When very young children tell researchers ‘the internet belongs to Mummy’, you know at least three things. 1. Even the youngest child may have a growing awareness of the online world—and sometimes, direct experience of it. 2. Young children do not fully grasp what the internet is, and 3. This makes them vulnerable. Professor Suzy Edwards has been researching how play-based learning and early childhood pedagogy can inform strategies to protect even the youngest children.
Have you ever stopped to think about how a four-year-old understands the internet? Internet access for young children is easier than it has ever been before. Touchscreen technologies and internet-enabled toys mean that young children now regularly engage in online activities. Online activities promise children many educational and entertainment possibilities. However, going online can also pose risks for young children, such as accidentally viewing inappropriate content, over-exposure to advertising or responding to pop-ups that compromise computer-security.Older children have access to cyber-safety education that helps keep them safe online. Cyber-safety education for older children is based on understanding the internet as a networked series of technologies over which information and social practices can be shared. This understanding is important because it provides a context for cyber-safety messages, such as ‘don’t click on pop-ups’ and ‘avoid talking to strangers online’.
Our team of researchers from Australian Catholic University, Deakin University and Monash University recently conducted a small study to find out what children understand about the internet and how teachers can approach cyber-safety education with young children. We found out that children have what science education calls ‘everyday’ or ‘small’ concepts of the internet. They said things like: ‘the internet is in my iPad’ or ‘the internet belongs to Mummy, she uses it for her work’. These concepts of the internet make sense to young children because they relate to how they use, and see others using, the internet in their daily lives. However, these everyday concepts of the internet don’t provide children with a platform for engaging with cyber-safety education The teachers in our study said cyber-safety education should probably commence from ‘day one’ due to the commonplace nature of internet activity for many children. However, these teachers also said that approaching cyber-safety education can be a ‘complicated’, ‘daunting’ and ‘overwhelming’ task.
Cyber-safety education for young children need not be complicated or overwhelming for teachers. This is because early childhood teachers are highly skilled at developing children’s everyday concepts. Teachers know how to use play-based learning to build children’s mathematical concepts, or early concepts about print. Concepts of the internet can be built in similar ways to help provide a platform for children’s cyber-safety education. Teachers in our study talked about using play-based learning to build concepts of the internet. For example: adding cables to a group of pretend-computers in a role-play area to help children understand that the internet comprises a series of ‘networked’ technologies. Teachers can also engage in pretend play with children ‘sending’ emails over the network; or posting ‘messages’ to social media. There are also more purposefully-framed opportunities for engaging children in conversations about the internet. For example, when going online with children to search for information about topics of interest (e.g. dinosaurs) questions can be asked: where does this information about dinosaurs come from? How is this information about dinosaurs made available to us?
The more we build children’s concepts of the internet the stronger the foundation they will have to learn about why cyber-safety is important. Our team is looking forward to researching further with children and teachers to learn more about the impact of building children’s concepts of the internet as a platform for cyber-safety education in early childhood. Now that young children can access the internet so readily through touchscreen technologies and internet-enabled toys it is probably more than timely that concepts of the internet become just as embedded in early childhood settings as those we are more used to seeing in early childhood settings, such as mathematics or literacy.
Professor Suzy Edwards, Australian Catholic University, researches the role of play-based learning in the early childhood curriculum and is a keynote speaker at the ECA national conference, 5 to 8 October 2016.