On a recent visit to Homerton Children's Centre in Cambridge, Tony Richardson, executive director for strategy and communications at Becta, the Government agency that promotes the use of technology in education, found himself being photographed by one of the children using a digital camera.
"Then before I knew where I was, they'd put the image on to a computer and printed out a poster of me with a label saying, `Our visitor, Mr Richardson'," he recalls.
It's not unusual for schools to give their guests an enthusiastic welcome, but what's perhaps surprising about this story is that the children in question were only three and four years old.
Technology has become a feature of everyday life for a lot of children - far more so than for previous generations. They're "digital natives", to use a phrase popular with academics, having grown up with the internet, mobile phones and MP3 players.
Sir Jim Rose made repeated reference to technology in his review of the primary curriculum, published at the end of April. "To argue against the importance of ICT in the primary curriculum is to ignore the increasing digitisation of information worldwide," he wrote.
"This will require digital literacy of all children for their full participation in society."
One of his main recommendations is for ICT to sit alongside literacy, numeracy and personal development at the core of the curriculum. Miles Berry, headteacher of Alton Convent School in Hampshire, agrees with Rose's thinking: "ICT requires a place at the core of the curriculum as it's becoming `necessary' to have a certain degree of skill there in order to be able to learn effectively across the curriculum," he says. Ed Balls, Education Secretary, has accepted Rose's recommendations and the new curriculum is expected to be implemented in 2011.
At present, the Government's requirements for teaching ICT at key stage 1 focus on three areas: exploring ICT and learning to use it confidently and with purpose to achieve specific outcomes; using ICT to develop ideas and record creative work; and becoming familiar with hardware and software.
"The current national curriculum was written in a time when ICT was seen more as a subject to be taught than as a tool that needed to be applied in different subjects," says Mr Richardson. "But ICT knowledge and understanding are best acquired within the context of doing real things."
This is why Becta backs many of Rose's reforms to put ICT at the centre of six new areas of learning rather than teach it as a separate subject.
For under-fives, the early years foundation stage standards lay out guidelines for what children should be able to do at this age. In ICT, its focus is on "how children find out about and learn how to use appropriate information technology, such as computers and programmable toys that support their learning."
At this age, play is one of the most effective ways of engaging children in technology - if not the only way, says Harriet Price, an ICT consultant for Homerton Children's Centre, which offers training in early years ICT as well as full nursery provision for 0-4 year olds, since they cannot read or write properly yet. She believes role play is particularly effective in helping children familiarise themselves with their everyday surroundings - much of which now includes some form of technology.
"It might simply be putting a defunct mobile phone in a bag where the dressing up box is, but it puts technology into context for them," Ms Price says.
Once pupils are familiar with handling different types of technology, she suggests teachers encourage them to start using it as part of their learning activities. This might involve anything from designing wallpaper on computers to using microphones in music.
And ICT is a fantastic leveller among children of different abilities. "If you have reception children who are maybe finding it hard to paint something on a par with their peer group, they can use art software to make something that looks equivalent to their peer group. It can be important for their self-esteem," says Ms Price.
At Murdishaw West Primary School in Runcorn, Cheshire, early years pupils recently had the chance to try their hand at digital photography. "They had been reading Naughty Bus by Jan and Jerry Oke and decided to take a model bus on a tour of the grounds," recalls Chris Bayne, acting headteacher. What really brought the event to life for the pupils was using a digital camera to take photos of the "naughty bus" in different locations and printing these images to create their own storybook. "It was an easy way to get them interacting with things," he says.
Play is just as effective at key stage 1 in engaging pupils as it is in the early years, believes David Whitebread, an early years psychologist at Cambridge University and co-author of Supporting ICT in the Early Years. "Children learn most powerfully through playful activity - in fact, I believe we all do," he says.
He warns against using technology for the sake of it, however - through computer programmes that mimic what a child could do in real life, for example - preferring instead programmable toys and simulation software programmes where the activities are more open-ended.
"These teach them all sorts of problem-solving skills, which tend not to be the focus of the rest of the curriculum but which are very important," he claims.
At Green Park Primary School in Liverpool, key stage 1 pupils have been experimenting with a wide variety of technology, from programmable robots to blogging and video cameras to make films that they upload to the video blogging website blip.tv. They're not using it for novelty value, but as a tool to bring to life other subjects, explains Peter Rafferty, a Year 1 teacher and ICT co-ordinator at the school.
"If we're thinking about poetry and we've been for a walk outside, when we return indoors we might open up a blog, write a new post based on what the children are saying and publish it," he says.
The blog has gone down a storm with one mum. "She told me at parents' evening that it was a race between her two children to get home first to get on the blog and add a new post or leave a message for their friends," laughs Mr Rafferty.
And far from nudging literacy and numeracy out of the classroom - which some technology critics fear could happen under the new curriculum - Tricia Neal, an independent consultant, believes children often learn better when there's some form of technology involved. "One of my PGCE students used an online activity to create stories with her class during a literacy lesson, and she found the children wrote more as they were excited about what they were doing," she claims.
Providing ICT resources in the classroom can be problematic when it comes to juggling budgets - especially as equipment made with younger children in mind often costs more, such as keyboards with lower case letters instead of the standard caps-based model.
Mr Bayne would like to see the Government put more resources into this area in order to "update school facilities." But there is also a tremendous wealth of ICT resources available online (see panel). Ms Price also warns not to underestimate the value of broken or defunct equipment in supporting role play among younger pupils.
Budgetary constraints aside, a potentially bigger problem is ensuring primary school teachers are adequately trained in using ICT in the classroom. James Greenwood, an ICT teacher at Royds Hall High School in Huddersfield, is concerned about what he sees as a lack of ICT subject specialists in primaries. "Good ICT is very difficult to teach, and rarely gets beyond skills building, or `trivial pursuits' in primary schools," he claims. "Teaching students to become technology aware - knowing how and when to use it in completing a task, as well as understanding what should be trusted, what should be regarded critically and what should be avoided - are vital skills."
The Rose review recommended that the Government provide additional support at primary level if teachers are to deliver the new curriculum successfully. Mr Richardson agrees: "Where we need to provide more help for teachers is in applying development, knowledge skills and understanding of how to use ICT in the context of powerful learning," he says.
The evidence from Becta suggests it's an investment worth making. "We know from our own research that schools using ICT effectively in English at key stage 2 are making roughly a term's additional progress over that period," says Mr Richardson. In maths, the leap is even greater - "between two-and- a-half and six months' progress," he notes. No doubt the Government will be hoping to replicate these results nationwide when the new curriculum is introduced.
- Create `word clouds'by feeding text into the wordle website www.wordle.net
- Consider making a podcast with pupils, capturing them singing or reading. Free editing software is available from http:audacity.sourceforge.net
- Green Park Primary School's website has resources for key stage 1 http:greenparkschool.org.uk
- Miles Berry's blog http:milesberry.net
- Becta has information on setting up learning platforms, purchasing hardware and software www.becta.org.uk
- For more details on the Rose review of primary education, visit www.dcsf.gov.ukprimarycurriculumreview.