Programmable toys are heralded as cutting-edge technology for the pre-5s and will soon be coming to a school near you, writes Katrina Tweedie
Pixie and Roamer may sound like characters from a children's television show but they are, in fact, the latest devices at the cutting edge of technology in nurseries.
Facing the challenge of giving pre-5 children their first real understanding of information and communications technology, nurseries are always looking for new ways to educate and entertain children.
The 4-year-olds at Johnstone Nursery in Renfrewshire take their ICT very seriously. Computers, tape recorders, digital and video cameras, cash registers and telephones and now the robotic toy Pixie, are all part of their classroom environment.
A box-shaped vehicle, on wheels, with a keyboard on top, Pixie can be programmed by young children to move across the classroom floor or over a tabletop grid. Getting the bleeping box, decked out in a home-made policeman's uniform, to knock over skittles or bricks is a favourite for the 4-year-olds. The device, from Swallow Systems, is less than six inches across, has only seven buttons and is simple enough for children from nursery age to 8 to use.
Now the local authority has decided to give every nursery and partnership in Renfrewshire their own Pixie.
Jaclyn Mitchell, a teacher at Johnstone Nursery, has been using Pixie with pre-5s since the beginning of the year and is involved in training staff at other nurseries in ICT.
"I've enjoyed using it because it's a new way of working with the children and more up to date than what they normally use," she says. "Rather than moving a car about a grid by hand, they can programme in moves and see the results of their actions."
Shona Taylor, the headteacher at the pre-5s centre, says: "We want to give children the experience of a bit of everything, from PCs and cameras to programmable toys.
"A toy like Pixie covers the entire 3-5 curriculum, from emotional and social development by learning to take turns and share, communication and language by discussing positions and directions, and knowledge of the world, including understanding technology and problem solving. The push-button instructions also help develop their fine motor skills."
She adds: "The ICT strategy is about wider use of technology rather than just computers. We are trying to persuade people that ICT is not simply about plonking a child in front of a PC. It has a much wider application and can be very much hands-on.
"Pixie is modern technology that is exciting and new for children. They can control it, explore and problem solve, and it's also very differentiated.
"Very young children can simply move it forwards and backwards by pressing one or two buttons, but older children can master several fairly advanced manoeuvres.
"It is applicable right through the ante-pre-school."
Other nurseries have opted for Roamer, which looks like a big grey Smartie and is slightly more advanced, with more functions and the option to carry a pen and draw outlines as it moves across a surface.
Neither are merely gadgets, but designed as educational toys which can help children fulfil their potential by teaching them to think, understand and use their knowledge in creative ways.
Pixie and Roamer bring another dimension in enhancing children's learning, especially for boys who are traditionally more accustomed to remote-controlled cars and similar gadgetry.
"The girls are more interested in figuring it out in advance, while the boys often just want to get their hands on it and make it go," says Ms Mitchell.
As learning tools, Pixie and Roamer may not be taken out of the cupboard as often as the digital camera, but they are a useful addition to the range of ICT available in nurseries.
Roamer, from Valiant Technology, is billed by the manufacturers as: "The basis of a powerful problem-solving curriculum that will help children begin to develop the habit of creative, independent problem solving, while introducing them to the key technologies of the modern informational age."
In reality, the children at Galston Nursery, in Ayrshire, use their Roamer for activities such as drawing Mister Men characters.
Tracey McKie, a nursery teacher at Galston, has used Roamer in both nursery and upper primary settings. She says: "As far as the technology is concerned, I saw most benefits in upper primary where the children were able to develop number skills and work out angles for turning Roamer. But as a motivational tool in nursery it is very useful, teaching the children negotiating and sharing and cause and effect."
Some argue that young children would be better off playing with sand and water, and these are not neglected. But nurseries have a duty to introduce children to ICT and most agree that the more methods at their disposal, the better.
"Children are so switched on to technology and comfortable with it and as staff in nurseries we need to be too," adds Ms McKie. "Unlike adults, children have no fears about ICT and we have to provide up-to-date technology for children to use."