Practical uses of digital devices in play settings

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Practical uses of digital devices in play settings

Children like playing with digital technology – smartphones, tablets and computers. It intrigues and challenges them, offering entry into an exciting world where it appears everyone and everything is online. As playworkers we often struggle to see how this is play, and social media regularly takes the blame for everything, including obesity, lack of communication skills, and poor concentration. The reality is far more complex.

The late Douglas Adams1 said: ‘I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.’

Since playworkers come in all ages, it’s likely one of these ‘rules’ will resonate with us all. The children we work with however all belong in the first category – to them digital engagement is normal and natural. Computers, tablets and smartphones are everywhere and can be incredibly useful, but their contribution to play is the subject of debate. This information sheet looks at some of the issues and practical uses of digital devices in play settings. While much of it is applicable to all digital devices, it focuses more on portable devices such as smartphones and tablets as these are most widely used by children and staff. It also builds on the content of the Play and digital technology information sheet which is available to download at: informationsheets

In the rapidly changing worlds of social media and digital technology it’s important to try to stay on top of what’s happening and changing. Just remember ‘Don’t panic’! Most children still enjoy2, and indeed prefer to play outside3, are not victims of cyberbullying or sexting, and have not seen upsetting images on the internet4. Children do however play in digital spaces and incorporate elements from these into their physical play5. The Playwork Principles6 don’t differentiate between supporting creation of digital spaces for play and physical ones. Part of being up-to-date (Playwork Principle 6) is considering how we as playworkers can support this as well as providing other elements that form an enriched play environment7. The taxonomy of play types8 is often used to talk about the different ways children play. How children play with technology corresponds to one of more of these types – there has been no convincing case made for a separate ‘digital play’. Playing on digital devices does not by itself however provide the complex experience that playing face-to-face does, but much of the time playing with technology is combined with physical interaction so combining elements of both.

Top tips Here are suggestions for dealing with digital devices in your play setting: Learn the current games, apps, jargon, and buzzwords The best way to learn is by doing what playworkers do anyway, by observing, responding to play cues – including digital ones – talking, and being interested in how children are playing. They will probably be pleased you’re showing interest and will share what they are doing with you. Most of the time children will be playing on their devices, and as playworkers we can be supporting them in this play, staying up-to-date with current trends, helping them deal with hazards and risks, building good relationships, and having fun. Be generally observant of phone use and learn how they’re used (or not) in your setting If there are any real variations you can investigate – in an interested manner. Most phone use is social, but if a group of children starts putting their phones away whenever a member of staff approaches, we should try to find out why. Cyberbullying, sexting and other hazards do exist. If children bring in expensive new phones this can be sign they are being groomed, and having two phones can suggest that they are involved in drug dealing. Offer a safe place for phone and tablet storage Phones are fragile and many children (but not all) are conscious of this and don’t want their phones damaged. Having a labelling and reminder system may be useful otherwise you may end up with a drawer full of phones overnight. Be very clear with children and teenagers as well as staff and parents, what your policy on phone use is, particularly around sharing images and contact details Displaying posters or signs may be helpful. We live in a time when there are more and more images online, and many settings use images publicly to promote, celebrate and evaluate what they do. A very clear policy statement, understood by children, staff and parents is essential. This may range from an overall ban on taking images to a more relaxed approach where it’s okay if you ask the person in the picture. Once an image

is online however it’s potentially there forever. See Policy section below for a detailed list of considerations. Think of creative ways to incorporate technology in play Phones, tablets or MP3 players could be used for music to perform to or set a mood, as a source of inspiration for things to do (using Pinterest, for example), or even to make movies or stopframe animations. Many children are keen YouTube viewers, and often they watch people demonstrating skills, such as skateboarding, that they want to do themselves. You could suggest they make videos of themselves demonstrating a skill in your setting, whether it’s doing a front flip, building a den, or a skateboarding trick. Look at how interesting your play space is If it’s not more interesting, exciting, challenging or fun than playing on technology, then you may need to do some work! Banning phones, especially in open access settings or with teenagers, may be counterproductive since it makes staff the enemy and closes down opportunities for dialogue. Separate the idea of physical devices from social media We often think of digital devices and social media as being almost one and the same, but separating them can be useful. Even when children aren’t online they find lots of things to do with their phones and tablets. This includes offline games, but most often it’s the simplest functions they use – playing music, taking photos and videos, and checking the time. Think about how to keep children’s phones safe from damage Open access settings attended by teenagers will likely deal with use of digital devices differently to those with younger children. Adventure playgrounds, especially those following the ‘junk playground’ model, may find children choose fires, dens and jumping rather than playing on their mobiles, if indeed they bring them into the playground. A drawer in the office or a playworker’s bag in a street-based session to keep phones from damage might be all that’s needed.

Safeguarding – don’t panic!

Staff and volunteers

As playworkers we acknowledge the need for children to take risks in their play, while we aim to minimise hazards and injury9. The playwork approach centres on risk-benefit assessments10, and while these were designed with physical risk in mind, they are equally applicable for play with digital devices. This approach is often laid out in an organisational policy.

As playworkers and play providers we have become accustomed to using computers to keep records and for monitoring and evaluation. Tablets and smartphones can however be used to take photos and record videos of events and occurrences in your setting, even interviewing children and staff.

Your policies will depend on a number of things, including the type of setting you work in and its location, and the age ranges of the children attending. Your setting may include digital devices in an overall play policy, as part of your safeguarding, internet policy, or you may have a stand-alone one. Whichever you have, it should be reviewed at least every year to keep it current. Social media can cause serious hazards for children, for example mobile phones and private access to the internet are used for child sexual exploitation and ‘County Lines’ drug running networks. From a playwork provider’s point of view these hazards can be addressed through being informed, good policies and practice. Police forces and other agencies regularly update lists of apps that put children at risk, as well as lists of text abbreviations that are used by children and teenagers, for example, to warn when parents are watching what is being texted. Policies need to include how to safeguard children and staff from digital risks, and everyone in the setting needs to understand their part in staying safe. We are used to considering serious physical risks in our risk-benefit assessments, and we need to be similarly realistic about those arising from social media and the mobile internet. Including digital devices only in safeguarding related policies means they are more likely to be seen in a negative light, so including them as part of a play policy or as a standalone document supports a more balanced view.

These can be used for monitoring and evaluation, reflective practice, or just reminding children and adults of good times. They can also be used to catalogue risks when carrying out risk-benefit assessments, and keeping a record of incidents. As adults and playworkers we are role models, and our own use (or non-use) of smartphones and tablets in front of children can influence their attitudes and behaviours.

Policy Writing policies doesn’t have to be complicated, and the best ones become part of a play setting’s culture. One of the roles of policies is to set boundaries, which clarifies what you can do, not just what you can’t do. Involving staff, volunteers and children can help them be of real value. In our policies and working practice we should consider and agree: Whether children and teenagers can bring phones, tablets or laptops into the setting, and if so what is acceptable and unacceptable use •

Can staff or volunteers keep children’s phones or tablets for safekeeping when asked – and what about charging their phones or tablets?

What you do about loss, damage or theft of phones or tablets

How you deal with stigmatisation of children who don’t own phones or tablets.

Who is allowed to take photos and videos – and live stream from the play setting Think about staff and volunteers as well as children •

How you deal with parents’ and visitors’ use of phones or tablets and taking of images.

How you obtain and store permissions, and ensure that children’s and parents or carers’ wishes about not being photographed or videoed is respected This is especially important when children’s names and images can’t be shared online due to safeguarding reasons •

What you do when you think someone is taking or sharing images without consent – this will include children, staff and volunteers as well as parents and visitors

How you deal with suspicions of cyberbullying or sexting

How you deal with children or adults sharing inappropriate images.

How and if you use social media to communicate between staff members This includes whether you expect all staff and volunteers to own their own phones, keep them switched on and where they can access them easily, and be prepared to use them for work purposes. If so, guidelines on sharing or receiving confidential or sensitive information is important •

If you provide smartphones for staff, what the guidelines are for their use, including installation of apps, monitoring, and personal use

Staff and volunteers’ personal use of their own phones or tablets during work time, and whether they can take them into areas where there are children

Who can post on your play setting’s social media pages or sites, and what your criteria is for blocking people from posting on your social media pages or sites

If staff and volunteers can ‘friend’ or follow children on social media and what staff and volunteers do when children ask to ‘friend’ them or follow their accounts.

How you ensure staff, volunteers and children understand the importance of what the policy is trying to do and how this affects them day to day. How you enforce the policy, monitor its effectiveness, incorporate what you learn into it, and make sure everyone understands the changes. Your setting may decide that many of these suggestions are irrelevant to you, and you may think of others that are. It may be tempting to ban all digital devices entirely, but that does potentially take away meaningful play opportunities for children and learning for staff and volunteers – burying heads in sandboxes doesn’t mean the issues will go away!

The physical properties of phones and tablets Smartphones and other devices don’t ruin play, but they can have a significant effect on it, especially on how active children are. Phones are expensive and fragile. Rain and mud can ruin them, and being dropped can shatter the screen. As children are so attached to their phones, it’s no wonder they try to protect them by huddling in groups and staying somewhere sheltered. Human beings are social creatures, and most of what children do with technology is social. Even when their heads are hunched over the screen’s glow they are often immersed in a hybrid world with both digital and biological elements. We are also biological beings, part of nature rather than separate, and this means children need green spaces and dedicated, uninterrupted time to run, climb and play. We’ve all seen children so heavily absorbed in their play they lose track of time, and this ‘flow’11 can have a great positive impact on children. While in this state children can be oblivious to many outside distractions and noises, mobile phones have the potential to interrupt this

state or to make it harder for children to enter into it. While this doesn’t mean digital devices have no place in play, it’s worth considering how to deal with them in your play setting. Sometimes the tiniest details matter. Children are smaller than adults, yet the phones they use are adult sized, sometimes bigger than their hands. This can be a problem – where do children carry their phones when they’re playing or out and about – and why does this matter? They keep them in three main places: •

Hands. Children and young people often walk around with their phones in their hands. This makes them easy to use but more likely to be damaged, and may act as a barrier to more active play.

Back pockets. Most phones, especially smartphones, are too big and uncomfortable for children and teenagers to carry in their front pockets, so they often carry them in their back pockets, where they usually stick out. This makes them vulnerable to being lost, stolen, sat on or broken.

Bags. This is where phones are often thrown when children are out on bikes, scooters or skateboards. This is the safest of all three places, until backpacks are strewn carelessly onto hard ground. Phones in rucksacks means phones are ‘out of sight and out of mind’, and this has the lowest impact on play. It also means that children are less likely to hear texts or calls from parents.

Brain biology The human body creates a small amount of the chemical dopamine when we feel something is pleasurable, such as receiving texts from a friend, a goal in football or a ‘like’ on social media. While dopamine is a natural way the body operates and it’s important for concentration and learning, we can become addicted to our phones since we never quite known when we’re going to get this ‘hit’, so we keep checking. Dopamine causes us to seek out more and more ‘hits’ so creates a loop of seeking and responding. As dopamine stimulates the brain to search and discover, it’s also tied up with curiosity and investigation, which are crucial components of play. It has also been suggested that too little dopamine corresponds to conditions such as ADHD and schizophrenia. Another side effect of this is a lack of physical activity.

Breaking this dopamine loop can be difficult, since it’s physical rather than psychological. Dopamine is also produced when children enjoy more ‘traditional’ forms of play, which is one reason why children continue almost any pleasurable activity.

Risky play and digital devices There is a direct relationship between physically active and play that includes risk and phone use. Generally, the more active and risky the play, the less phones are used. If they are used it’s usually their more passive functions that are, such as playing music. The exception to this is when children purposefully set out to perform something challenging, such as an acrobatic feat or a clever stunt, and they may repeat this a number of times while their friends video it. This stems from YouTube videos, where children try to repeat or improve on something they’ve seen online. Since this has a definite outcome there may be debate whether this is play, but whatever it is, children choose to do it and it’s popular.

Conclusion While many playworkers feel uncomfortable with children using digital devices, we also have to consider the child’s right to play as regards their phones, tablets and other devices. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child12 doesn’t specifically include reference to digital devices, but General Comment no. 17 on Article 31 clearly states: ‘Access to the Internet and social media is central to the realization of article 31 rights in the globalized environment’13, while at the same time pointing out the dangers.

Every playwork setting needs to make a decision about the use of digital devices and there is no ‘one size fits all’ response. We will probably get some of our responses right and others wrong, but we will improve with practice. Children’s play still needs to be our priority, in all its glorious messiness and unpredictability. Children still need to be in control of their play, which is what we as playworkers are here to support.



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NSPCC (2017) How safe are our children?

Martin, C. (2017) Children, Mobile Phones and Outdoor Play. In W. Russell, H. Smith, and S. Lester (Eds.), Practice-based Research in Children’s Play. Bristol: Policy Press.


Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group (2005) The Playwork Principles. Cardiff: Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group.


National Playing Fields Association (2000) Best play: what play provision should do for children. National Playing Fields Association.


Hughes, B. and Melville, S. E. (1996) A playworker’s taxonomy of play types (2nd ed.). PlayEducation.


Ball, D. J., Gill, T., a Spiegal, B. (2008) Managing risk in play provision: Implementation guide. Nottingham: DCSF Publications.



Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000) Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass.


United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child.


United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2013) General Comment No. 17 on the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts (art. 31). Geneva: Committee on the Rights of the Child.


July 2018 © Play Wales

Author: Chris Martin

Chris is a playworker, researcher, and play activist. He is currently researching children’s interactions with mobile digital technology for his PhD at the University of Leicester.

Play Wales is the national organisation for children’s play, an independent charity supported by the Welsh Government to uphold children’s right to play and to provide advice and guidance on play-related matters. Registered charity, no. 1068926 A company limited by guarantee, no 3507258 Registered in Wales