Primary education: listening and observing
Primary education: listening and observing

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5 Play and learning online

Children love to play with new technologies, with and without adult support. Jackie Marsh has studied and reported extensively on how young children play and learn with technology. She carried out an enquiry into primary children’s use of virtual online worlds and social networking websites, and she deliberately chose to study profit-making commercial websites rather than those developed for educational purposes in and for schools. Marsh chose to study two commercial websites (Club Penguin and Barbie Girl) because, in her words, ‘these worlds are becoming increasingly prevalent in children’s out-of-school lives and it is important that educators become familiar with the way in which children use these environments in order to build upon these experiences further’ (Marsh, 2010, p. 26).

One hundred and seventy-five children aged from 5 to 11 years took part in Marsh’s enquiry, where they accessed the two websites and reported (in questionnaires and interviews) on what they did there. Playing games featured strongly in their responses. Ewan, aged 5, for example, said: ‘It’s all games. I like the games’ (Marsh, 2010, p. 30).

Marsh observed the types of play that children engage in within these virtual worlds:

  1. Fantasy play, where they develop characters, roles and narratives, ‘dressing up’ and adopting imaginary personas (known in online worlds as ‘avatars’).
  2. Socio-dramatic play, where they enact everyday or domestic scenarios which involve communication via text messaging.
  3. Games with rules mirroring real-world play such as ‘hide and seek’.
  4. ‘Ritualised’ play where children use actions and symbols to demonstrate feelings and participate in group activities.

Shopping with virtual tokens/money and caring for virtual pets were other popular forms of play for children in this study. Unlike the virtual worlds of older children and adults, however, Club Penguin and Barbie Girl did not offer children opportunities to create their own ‘in-world’ objects or customise their avatars.

For the children in this study, there were many similarities between offline and online play, and Marsh argues that their activities in the websites are not ‘virtual’ but ‘real’ play – pointing out that much online play is, like face-to-face play, a social practice constructed through interactions with others. An important difference, the study notes, between face-to-face and online play, is that in the virtual world children do not always know who they are playing with. Marsh argues that this presents an opportunity to teach children about online safety, and she concludes: ‘[children in virtual world play] have opportunities to construct, re-construct and perform identities and learn how to engage with others in online forums ... Children’s engagement in online virtual worlds might offer useful opportunities to develop skills that will enable them to navigate online environments more safely and appropriately’ (Marsh, 2010, p. 36).

Activity 6 Children’s virtual online worlds

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Here are some suggested websites; you might be familiar with these and with others. When you access your chosen website, you will need to sign up and create your own profile (this should be free to do on all the sites listed below). Spend some time exploring the website. You should not communicate with others on the website.

Disney UK [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Moshi monsters

Bin weevils

Reflect on your experience, using the following questions to help you.

  • To use this website, what do you need to understand and know how to do?
  • What are the ethical issues of adults accessing websites designed for children to use?
  • What did you do in the virtual world you selected?
  • What did you find interesting, fun, challenging or worrying?
  • Can you see it being appropriate for school in any way?
  • Did you have any concerns about children’s safety on the website?
  • Did you feel that the website offered opportunities to play? Describe these.
  • Did you feel it offered opportunities to learn? What were these?
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Children’s use of technology often seems to blur the boundaries between play and learning, perhaps because much of children’s technology is linked to leisure, commercial culture and consumer products, which may sit uncomfortably in the school ‘learning’ context. Like children’s real-life play and popular culture, there is perhaps something subversive and ungovernable about their online culture and play.

In supporting children’s learning, teachers and teaching assistants may experience a gap between what children know and do outside school with technology and what they learn to do in school with technology. Educators like Jackie Marsh try to find commonalities across these experiences, so that adults can support children to apply what they know to their learning in school.

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