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How touchscreen devices boost early years learning

The tactile nature of touchscreens make them a great addition to traditional early years education, writes Dan Worth

How touchscreen devices, such as tablets, can enhance early years education

Young children love to touch things, to understand how they feel, how they work and generally just to satisfy their curiosity. This is perhaps one reason why tablets and other touchscreen devices are so popular with children.

They are often the first piece of technology that a child interacts with at home, and at school so many primary teachers are turning this to their advantage by using touchscreen devices to boost learning outcomes and ensure engagement in lessons.

Jacob Woolcock, head of computing and digital learning at Penpol Primary School in Cornwall, is a big advocate of using touchscreen devices in this way, and believes their tactile nature is ideal for engaging children. The devices are also easier for them to use than desktop computers, he says.

“For younger children, this means being able to physically manipulate content with their fingers right on the screen so there is no abstraction between a keyboard and mouse and the learning they’re engaging in,” he says.

“They can literally touch the button they want to press, move things to where they need to go and never have to worry about using a mouse or a cursor.”

Touchscreen devices in primary schools

He recalls a recent art lesson that he ran using touchscreen devices as an example of the unique learning opportunities it provides.

“Last week I took a class of Year 5s and used a drawing app to teach an art lesson," he says. "We learned how to create block lettering and add effects like watercolour paint or spray paint to make our writing really pop off the screen. This tactile and natural input meant the children were able to create stunning pieces of art without fear of making a mistake.” 

Matthew Moore, a primary computing specialist at Green Lane Primary in Surrey, is another teacher to have embraced touchscreen devices, with his school using HP TouchSmart All-in-One devices.

“The touchscreen desktops have been a fantastic addition to learning at primary level. The children are able to come into the room and engage with the machine in a way that is more familiar to them than the classic desktop PC,” he says.

Furthermore, he adds that as pupils' confidence builds, they can start to experiment with other input methods, too: “It leads on to the children learning about stylus [pens], and they can use them for more detailed work. They love using these, and they instantly become more engaged in their learning.”

Augmenting learning

It doesn’t just have to be the usual tablet or desktop touchscreen devices that provide these benefits either. Tony Fox, head of ICT at Bolton School, explains how teachers there use large 75in touchscreen devices within lessons that can complement more traditional learning.

“Teachers can have two or three kids up there at any one time using it for everything from working together on maths puzzles to playing the drums – they’re great for extension activities or for sharing something a student might be doing on their tablet to the wider classroom.”

Mr Moore agrees that tablets and other touchscreen devices are a great way to augment learning, rather than being the sole focus of a lesson: “Our teachers are using them as a tool for extending the learning. This is when the balance is right. The lessons are not dependent on the tablets, but they are enhanced by the technology available.”

Practical plans

Of course, tablets and other touchscreen devices are not foolproof. Emma Pass, an English teacher and educational technology consultant, advises having a contingency plan for if and when things may go wrong:

“It's always a good idea to have a back-up plan whenever using your devices," she says. "Batteries can go uncharged, Wi-Fi connections can go down, and you will discover apps and websites that crash or have been blocked. I like to have a worksheet on standby, just in case.”

Having plenty of screen cleaner to hand is never a bad thing either. “With the youngsters, I do tend to have lots of sticky marks all over the screen, so I tend to have good clean every few days,” says Moore.

Mr Woolcock adds that teachers should also be clear that there are rules for pupils when using technology, such as not running with the devices or throwing them around so children respect them.

“My top tip with this is to make a custom image for the devices' lock screen with the ‘code of conduct’ on it. This is a simple reminder to the children each time they unlock the device that they need to be responsible using them,” he adds.

While these are all important points, it’s clear nothing here should be too difficult to manage for teachers used to dealing with the vagaries of a primary classroom. Perhaps the bigger issue is ensuring that staff are confident in using touchscreen devices, as Mr Woolcock notes.

“Training teachers and teaching assistants is a vital part of a successful touchscreen device implementation,” he says.

“I’m working on this at the moment in my setting by offering regular support sessions, emailing out weekly videos to colleagues with tips for using common apps and by taking the time to ensure everyone feels confident with the technology.”

This may take time but it seems clear that the benefits are worth the effort – from providing children with engaging and enjoyable learning activities through to helping them to develop confidence using technology that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.