Skip to main content

Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-Schoolers’ Use of Apps

Final Project Report

This report outlines the key findings of a co-produced study, developed in collaboration between academics at the Universities of Sheffield and Edinburgh, the BBC (CBeebies), Monteney Pirmary School and the children’s media companies Dubit and Foundling Bird (Appendix 1 outlines the project team members and Advisory Board members). The project was co-produced in that all project partners contributed to the development of the project aims and objectives and were involved in data collection, analysis and dissemination. The aim of the study was to identify pre-school children’s (aged 0-5) uses of and responses to tablet apps in terms of the impact on their play and creativity.

It was felt that the need for the project was significant, given evidence of growing access for young children to tablets that are able to host apps. Ofcom (2014) has reported that 65% of 3-7 year-olds live in a household with a tablet computer (Ofcom, 2015:23). The National Literacy Trust (NLT, 2014) undertook a survey of 1,028 children aged three to five in 2013. They found that 72.9% have access to a touch-screen device in the home, a figure which includes smartphones. Whilst these data are very useful, neither study examined the types of apps that children aged under 5 in the UK use and little is known about how apps are used by pre-school children. This lack of knowledge is of concern, given that this is large, and growing, market. It was reported by Shuler in 2012 that 72% of the top-selling apps in the Education section of Apple’s app store were aimed at the pre-school age group and, therefore, some account should be taken of how apps are chosen and used by families of pre-schoolers. In addition, there have been repeated calls regarding the urgent need for research into the media and technology use of this age group (Buckingham, 2005; Gillen and Cameron, 2010; Holloway, Green and Livingstone, 2013). Whilst there has been a range of studies of pre-schoolers’ use of apps, these have largely focused on storybooks (Kucirkova, 2013; Merchant, 2014) or on educational use in early years settings (Lynch and Redpath, 2012), and not specifically focused on an analysis of play and creativity.

Play in the digital world is becoming increasingly complex due to children’s use of technologies and this use creates synergies between online and offline and digital and non-digital play (Burke and Marsh, 2013; Marsh, 2010, 2014; Marsh and Bishop, 2014). There is emergent evidence that use of tablets by the under 5s can promote creativity and play (Verenikina & Kervin, 2011), but further research is required on the types of creativity and play they foster. Theories of play as a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, which encompasses various rhetorics including play as identity, imagination and power (Sutton Smith, 1997), were employed in the study. Digital technologies have been found to impact on play in a number of ways. Firstly, digital technologies can offer a platform for the use of games embedded in hardware that promote both rule-bound play and free play (Plowman and Stephen, 2005). Secondly, digital technologies can be a stimulus for imaginative play, such as physical play based on characters and narratives encountered in video games or virtual worlds (Marsh, 2014; Marsh and Bishop, 2014). Thirdly, digital technologies can be used in children’s play as objects e.g. children using smartphones to make pretend phone calls (Plowman et al., 2012). The primary focus for this project was the way in which the use of apps promotes play. Hughes’s (2002) taxonomy of play was utilised to identify episodes/ aspects of play. These classifications of play were adapted for a digital environment (see Appendix 2).

The study also examined the relationship between children’s use of tablets and their creativity. Creativity is defined in this context as the production of original content and evidence of diverse forms of thinking, both often present in young children’s play (Gillen, 2006; Robson, 2014) and everyday uses of technology (Willett, Robinson and Marsh, 2009). A number of studies have identified how pre-school children can use a range of technologies in ways that promote their creativity, such as the production of blogs and podcasts and the use of animation software (Marsh and Yamada-Rice, 2013; Vasquez and Felderman, 2013). It was important to determine the extent to which tablet apps can foster young children’s creativity, given their growing use. In order to explore this area, Robson’s (2014) ‘Analysing Children’s Creative Thinking (ACCT) Framework’ was used in order to determine the extent to which apps promote creative thinking (see Appendix 3).

The study included a focus on augmented reality apps. Augmented reality (AR) toys such as DreamPlay combine play with real-world objects, including toy characters or musical instruments, with screen-based activities provided through apps. Bringing an AR toy/ book/ artefact into proximity with the associated app can activate on-screen content such as games and animations and bring the toy/ book/ artefact ‘to life’. This is a potentially rich format for the fostering of play and creativity. There has been little research in this area, although there are emergent studies on older children’s engagement with augmented reality picture books (Cheng and Tsai, 2014). The study, therefore, also included a focus on pre-school children’s use of augmented reality apps. This focus emerged from the need of children’s media industry partners to consider the development of apps of this type. What is of interest in this area is the extent to which such apps can blur the boundaries between offline and online and digital and non-digital play, particularly given the development of apps that interact with physical play objects.
This study, therefore, focused on examining how far apps for under 5s foster play and creativity. This included an emphasis on how the apps were being used in the context of the home, in addition to an examination of the affordances (Gibson, 1977) of the apps themselves for the promotion of play and creativity.