Anyone who has preconceived ideas about the limitations of four-year-olds' brains and hands should stay away from Scaraway Nursery in Glasgow. It is a most disconcerting experience to have your photograph taken by digital cameras wielded by children who barely come up to your knees.
"Initially, we got the pre-school children working with the cameras," says headteacher Ruth Connelly. "Then gradually we introduced the younger ones. They didn't need any encouragement because they were so enthusiastic when they saw the others taking their photographs."
With the backing of Glasgow City Council, which provided the equipment as well as the training for the staff and parents, Scaraway Nursery's digital camera project was launched in November 2001. At first, its main aims were to produce a visual record of the activities and experiences of the little ones in the nursery, while developing their technology skills.
Such a project goes well beyond the national 3-5 guidelines, points out Lynne Innes, Glasgow City's primary adviser for information and communications technology. "These children will now be going to primary school with good ICT skills, just as primary pupils are going up to the secondaries more capable than ever before. Teachers are having to adapt to ICT skills moving further and further down the school, and before long the 5-14 guidelines will have to be rewritten - maybe even becoming 3-14 guidelines."
Ms Connelly and first assistant Joan Fleming were surprised by the speed with which the Scaraway children took to technology. That was rapidly overtaken by professional satisfaction as they realised that the children's interest could be harnessed in innovative ways to access the curriculum and manage the nursery.
"The full-time youngsters can get a little tired in the afternoon and their attention often wanders," says Ms Fleming. "But when you bring out the cameras, motivation and enthusiasm rise right away.
"After no more than five minutes' demonstration, one wee boy could take good quality images and was keen to share his results with his friends. He then learned how to upload his photos on to the computer.
"Others have followed in his footsteps. We don't give very young kids enough credit for what they can do."
Ms Connelly adds: "We are seeing children training children, parents training parents, parents training staff. We also have formal training for staff and parents, organised by Glasgow City and delivered by EdICT."
The focus of the Scaraway project was the production of a yearbook containing a permanent and colourful record of the 2001-2002 session, but the staff are keen to talk about the wider potential of technology for young children.
"The most important thing for me is not the yearbook," says Ms Connelly, "but what we all learned while we were making it. I saw incredible potential for the use of digital cameras in the nursery - and not just in teaching ICT skills. That's not even the most important part. They provide a whole new context for learning.
"The social and emotional development has been incredible. The children are talking, sharing, taking turns, co-operating. They are gaining literacy and numeracy skills, knowledge and understanding of the world. It's helping to develop their fine motor skills and their aesthetic abilities.
"From what we've seen, the digital cameras have an impact on every one of the key aspects of the curriculum."
Initially, the images produced by the Scaraway children and staff were kept but not catalogued. But Glasgow has now provided training in the development and use of a database of photographs, for which Ms Connelly sees considerable management potential. By providing a readily accessible visual history of every child, the database will inform and enhance the written records.
Any doubts about the innovative nature of the digital camera project at Scaraway Nursery can be dispelled by a visit to the pre-school section of the National Grid for Learning website, where plans are outlined to "publish case studies from early years practitioners who are supporting children using ICT". Right now, the section contains only one case study: Scaraway Nursery.
Ruth Connelly and Joan Fleming talk on ICT as a Learning Context in Early Years at 1.15pm, September 25 and 10am, September 26www.ngflscotland.gov.ukearlyyearsictinpreschoolcasestudies
Ahead of the guidelines
Educational use of information and communications technology is not mentioned in the 3-5 curriculum guidelines (A Curriculum Framework for Children 3 to 5, Scottish Office 1999), which contain just two passing references to children's use of computers outwith the nursery.
But the Scaraway Nursery project, say the staff, has demonstrated that modern technology in general and digital cameras in particular are capable of creating a context and focus for every one of the five key aspects of children's development and learning identified by those guidelines. These are: emotional, personal and social development; communication and language; knowledge and understanding of the world; expressive and aesthetic development; physical development and movement.