Talking to parents at the Parents@TUOS coffee morning

The Parents@TUOS network exists to support people at The University of Sheffield (TUOS) who have families, are about to start a family, or are thinking about having children in the future. Amongst other activities, the network hosts quarterly coffee mornings for parents interested in hearing more about topics currently being researched at TUOS that might be of interest to them.

At the end of last month, I was invited to talk about my research as part of this series. The network asked Dr. Sabine Little and myself to present on the theme: “Making Technology Work for My Family”.

In advance of the event, parents were invited to send in their questions relating to this topic. Though perhaps not surprising, some of the questions the parents sent in made me pause to reflect:

  • How do you know what a good use of a tablet app or game is?
  • How should I balance or restrict the time my kids spend on technology such as tablets, smartphones etc?
  • What is the evidence for applications actually enhancing a child’s understanding and learning?
  • How should I use technology as a way of children being ‘well behaved’ when out in public?

It is, of course, very understandable that parents have multiple questions and concerns about the technology that they encourage or permit their children to engage with. Indeed, there is plenty of important academic research that considers the particular affordances of apps and digital games. I was very recently involved in an ESRC-funded project at The University of Sheffield, which explored the characteristics of apps that promote play and creativity. The full Technology and Play Report is freely available to the public and can be read here. The study’s outputs also included a revised taxonomy of play encompassing the digital, full details of which can be found in the paper in Early Years.

At the same time, the questions struck me as both interesting and frustrating. Parents are bombarded with numerous frightening messages about the risks of technology, ‘the media’ and ‘screen-time’. There are real and necessary concerns associated with children’s engagement with technology. At the same time, many academic studies adopt a very narrow gaze when it comes to ‘what children do with technology’. This narrow gaze serves to obscure the reality of the multiple, complex and valuable practices currently taking place in UK family homes.

In practice, children’s practices with technology span far beyond the time children spend immediately engaged with a digital platform (‘screen-time’). My own PhD research suggests that children use television and related media (TV&RM) as the rich source material for physical, imaginative and literate play. During my presentation, I was able to share with Parents @TUOS some examples of preschool children’s practices that illustrate just what I mean by this. Take Rosie, whose complicated feelings about the arrival of a new baby brother are expressed in her verbal and bodily communications, games and role-play relating to the protective costumes of The Octonauts. Or Emma, who, despite observing and discussing with mum, cannot successfully swipe and tap her way to success and instead transposes her game of Plants vs. Zombies into physical victory on the trampoline. The nods and smiles from the audience suggested that such practices are not at all unfamiliar to parents of young children. And yet, the parents in my audience (like many of the parents in my study) had not previously valued as educative these existing practices.

My research suggests that parents themselves are already doing an awful lot to support their children’s learning with TV&RM at home. Given the negative press associated with TV&RM, it is perhaps unsurprising that parents find it difficult to notice and value what their children are doing with TV&RM and, indeed, to acknowledge the important work they are already doing to scaffold their children’s learning with technology.


Slides from both my talk and Dr. Sabine Little’s fascinating presentation on ‘Heritage Language Children, language, literacy and identity’ can now be found online on the Parents @TUOS coffee morning webpage.