Orkney youngsters are applying modern technology and old crafts to learn about ancient times, writes Douglas Blane
In every way that matters, the Neolithic villagers of Skara Brae on Orkney were like us. Instead of watching television they gathered around their hearth fires and, in the light of smoky oil lamps, used their imagination to tell each other stories.
In the same way, imagination can take today's youngsters back 5,000 years.
"I am not sure if 3-and 4-year-olds know it is the past and put it in context the way we do," says Barbara Merriman, the nursery teacher at Stenness Community school, "but they are very willing to take on a different perspective, whether it's a fantasy world like for the Power Rangers or the real historical world. To them it's just another level of possibility."
Technology is one of the best ways of engaging young children with the past, she says. Skara Brae, which appears to have been occupied for at least 600 years before being hidden under drifting sand until a great storm in 1850, did have technology, with craftsmen using a sophisticated toolkit in workshops, but of course the farmers and fishermen knew nothing of computers, cameras and telephones.
"It is fascinating to watch children grappling with the concept of time before video and with technologies different to their own," says Ms Merriman.
"At first, they saw the big stone sideboards in Skara Brae as television and video stands. When shown the holes in the floor used to boil water and cook food, their response was: 'My granny has one of those. It's a pressure cooker.' " Gradually classroom games and activities drew the youngsters more fully into the world of their distant ancestors.
"When we came back from our visit we turned the role-play area of the classroom into a Skara Brae house. The kids talked a lot about what they would and wouldn't have. They got rid of all the modern appliances, then they brought in wooden bowls and utensils, sheepskins for blankets and replaced the bed by a big box."
A visit to a local potter, who is also a keen archaeologist, showed the children how domestic ware was made.
"They were all keen to try and a child-sized potter's wheel in the classroom let them appreciate the differences between a moulded pot and a thrown one. They spent lots of time shaping pots and plates from clay and decorating them for our Skara Brae house.
"The children are now recording the project in a talking photo album so that our activities can be shared with parents and the rest of the school."
The focus and direction of activities in the nursery are determined by what interests and engages the children, says Ms Merriman.
This might be metal detectors, toy mobile phones, remote controlled cars or an electronic microscope to study treasures in the sand. "There is a great wealth of affordable technological toys these days.
"This project began with a lump of clay for the children to investigate.
That led to collecting clay objects - crockery, ornaments, tiles, chimney pots, toilets, sinks - and we went out to record what we couldn't bring in, with the children using the digital camera and creating a computer slide show."
As the children chose items for their collections, a wider investigation of materials developed. "We talked about how to find out what things are made of. The children suggested looking, feeling, asking, smelling, tapping with a spoon. Lots of talking around familiar materials and their creation led to the Skara Brae visit."
As a Masterclass participant, Ms Merriman is now competent and confident with using information technology. "I'm not naturally drawn to computers and technology," she says, "but began to learn as part of my own professional development. ICT is an intrinsic part of every young person's life, and it's not beyond the reach of children in pre-school.
"People are sometimes horrified at the idea of using computers with 3-year-olds. But what we're doing is extending their play and learning through a wide range of activities, one of which is working with developmentally appropriate programs on the computer.
"The difference between learning about ICT and learning through ICT is fundamental."
A real surprise was the level of interaction stimulated by modern technology and the depth of the children's absorption in activities, she says. "I hadn't expected technology to help young ones to be social beings, but there is seldom any length of time when a child is sitting with a technological toy or a computer before other children come up to chat and to offer them help and support."