The metal detector emits a loud buzz, and the sound is almost engulfed by the cheers that go up in the classroom. When you are four years old, searching for hidden treasure is very exciting. And for the four-year-olds at Gamesley Early Excellence Centre, in Glossop, Derbyshire, there are many more excitements in store, thanks to their teachers' ingenuity and faith in ICT.
"We believe that anything with a chip in it is ICT," says senior teacher Julie Meaton. "ICT is threaded through everything we do. It enhances teaching and accelerates learning."
Carefully constructed plans incorporate the use of everything from walkie-talkies to closed-circuit TV cameras, much of the equipment spotted by resourceful staff on shopping trips to stores such as Argos and Bamp;Q.
About 50 three and four-year-olds attend each half-day session at the centre. In their hour-and-three-quarters of free-choice time, they circulate around a number of activities on offer, working with a teacher in groups of six .
The treasure hunt features in an autumn-themed learning plan which made its debut this year. The plan threads ICT through all six areas of learning in the foundation curriculum: personal, social and emotional development; communication, language and literacy; mathematical development; knowledge and understanding of the world; physical development; and creative development.
There are two dozen action-packed activities, each supporting several early learning goals or stepping-stones and providing almost as much fun for teachers as for the children.
Metal detectors are always a big hit at Gamesley, and today they are being used to find a tiny model hedgehog which is hiding under leaves in one of three flowerpots. Cries of "wow!" and "brilliant!" greet the find. Now the children have to explain which pot has yielded the treasure. Was it the big pot, the medium-sized pot or the little one? They are learning to describe size and getting to grips with the operation of simple equipment. Autumn leaves are the subject of several exercises and provide an opportunity to explore the nursery garden.
"At the end of the road there is a fantastic tree. Every autumn, the colour changes are spectacular," explains Julie Meaton. "So we decided we should take photographs to record the changes in four stages." The children take the pictures themselves, using a Sony Mavica digital camera. They find its large viewfinder screen easy to work with, and by slotting its floppy disk into a computer they can see their photos as soon as they return to the nursery. Staff print and laminate each set of images, creating a focus for comparing similarities and differences, and talking about what the children recall of their outings.
"Children tend not to remember things too well at this stage," says Julie Meaton, "and the photos serve as a good reminder. They can also take them home and discuss them with their parents. The more we get parents on board, the better."
Getting the whole community involved is a key aim at the centre, which offers a wide range of family support and adult education services, as well as nursery education and care. Gamesley serves one of the 10 most deprived wards in the country. Most children meet computers for the first time in the nursery, where they learn basic skills such as mouse-clicking and dragging-and-dropping. "They soon become quite skilled," says Julie Meaton.
"We don't want children to see ICT as something you do in isolation," she adds. "We are saying that ICT is the way of the world, so let's use it." Consequently, Gamesley's computers sit in the thick of the action, rather than in an ICT suite, and staff work them into most activities.
An autumn role-playing game employs a range of technology that is already part of children's lives. In the nursery's imaginative play area, one corner is set up as a greengrocer's shop, another as a customer's home. The idea is that the customer telephones an order to the greengrocer and the greengrocer prepares the order for the customer to collect - a storyline that encourages children to build on first-hand experience as they take part in imaginative role-play. The two telephones are real - inexpensive models connected with a low-voltage cable, rather than through an exchange.
They do not ring, but everyone can see when a child has picked up a phone and wants to start a conversation. The greengrocer uses an electronic till and digital scales. There is also a home-made barcode scanner, built by putting together a battery-driven circuit which incorporates a large paper clip, a piece of card and a buzzer. As the shopkeeper passes a piece of fruit or veg over the card, the paperclip closes the circuit, triggering the buzzer.
On the shop's computer are games featuring fruit and vegetables. Children can attempt to match the written name of a fruit with its picture by clicking on both the pictures and the text to hear all the names read aloud. "Our children are too young to read, but we still want to give them the written word, and help them feel independent," says Julie Meaton.
The same approach is taken at storytime, when a group of children listen to an autumn story on tape as well as following it in their books. A bell rings on the tape to let them know when it is time to turn the page. The technology is straightforward: teachers record the stories and a multi-link tape recorder allows six listeners to tune in at once. Children can also click their way through talking books on the computer, listening and following the text in their own time.
Gamesley's ICT co-ordinators, Cathy Jones and Carole Bennett, build the software, although the children themselves help create the most ambitious version - the animated frieze. First they paint pictures of characters from one of their autumn books, such as "The Little Red Hen". The pictures are made into a nursery frieze, which is photographed, and the photos are transferred to the computer. The ICT co-ordinators animate the on-screen characters and help the children record phrases from the book, giving their own voices to their own characters. The approach is powerful, the result delightful. The children also act out stories on television, with the help of CCTV cameras linked to two TV sets in different areas of the nursery.
"We bought the cameras for pound;35 in Bamp;Q, and at first we linked them to two old black-and-white TV sets donated by parents," says Julie Meaton.
"ICT doesn't have to cost a fortune. And you can start small. We started by giving the children old video recorders to take apart. They spent hours unscrewing them, looking at how they worked, and counting all the tiny parts."
Staff are constantly refining their approach, and are already re-thinking some of the autumn activities. A hunt for autumn produce was done by providing directions to children via walkie-talkies, but the equipment demanded too much adult input. In future, teachers will record the directions on CD and provide the intrepid explorers with portable CD players, easily operated by anyone who wants to re-wind and listen again.
Most of the software used at Gamesley is created by ICT co-ordinators Cathy Jones and Carole Bennett, winners of the innovation and change category in this year's ICT in Practice awards. They both work with teachers to consider ideas, and employ three multimedia software packages to create software for children:
* Junior Multimedia Lab enables teachers and young pupils to create presentations, incorporating pictures, text, movie clips, sound and animation. It includes tutorials and 200 clipart images. Cathy Jones says:
"Sometimes I use this for creating an animated frieze, but if I want to include a lot of animation, I opt for Multimedia Lab V."
pound;59.95 (single-user licence) from Sherston
Tel: 01666 843200
* Multimedia Lab V software for creating high-powered multimedia presentations, reports and web pages, all possible without needing to learn programming. Includes templates, examples and clipart.
Cathy Jones says: "It is a more advanced version of Junior Multimedia Lab.
We used one of the templates to build our matching pairs game and there is also a useful template for creating a memory game."
pound;89 (single-user), from Granada Learning
Tel: 0161 827 2927
* My World 3 is widely used for creating activity screens that feature pictures, text, animation and sound. Includes a wide range of graphics, animations and sound effects, and teachers can also incorporate their own resources. Cathy Jones says: "It is a popular package and many people use the screens supplied with the software. We make our own versions to accompany activities in the nursery."
pound;49 (single-user) from Dial Solutions Tel: 0113 2945111 www.dialsolutions.com