Engaging early years in digital gaming

by Elizabeth Storer

Play based education has been a foundation of learning for centuries. The combination of the best methods of constructivism makes this style of learning effective. With the continuing growth of digital spaces and the internet, education is starting to move in to digital spaces. In this chapter I will examine how digital gaming is accessed and applied in early childhood education. I will present information about online gaming and how it stands today, as well as discussing the skills required to interact effectively in these digital interactional spaces.  I will report on my own findings with a small catchment group and discus the findings of others.  Within the discussion, I will refer to current studies and explore the shortcomings in the information we have currently in this discipline. (Barblett, 2010)

I will begin this chapter by examining the definitions of: play based learning, digital gaming, social gaming, early childhood and the catchments of case studies used. I will then discus how I analysed the evidence provided in literature and my own situational experiences as an early years teacher.

Defining play

The Australian Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF) was developed in 2009 and defines play is a number of ways including: an enjoyable activity that requires action, and verbal and mental engagement with ideas, people or environments. It is at times symbolic and question provoking especially with what if scenarios. There is play that is self-motivating and play where is it supported by adults or others. Educative play is categorised into self-engaging or voluntary, and adult initiated where the educator is directly scaffolding the concepts and language surrounding the play. (Barblett, 2010)

Defining early childhood

Within this chapter Early Childhood Education (ECE) will be defined as year groups Kindergarten to year 3 or ages 3 to 8 as in line with Western Australian common practice. The studies and literature in this chapter uses examples of early childhood with age ranges however it should be acknowledging that true representation of early childhood is children 3 year old to 6 years old in the first two years of formal schooling offered in Australia. (Western Australian Department of Education) It should be noted that of these two school years the first year is often not compulsory and many children attend child care settings. Low attendance in these voluntary early years was often a reflection of the diversity of socioeconomic status within the data collected.

The approach for the research within this chapter was focused on having practical applications of game based learning, with a focus on skills being developed for the ‘gamer’. This approach demonstrates the educational ability of gaming. Importance was placed on having current research and literature due to the fast-moving nature of digital technologies.  There are limited examples of Australian research or literature relating to early years therefore many of the source materials are taken from comparable education system of the United Kingdom. The research has limitations due to the children ages, the technology available to researchers and small sample groups which makes the materials statistically generalisable.

Defining digital game based learning

Coffey (2013) defines digital game based learning (DGBL) as: “ an instructional method that incorporates educational content or learning principles into video games with the goal of engaging learners. Applications of digital game-based learning draw upon the constructivist theory of education.”  This application of gaming to learning is in line with many of the literature cited in this chapter. With the broad definition of video games being on- or offline on range of platforms including computers, iPad and tablets, gaming consoles, and others.

With the emergence of digital communication technologies, play moved onto the new digital platforms quickly with the first commercially available game Pong developing in 1973 as a fun way of using a digital device. (The Strong, 2017) It took another 25 years for learning and digital gaming to be linked (Coffey, 2013), however the link would be slowly building from offline games such as the Dorling-Kindersley publishing a range of games including I love maths and I love spelling. As education entered the 21st Century cohorts of students were undeniably digital natives, coming to school having grown up immersed in digital technology.  (Beavis, 2014). This environmental condition had changed the inherent ability levels making many of the students far more comfortable and highly skilled in comparison with their Teachers who had limited experience and very little formal training in using technology. These limitations would impact the attitudes of educators and impact the proficiency that students gain from their teachers.

Educators balance the imparting of knowledge and developing skills in students daily. With digital technologies’ ever developing progress, it is increasingly hard to remain current in you practice, and nearly impossible to be ahead of the students in understanding and skills needed to use the technologies to their full potential. Games have long been used as a tool to teacher or master skills. Examples are common in mathematics and phonics mastery in the early childhood setting.  While there is the potential for gaming and digital gaming to build knowledge, this is a more complex for students in the early years’ environment to achieve.

Beavis (2014) describes generally, ‘twenty-first century’ skills as the tools needed to win or complete the game. Gaming is therefore for developing skills rather than knowledge. With this focus on gaming and a skill building objectives comes the question of: which skills do students need to engage with gaming? As gaming, both digital and non, relies on a level of symbol interpretation and reading it is understandable that many contemporary games have not been designed for children without these skills so what kind of skills do you need to effectively interact with digital games?

To fully interact with gaming, you need to have the basic skills to complete the tasks at hand. The first of these skills is the ability to interpret signals, feedback and symbols.  Feedback interpretation is fundamental for the motivational side of gaming. If a child doesn’t know that a tick or smiley face is a positive symbol, the world of gaming becomes a set of challenges where overcoming a challenge is that a new harder challenge is presented. Many games aimed at early years such as OSMO overcome this by linking the completion of tasks with oral and musical praise. They often also give you something, to keep. For example, in the game LEGO® Juniors Create & Cruise, after each completed driving track the received a new set of blocks to customise their next vehicle.

The skill of interpreting symbols or reading is vital to many digital games, within the first screen of many games you need to create a user name or name your avatar. An example of this is Barbie’s My World™ where the welcoming screen has two options, one for new player and one for established players. [see figure 1] Once the player has found the sign-up now button. The gamer needs to answer questions in order to create a profile and avatar. While this is a social game not an educative, these windows and questions have become common practice in digital games. (Lin, 2008)

Figure 1: Barbie’s My World™
Figure 1: Barbie’s My World™
A second example of skills required to game is Club Penguin Island™ which is the replacement for the very popular Club Penguin™ which was discontinued on March 29, 2017. The main difference between these two products is their age ranges, the original Club Penguin™ was aimed at 6-11 years while the App based game Club Penguin Island™ [figure 2] is for children 9–11 and has been allocated a 9+ rating due to Infrequent/Mild Cartoon or Fantasy Violence. (Apple, 2017) While this is a rating allocated by Apple’s iTunes store, it demonstrates that the game itself needs controls and also that it is deemed to be too challenging for younger children to interoperate the game and use it effectively.
Figure 2: Club Penguin Island™
Figure 2: Club Penguin Island™
Symbol interpretations such as the use of play and stop buttons, must be taught or have multiply play experiences to be understood. This knowledge needs to be adaptable because some consoles such as Sony’s PlayStation the green triangle button takes on different roles in different games. One type of digital game that requires atypical skills is OSMO, see figure3, which is both a digital platform and a hands-on tactile interactive resource. Children use physical plastic tiles [or pieces] to interact with a tablet and with the digital setting via the inbuilt camera. This technology and its different games has allowed a younger age of gamer to interact with this platform as it able to have visual animations of what is needed to be done to complete a task with in the game. Children do not use symbolic understanding instead using skills in matching picture representation with real life objects. This is a skill that developmentally proceed symbolic understanding.
Figure 3: Osmo. Play Beyond the Screen (Video)

The practicalities of implementing digital game based learning (DGBL) in the early childhood environment is often a drawback for educators. One drawback is the above discussed issues with children’s skills another is the administrative challenge of incorporating games into classes. Several digital games require players to be signed-up or player accounts to be made before they are able to be played. The process of signing up a single child can be a challenge and attempting the signing-up a class with up to 27 children is huge. This can be compounded if a log-in or new account creation is needed each new time the game is played. (Beavis, 2014)

This lack of ability to have early learners, 6 years old and younger, use digital game based learning independently is backed up by a study completed with my Pre-Primary class (4-5 year olds). Taking a servery group of 24 students in a mixed socioeconomic class that if was found that while 20 in 24 children enjoyed playing digital games in their own time only 5 of 24 felt they were able to. Lots of the comments after this poll was that they couldn’t get their passwords to work, they didn’t know how to open the game. Taking this feedback on board I asked the children about how they get access to digital devices and while 18/24 felt they could ask to borrow a iphone (smart phone) they didn’t get to choose what they did on there with many stating that they just use phone for videos, or taking photo. This information implies that while parents are happy to have their child ‘play’ a digital devise (smart phone) there is little skill building or intention other than to occupy their child for a period of time. This is contradictory to Marsh’s (2010) works where 17 of 42 children aged 5-7 completing the study successfully used the digital gaming. With just a year’s age of difference there is a huge change in the success of gaming. This can be attributed to better literacy skills as we know that the speed of the development of these skills is sizable in these ages.

Marsh’s (2010) categories of gamer archetypes make a useful method to breakdown the ways in which children who are gaming or playing with in digital words engage. We know that play based learning is a foundation to lifelong learners. We also know that playing students are naturally engaged with the task, as discussed by Askew (2012) in his video (figure 4); connecting learning: playing, creating, making.  This time of play becoming less and less valued in Australian education for younger years as the curriculum sets a more rigorous scope and sequence.  However, as digital gaming grows in popularity this is becoming a method of building play in to early years’ classrooms. It is a way to make children active in their learning because they are needed for the task to work. We therefore get less passive listeners who retain very little from what is instructed.

The eight types of player that Marsh (2010) discusses are Nurturers, Explorer-investigators, Self-stampers, Social-climbers, Fighters, Power-users, Life-system builders, Collector-consumers, these roles that children undertake in the early years mostly are as follows:

Figure 4: Connected Learning: Playing, Creating, Making (Video)

Nurturers is one of three main categories that six and seven year olds mentioned in Marsh’s findings (2010). Nurturing is one of the early types of roleplay young children invest it, as it is the first types of interaction they have with other people. They copy and imitate the behaviours and actions of their parents and other caregivers. Digital games that have features which facilitates nurturing are often in and out of fashion but all follow similar concepts of being given a person, creature or community to look after. Two examples of traditional games having these features are The Sims and Tamagotchi. The Sims is a world-based game where gamers set up a world ‘house’ for characters to exists with in. the gamer then takes charge of the well-being for the members of that household including health, safety and finances. Tamagotchi were an early portable nurturing game where gamers were in charge with the 24-hour care of a small digital creature. Where the aim again is to have, the creature be alive for as long as possible.  This style of gaming is very engaging for young children it provides the basis for a adult style role and responsivity however with the exception of values and maybe high school early childhood studies it is hard to link this with curriculum and learning. So, while the gamer is developing gaming skills it is most likely not appropriate for education settings. It is one of the most used styles of digital gaming in early years. (Jackson,2008)

Explorer-investigators is the 2nd category of skills and style of play that gamers can up take; one example is Epic Mickey. In this game, the developers have created a virtual world to explore where players are challenged with different levels of progression towards an end goal. While this game is designed for a younger audience it is still not workable in the early years setting without support. It is also a skill based game with little-to-no content of curriculum value. (Jackson, 2008)

In conclusion, it is hard to stay if gaming is yet at a point where it can be accessed by early childhood students, however the is more and more programs becoming available that might help to engage more young children in gaming there for making it more achievable to use them as educational tools. At the present time with the pace that digital gaming mores forward and the speed of trends changing within the types of games children play it is hard to gather current research to find the true impact of gaming on the early years children.


Apple (2017) Club Penguin IslandBy Disney, itunes store, accessed on 01/05/17 at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/club-penguin-island/id991869606?mt=8

Askew, A. (2012) connecting learning: playing, creating , making.  Accessed on 20/05/2017 at https://vimeo.com/47111398

Australian office for children commission for esafety commission: (2017) Club Penguin Island Accessed on 02/05/17 from https://esafety.gov.au/esafety-information/games-apps-and-social-networking/club-penguin-island

Bassiouni, D. H., Bassiouni, D. H., Hackley, C., & Hackley, C. (2016). Video games and young children’s evolving sense of identity: a qualitative study. Young Consumers, 17(2), 127-142. Accessed on 30/04/17 from : https://scholar.google.com.au/scholar?q=video+games+and+young+children%27s+evolving+sense+of+identitybassiouni&btnG=&hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C5

Bassiouny, D., Hackley, c. (2013) Does Early Exposure to Digital Media Harm Children’s Development? A Cross-Disciplinary Review, accessed on 29/04/17 from: https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/17376000/hackley_c_bassiouny_d_does_early_exposure_to_digital_media_harm_childrens_development.pdf

Barblett, L. (2010) Why play-based learning?, Every Child Magazine, 16(3), acceseed on 1/05/17 from http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/our-publications/every-child-magazine/every-child-index/every-child-vol-16-3-2010/play-based-learning-free-article/

Beavis, C., Rowan, L., Dezuanni, M., McGillivray, C., O’Mara, J., Prestridge, S., … Zagami, J. (2014). Teachers’ beliefs about the possibilities and limitations of digital games in classrooms. E-Learning and Digital Media, 11(6), 569–581. doi:10.2304/elea.2014.11.6.569 http://www.wwwords.co.uk.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/pdf/validate.asp?j=elea&vol=11&issue=6&year=2014&article=4_Beavis_ELEA_11_6_web

Broadhead, P. ( 2004) Early Years Play and Learning: Developing Social Skills and Co-operation. London: Routledge/Falmer .  Google Scholar

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Coffey, H. (2013) Digital game-based learning, Learn NC,  accessed on 5/05/2017 from http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/4970

Jackson, L., Gauntlett, D., Steemers J. (2008) CHILDREN IN VIRTUAL WORLDSAdventure Rock users and producers study accessed on 29/05/17 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/knowledgeexchange/westminsterone.pdf

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LEGO (2017 Lego creator taken on 27/05/17 from https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/lego-juniors-create-cruise/id491075156?mt=8

Lin,J. (2008) Research shows that Internet is rewiring our brains, UCLA Newsroom, accessed on 30/04/17 from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/081015_gary-small-ibrain

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OSMO (2014) Osmo. Play Beyond the Screen taken on 28/05/2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CbwIJMz9PAQ

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The strong, (2017) National Museum of play.  Accessed on 20/05/17  from http://www.museumofplay.org/about/icheg/video-game-history/timeline

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Part 2: Provocation

Part 2: Provocation

Case studies, environmental scans, situational analysis, or other activities that illustrate games-based learning in action.

In this section:

Master of Education (Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation) developed by the
School of Information StudiesCharles Sturt University, 2017.
Charles Sturt University
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