1. Use of tablets that support children's activities
In many cases, the use of ICT in early childhood education and care (ECEC) is by teachers/caregivers as an assistance tool to conduct their tasks. Moreover, nowadays, more teachers are using ICT, such as the digital camera function, to reflect on and assess their childcare practices. In contrast, the number of kindergartens that have introduced children's use of tablets in childcare is relatively few, although it is steadily becoming more popular.
This article will report on the results of case studies regarding young children's use of ICT, particularly tablet devices, in ECEC settings. First, observations were made at the Tondabayashi Kindergarten in Tondabayashi City, Osaka Prefecture, where children's use of tablets in childcare was introduced for the first time in 2019. In addition, the childcare practices at other kindergartens were also observed, including the Nishikori Kindergarten in Tondabayashi City, where tablets were introduced to both children and teachers in 2016. Based on the results of these case studies, such as children's activities, changes in teachers' consciousness, and their comments, this report will make suggestions on the possible use of tablets to support children's activities.
2. One-year observation of children's use of tablets
As the Tondabayashi Kindergarten is located in the Preservation District for Groups of Historic Buildings, the kindergarten promotes activities that simulate children's interests in the community's history and historic buildings in its childcare practices. For example, a group tour is planned to visit important cultural properties nearby, such as the historic Sugiyama Family residential house in Jinai Town (a neighboring temple town). In addition, various social activities with local residents are offered to help children become familiar with their community and its cultural heritage. In this way, the kindergarten has long been committed to "raising children who are rich in mind and resilient" and able to inherit the community's cultural assets and create its future.
For older kindergarten children, an excursion is conducted to explore Jinai Town with the support of local residents, including junior high school teachers. The children can learn about historic buildings and cultural artifacts, and deepen their interest in the community, history, and culture. In 2019, the kindergarten introduced the use of tablets for this excursion to see whether it would help children deepen their exploration and learning.
Two tablets were purchased for the 5-6-year-old class of about 20 children. The teachers let children use these tablets only when needed, thus avoiding screen addiction among children. They also instructed children to use these tablets carefully and amicably with their peers in the same way as when using play toys and equipment. As a result of the teachers' appropriate instructions, after checking the photographs taken throughout the year at kindergarten, it was confirmed that children were not addicted to using these tablets every day. Instead, they used these tablets only when needed and with their peers cooperatively as instructed. In the first semester, children used the tablets to take photos of what they were interested in or wanted to show their peers. Then, the children and teachers looked at these photos on a TV monitor in the nursery room or the playroom by mirroring the tablet to the monitor screen. Through my participant observation during that period, it seemed that, by sharing photos taken through children's eyes in their daily activities, teachers and children alike could realize the possibilities of feeling and thinking in diverse ways when seeing the same thing. In addition, teachers got used to using a tablet by mainly using its camera function. In addition to taking photos to record children's activities, they used the photos to create educational materials.
In the second semester, when the Jinai Town excursion started, the children walked around the town with tablets. They took photos of what they were interested in and where they felt was important after listening to the stories of town residents. The Tondabayashi Kindergarten conducts the Jinai Town excursion every year. Until last year, only the teachers took photos with a digital camera during the excursion, but this year, we saw children sharing tablets and taking photos wherever they wanted to take them.
After returning from the excursion, children and teachers looked at the photos on a TV monitor and made plans for the next excursion. By sharing the photos, children can seek out who is interested in what and share their knowledge. Since they had gradually learned that each one of them took interest in slightly different ways even when looking at the same thing, it helped the children discuss how to make groups and plan for more complex excursion activities.
The children remembered very well who took each photo. This was because they fully recognized the interest of each peer from the beginning of the excursion. During the discussion time after the excursion, the children not only explained their feelings and thoughts by using the photos they took, but they also drew pictures based on these photos to explain what they had learned. They could consider the responses of peers and try to find better ways to convey their feelings and thoughts.
In sum, the children could use tablets to visualize their feelings and thoughts, mainly with a camera function. Moreover, teachers' efforts could be observed throughout the year to ensure the appropriate use of tablets by children so that they could effectively share their feelings and thoughts and enhance their collaboration.
At the end of the last semester, I asked the kindergarten principal and teachers to reflect on the children's use of tablets over the year. Based on their comments, it was confirmed that teachers' efforts in supporting children's use of tablets made them an effective tool to enhance learning.
3. Benefits of children's use of tablets
In this section, I will explain the results of case studies on the Nishikori Kindergarten and other kindergartens besides the Tondabayashi Kindergarten. The Nishikori Kindergarten implemented tablet devices in 2016. There are three benefits resulting from children's use of tablets, as follows:
(1) Sharing of enjoyment
The essential benefit of children's use of tablets is that they learned to take photos of what they felt was interesting and delightful, and enjoyed sharing these photos with their peers. One of the teachers said, "Children tend to take too many close-up photos, but these types of photos convey their strong emotions." As she says, children take photos with a strong intention to convey something. Therefore, sharing photos with peers and teachers might stimulate the children's motivation to convey something. In other words, children's independent and interactive learning was triggered by the use of a tablet, with which they could take photos of what they wanted to convey and share with their peers. The kindergarten directors and teachers also commented, "The use of tablets visualizes children's independent learning, in which they take photos with a clear intention to convey something. It also promotes their interactions with others."
The teachers also commented that looking at photos on TV monitors during the discussion time immediately after the excursion was also beneficial, as children in the classroom can share and understand photos together. Sharing of children's visualized feelings and thoughts inspires deeper discussions. In particular, teachers now recognize that every photo conveys each child's feelings and thoughts, while children come to understand who took which photo and why. These developments facilitate further reflective discussions.
I also noticed such benefits in other kindergartens and daycare centers that introduced the use of tablets. Therefore, it is highly probable that the sharing of enjoyment discovered by each child can deepen their learning.
(2) Deepening children's learning from "seeing" to "observing"
Through the use of tablets, children learned how to observe things consciously. They gradually learned to effectively use the camera functions beyond just taking photos, such as zooming in and out, or shooting videos. For example, according to teachers, children took a photo of an onigawara (demon roof tile) on a roof in Jinai Town. By using the zooming function, they could closely observe the demon tile, which was located at a distance too far away for young children to see clearly. In addition, such use could further enhance their learning. For example, some children who took the photo of the demon tile later drew the picture of the demon by enlarging the detailed parts using the zooming function.
In the case of the Nishikori Kindergarten, one child thought the photo he took was insufficient to convey his thoughts. Therefore, he drew a picture based on the photo to explain in detail what he wanted to convey. As a result of these case studies, it is confirmed that children can choose the most suitable method to express their feelings and thoughts by effectively combining the usual method (drawing) with a new tool (tablet).
(3) Changes in the awareness of teachers
When using tablets at kindergartens, it is essential to ensure the intent of such use. For example, when tablets are used to help children gain specific knowledge or skills by installing an application that provides instructions to each child on how to play, it would be better to allocate one tablet per child. However, in a case such as that of the Tondabayashi Kindergarten, where tablets are used to enhance children's independent and interactive learning, allocating one tablet per group or one or two tablets per class should be sufficient. In other words, it is possible to avoid children's screen addiction and enhance their collaborative skills by adjusting the number of tablets and their usage according to children's needs and the childcare facilities' objectives in ECEC.
In the case of the Nishikori Kindergarten, when introducing the use of tablets, the teachers' main concern was "children's addiction to tablets which might hamper children's verbal development, as they can visualize their feelings simply by taking photos with tablets." As I explained above, the kindergarten introduced the use of tablets earlier than the Tondabayashi Kindergarten. However, teachers at the Nishikori Kindergarten finally determined that "children would learn the enjoyment of sharing and conveying their feelings and thoughts through the use of tablets. This should ultimately contribute to the development of their verbal expressions." Likewise, in the case of the Tondabayashi Kindergarten, children repeatedly experienced the joy of conveying their thoughts through the use of tablets as well as the delight of being understood. As a result, they were more motivated to use verbal expressions or combine them with other methods to make it easier for their peers to understand.
Teachers also commented, "Some children take photos independently when we are not watching them. Sometimes, we are surprised by the beautiful photos taken by children, such as the photo of the outside scene looking out through the Mushiko-Mado .Note 1" This way, teachers can discover a new side to each child and understand more about the child. This benefit is also observed in case studies of other kindergartens introducing children's tablet use.
It is also revealed that more teachers expect to use tablets to enhance their collaboration with parents and childcare self-assessments. For example, in the case of the Tondabayashi Kindergarten, teachers provided positive comments regarding the use of tablets for parent networking, saying, "It becomes easier to visualize children's daily activities to instantly show and explain curriculum contents to their parents." Furthermore, for teachers' childcare self-assessments, kindergartens that have been using tablets for several years are more likely to use tablets for that purpose. In particular, teachers use photos taken by children with tablets and create more effective "childcare documentation," which contains their daily reflective notes. As the use of tablets is becoming common for kindergartens, some kindergartens are trying to improve the quality of ECEC practices by creating a "portfolio" of each child using tablets, as complementary to the "childcare documentation." With this portfolio, teachers can reflect on their practices from multiple aspects.
It should be noted, however, even if the use of tablets is introduced in childcare, the benefits will not be realized immediately. Nevertheless, considering that children's learning is improved as a result of visualizing their independent activities, interactions, and collaboration along with conventional childcare, it is essential for teachers to use tablets with children based on the objectives of such usage. In this way, they can enhance conventional childcare practices and become more conscious of the importance of understanding children. This will ultimately promote children's learning and enrich childcare practices.
4. Development of mobile applications that support children's use of tablets in childcare
Unlike elementary schools, ECEC facilities do not provide education for each subject. Instead, they promote the holistic development of children's ability to learn through play in five domains of "health," "interpersonal relationship," "environment," "language," and "expression." In this regard, childcare facilities' approach to the use of tablets varies. Some kindergartens introduce applications focusing on a single skill or activity through play, while others adopt more flexible usage according to children's needs and educational objectives. In the case of the Tondabayashi Kindergarten, this public kindergarten aims to enhance children's learning by flexibly applying children's changing interests and curiosity. Hence, the use of tablet applications focusing on a single purpose might not have been effective.
In contrast, if kindergartens have a clear objective or activity plan or aim to teach specific knowledge and skills to the entire class, it would be better to use applications targeting a specific purpose or activity and respond to each child's needs. Nowadays, such applications are being developed not only for family use, but for professional use in childcare facilities. In the near future, however, it might be necessary to develop applications that can flexibly adjust to users' purposes and activities, such as authoring tools.Note 2
In this study, we had planned to use the application "ASCA (Archives Sharing and Creating Anytime for preschool)" as an authoring tool. ASCA, developed by our research team, consolidates several functions, such as taking photos, saving data, printing, sharing, and tagging, into one application. However, it was not used this time for security reasons, since ASCA is can only be activated within the scope of the kindergarten LAN and cannot be used outside the premises.
In addition, teachers of the above-mentioned kindergartens commented, "Photos taken by tablets were displayed in chronological order on the screen, so it was convenient for us to view the photos with children after the excursion." In this regard, ASCA would not have worked well because the application has the function of "sorting photos into each child's respective folder on the server." Therefore, further case studies are required to develop applications that can be used flexibly in childcare, without unnecessarily limiting children's various activities and emotional movements.
Another case study was also conducted on two public kindergartens in Tondabayashi City. These kindergartens created a biotope (biological growth space) in their playgrounds, from which they reported enhanced children's learning. Therefore, it can be said that adequate childcare infrastructure is another critical factor in supporting children's learning. Both tablet applications and infrastructure should be developed for children's safe and enjoyable learning, while ensuring security measures inside and outside the kindergarten. Finally, I suggest that it is necessary to discuss ICT use in ECEC settings among teachers (application users), application developers, and researchers, seeking potential usages in the future.
Acknowledgment:I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Director Masayo Futagi and all other teachers at the Tondabayashi Kindergarten in Tondabayashi City for their valuable assistance in this study. This study was sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science as part of its Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research (JP26350351, JP17K01166, and JP20K03139).