Digital tools and interactive play can help engage children in the classroom

In a 21st Century classroom, children are engaged in traditional types of pretend play, such as acting out stories, as well as activities that incorporate new digital media tools. Both types of activity have the potential to shape how children learn, and it’s important for educators to make sound decisions about each to foster a healthy learning environment.

Photo: Erikson professor Gillian McNamee

Gillian McNamee, Ph.D.

“Pretend play activities that are language-based, interactive, and use materials in symbolic ways help children develop important problem-solving skills and resourcefulness that they will need in the future,” said Gillian McNamee, Ph.D., Erikson Institute’s director of Teacher Education.

She and Chip Donohue, Ph.D., director of the Technology in Early Childhood Center at Erikson, recently took their messages about technology use and pretend play directly to educators by leading breakout sessions at The Alliance for Early Childhood Preschool-Kindergarten Summit, held this month at the Chicago Botanic Gardens.

As technology integration in the classroom becomes more prevalent, traditional forms of pretend play still have an important place in the classroom, said Dr. McNamee, who works extensively preparing and consulting with teacher candidates and educators and is the author of the book The High-Performing Preschool: Story Acting in Head Start Classrooms. Nursery rhymes, songs, and read-alouds are just a few of the types of activities that contribute to academic achievement. It is also healthy for children to act out stories they and their peers write or dictate as well as those that their teachers read out loud.

Teachers can support pretend play and leverage it to support learning by providing extended time for it and encouraging conversations among children during play. For example, teachers can ask questions during the recitation that help children clarify characters’ roles and resolve conflicts. Questions like “What role are you playing?” and “Can you include a dinosaur in the story?” add value to the activity, Dr. McNamee said.

photo of Chip Donohue

Chip Donohue, Ph.D.

In the digital age, new technology can go hand-in-hand with other play activities, but adults must have an understanding of technology in order to integrate it into their work with children, said Dr. Donohue, whose work at the Technology in Education Center examines digital media use in relation to families and young children. “Digital media literacy” is essential in order to ensure that the way in which technology is used in the classroom is not superficial — that it is integrated in a purposeful way that takes into account children’s developmental stages.

“The more you connect, the less you connect,” Dr. Donohue said. “As we integrate digital tools into teaching and learning, adults must address use, misuse, and overuse of technology. We all have to take a look at our own digital behaviors and recognize that we are media mentors and role models for young children.”

Digital screens can be seen as “windows, mirrors, and magnifying glasses,” tools that spur children and families to inquire, discover, communicate, and collaborate. However, it’s also important for adults to remember that their face-to-face relationships with children are critical, Dr. Donohue said. Choosing digital media tools that adults and children can use together, such as interactive storytelling apps for smartphones and tablets, can help strengthen these relationships.

At the heart of Dr. Donohue and Dr. McNamee’s work is an understanding of child development, which also is central to Erikson’s approach to education, research, and community initiatives. Their participation in The Alliance for Early Childhood Preschool-Kindergarten Summit brought an Erikson perspective to professionals who work with children and families in the Chicago area.