learned these skills within a virtual environment and the learning was self-directed.  Each time she encounters a new app she can apply the knowledge (or schema) learnt from previous apps.  The results might suggest that the main barrier to using a PLE or participating in the social networking aspects of e-learning is literacy ability as the technical skills are already in place.

In analyzing the results it can be seen that the main limitation is that they are based on a sample of one.  It would be foolish to assume that one child can be representative of all children even if we narrow it down to only children with access to technology.  More pre-school children therefore need to be included in the study to improve the reliability of the results.  The advantages are that the findings are valid, they are real results from a real child interacting with real technology.

If it is important for our children to have interesting, stimulating, educational toys then the same should be true for the apps and games they interact with.  If more research is done the results will provide a sound basis for the development of age and ability appropriate educational apps and software.


With thanks to my daughters Elin and Mali who may one day be sharing stories about how behind the times their Mother is.


Berk, L. E. (2012). Infants and children: Prenatal through middle childhood: Allyn & Bacon.BSI (2012) Playing safe: A consumer’s guide to the British Standard for toy safety (BS EN 71 series) retrieved 29th June 2013 from, J. L. and Cook, G. (2005) Child Development Principles & Perspectives: Allyn & Bacon, retrieved 26th June 2013 from

Mashable (2010) Google App Inventor: Now Anyone Can Create an Android App, retrieved 17th June 2013 from

McLeod, S. A. (2009). Jean Piaget | Cognitive Theory – Simply Psychology, retrieved 17th June 2013 from

NHS Choices (2011) Birth-to-5 development timeline, retrieved 26th June 2013 from

Oxford University Press (2013). Oxford Dictionaries, retrieved 20th June 2013 from

Ormrod, J. E. (2008). Piaget’s Sensorimotor Stage, retrieved 24th June 2013 from

Piaget, J. 1952, The Origins of Intelligence in Children, Translated by Margaret Cook, retrieved 17th June 2013 from

Rees, A. 2012 Babitech –Tracking Developmental Milestones in Technology Use, retrieved 17th June 2013 from

UserExperienceWorks (2011) A Magazine Is an iPad That Does Not Work, retrieved 28th June 2013 from

Zhi Yong Information Tech Co Ltd. (2010) Baby Bus, retrieved 29th June 2013 from

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit


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