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“It’s Not Just Playing Games; Children Use Technology To Support Their Learning And Development”

Integrating technology needn't mean toddlers glued to iPads all day, and Bentley Manor is proof it can add huge value to their learning experiences

  • “It’s Not Just Playing Games; Children Use Technology To Support Their Learning And Development”

It may have its own Early Learning Goal, but ‘technology’ is still regarded with suspicion by many in the early years sector. Part of the problem is that, to the sceptical, the term conjures up images of toddlers glued to tablet computers – and with burgeoning screen time at home a legitimate concern, a determination to make nursery a ‘tech-free zone’ is at the very least understandable.

What such a viewpoint ignores, however, is firstly that ‘technology’ encompasses far more than gadgets with screens, and secondly that used appropriately, screens too can add value to children’s learning experiences.

Any setting seeking guidance on how best to approach technology would do well to look to The Natural Childcare Company (NCC)’s Bentley Manor setting. This nursery’s integrated approach to ICT and willingness to embrace technology as a tool for business earned it NDNA’s ‘Best Use of Technology’ Award in 2016, and the thought and care that has gone into ensuring the resources and systems it employs have a positive impact is clear.

Co-Director Tim Landreth sums up the attitude when he stresses that The NCC isn’t interested in using technology “for its own sake” – it has to offer value to staff, parents or children.

Expanding learning

Based in a converted manor house in Dorridge, Solihull, Bentley Manor is a sizeable nursery equipped to care for in excess of 100 children and set in more than four acres of outdoor space.

Judged ‘outstanding’ at its first inspection after opening in late 2013, the setting is far from focused solely on technology, but staff do believe that reflecting the vital role it plays in society is important.

“Technology is naturally coming to the fore as it evolves, and the world evolves with it – so if we’re really going to give the children in our care the best start in life, technology has to come into that,” argues Victoria Fraher, Bentley Manor’s Early Years Coordinator. “We need to give them skills and experiences that they can take with them for a lifetime. We make sure that there’s a balance in whatever we do, though.”

The balance Victoria describes is apparent in that while each of Bentley Manor’s rooms is equipped with its own iPad, and older children can also access conventional computers, practitioners are well aware that it’s not beneficial for their charges to be sitting at a table staring at a screen for long periods.

Not that staff are constantly having to tell children their time is up – Victoria points out that having such technology available as part of the setting’s continuous provision helps to reduce its novelty factor, encouraging children to take advantage of the full array of learning experiences made available to them.

When children do access screen-based devices, the technology is commonly used as a resource to support learning and development, rather than entertainment or distraction. So whether they are using an iPad outside to take pictures of something they have discovered in the garden, or heading online to research Tim Peake’s trip into space, there is a purpose to the activity.

Then there’s the fact that the technology children at Bentley Manor access comprises a wide variety of resources, including ‘defunct’ items such as old computer keyboards, cameras and hair dryers for children to role play with, and simple buttons in the baby room, inviting the very youngest in the setting to explore. “Technology is in their imaginations, in their free-flow play – even, for example, in their interest in pressing the doorbell when they’re role playing outside,” Victoria says.

Supporting practitioners

Bentley Manor’s focus on technology is not limited to educational resources; the setting has adopted a number of high-tech solutions to support leaders and practitioners in their roles, and forge partnerships with home. In some cases this has simply involved utilising freely available platforms – the nursery makes extensive use of Facebook, for instance, both to connect with parents and to recruit new members of staff – but in others it has required an investment of time and money.

Perhaps the most significant of these is the nursery’s online learning journal software. Accessed via dedicated tablets located in every room, it’s a powerful system, but one that’s used carefully – while it’s capable of generating children’s next steps, for example, staff choose not to use this functionality: “We don’t want a computer to do that because we know the children in our care best,” Victoria explains.

What the online learning journal does provide them with is a means to store observations and track children’s progress, and to share with parents what their children are getting up to in a convenient and timely manner, thanks to a linked smartphone app. “It also allows parents to upload their own observations of children at home, which gives us a more holistic picture of their development,” Victoria tells us. “The feedback we’ve had from them has been outstanding.”

With a host of options on the market, choosing the right online learning journal required careful thought on the part of management, with staff at all levels and parents consulted as part of the process, but the results have been worth it – both in terms of parental engagement and the time and money the setting has saved from being able to spare practitioners from the traditional paperwork and keep them in their rooms.

Further investment has been put into software to manage waiting lists, forecast cash flow, generate bills, track payments and measure staff absence, and hardware – for instance, the music system described in the panel below, Wi-Fi infrastructure, a fingerprint access system and CCTV. All of these solutions are making a positive impact to different aspects of the nursery.

Currently in the works, The NCC’s new website will add a further element to what is a fantastic example of how to harness technology for the good of both children and business.

WIRED FOR SOUND

Technology ensures children at Bentley Manor have plenty to listen to

Staff at Bentley Manor employ music therapy to create a calm atmosphere for children, practitioners and visiting parents. It sets the mood during sleep-times, but is also employed to enhance learning – for example, by creating opportunities to explore movement and learn about different cultures.

To aid this process, The NCC has invested in a multi-room music system. A far cry from the traditional portable CD player, this allows individual rooms to select their choice of audio and have it played back through in-ceiling speakers whenever it is required.

“We had a visit from Bhangra Tots recently, so we listened to bhangra music and punjabi music and English music,” Victoria tells us. “We’ve explored orchestras and really listened to the different instruments there are. The children respond really well to that – regardless of their listening and attention skills, it tunes them in to the sounds around them within their environment.”

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