iPads and opportunities for teaching and learning for young children

Early Years Research Centre

Elaine Khoo and Rosina Merry

Project Summary

This project was an exploratory study into the educational affordances of iPads for teaching and learning with children in an early childhood education centre within Hamilton. At the time not much was known about iPad use of young children and the The Early Childhood Curriculum, Te Whāriki (Ministry of Education, 1996) acknowledged the important role ICTs can play in supporting children "to grow up as competent and confident learners and communicators, healthy in mind, body and spirit, secure in their sense of belonging and in the knowledge that they make a valued contribution to society" (p. 9). This vision has increased efforts to ensure that young children's use of and learning with ICTs in educational contexts occur in a holistic, socially and culturally appropriate manner.

Why we did the research

Tablet technologies such as the Apple iPad had been garnering interest and increasingly adopted as a potential learning tool and resource to engage children's learning. Despite a growing literature on the ways educators have attempted to use iPads in their teaching across the compulsory schooling and tertiary sectors, there was a scarcity of studies in the early childhood education (ECE) context. This exploratory qualitative research project, the iPads and opportunities for teaching and learning for young children (iPads n Kids), was intended to inform the current debate on young children's iPad use. It recognised that young children are increasingly exposed to (and to an extent expected to make use of) digital and mobile technologies as members of a digital generation. Teachers and caregivers are further expected to take advantage of the educational affordances these technologies offer to facilitate young children's active pursuit and extension of their learning interests and exploration of the world.

The research aim was to obtain a better understanding of iPad use for educational purposes from the perspectives of teachers, young children and their parents/ caregivers. The following question guided the study:
What are the educational affordances of iPads as applied in an early childhood educational context?

Three subsidiary research questions expanding on this question were developed. They were:

  1. How are teachers using iPads to provide opportunities for young children's learning and exploration?
  2. How are young children responding to and taking up those opportunities for learning and exploration?
  3. How do parent/ caregiver views and children's home experiences shape children's responses, skills and abilities in using iPads?

How we did the research

A qualitative, interpretive methodology framed the research design, collection and analysis of the data. We collaborated with two early childhood educators to gather the perspectives of teachers, young children and their parents/caregivers about how they used iPads for educational purposes. We interviewed the teachers, observed teacher-children interactions and collected copies of children's work produced on the iPad. Additionally, four children and their families were case studied to identify factors that shaped their iPad interest.

The data was analysed based on sociocultural theory which directs attention to the interactions between people, the tools they use to achieve particular purposes, and the settings in which interactions occur. Themes emerging from the data were identified through a process of inductive reasoning. A process of teacher and researcher collaborative data analysis was established to develop and share the emerging findings with the teacher participants.

The project obtained formal approval from the Faculty of Education Human Research Ethics Committee, The University of Waikato. Formal permission and ethical consent was obtained from Creche management, Centre staff, and families of children enrolled at the Centre. All participants participated voluntarily in the study. Parental consent was obtained for all photos published where children's faces could be identified. ​

What we found out


The findings highlight that the iPad is appealing and can support children's developing literacy, communicative and participatory learning skills and understandings. The iPad's key features including its portability/mobility, Internet connectivity, touchscreen, and educational apps allow for new and different ways of teacher-child/children interaction and the exploration of children's learning interests. Teachers' iPad supported practice fostered child-led interests, expanded children's learning opportunities and fostered closer home-centre links in a range of planned and emergent ways. The iPads served as a relational tool, a communicative tool, a documentation tool, an informational tool, and finally, an observational tool that could support child-led learning. The quality of teachers' talk and interaction with the children, when scaffolding children's learning with and through the iPad, was an important aspect of teacher practice.

Although young children can develop key skills for using the iPad through observing and trial and error, their interactions with the teacher and peers were most valuable to their exploration of iPad use. Just as importantly, iPad use afforded interactions amongst children. It supported peer learning and collaborative exploration with and through the iPad. iPad supported learning opportunities helped to foster children's emerging literacies as well as social relationships and sense of belonging at the centre.

Finally, supportive home-centre links can foster the development of children's agency and exploration of the iPad in pursuit of their learning interests and explorations. Parent and caregiver comments indicate their recognition of the increasingly important role iPads, and subsequent digital technologies will play across all aspects of children's lives. They downloaded apps on their home mobile devices to allow children to continue playing and extending their learning interest thereby strengthening home-centre links and practices. Parents and caregivers (as with the teachers) cautioned the need for clear guidelines to guide, support and scope children's iPad use to help ensure they developed the awareness, dispositions and skills essential to the effective use of digital technologies. Some parents adopted rules similar to those such used at the centre to help maintain continuity between home-centre practices.

Who could benefit?

  • Early childhood teachers
  • Parents of young children
  • Organisations related to education and care of young children - kindergarten, creche, early childhood education and care centres.

Implications for teachers

Teaching practice:

  1. Teachers valuing of children's interests and funds of knowledge is an important influence on how iPads come to be integrated into their teaching practice and enrich learning.
  2. Teacher recognition and understanding of the opportunities iPads offer, and their deliberate incorporation of these opportunities, can support young children's learning and exploration.
  3. The quality of teacher talk and interaction is central to children becoming aware of, and developing the skills, confidence and dispositions for meaningful and productive engagement with iPads.
  4. Teachers' modelling and negotiation of guidelines (including limits and social etiquette) for children's use and   sharing of iPads, when they are a limited resource, is essential to ensure appropriate and productive use.

Teacher learning:

  1. For teachers to recognise the affordances that iPads offer, they need time to explore and experiment with the iPad's different functionalities and possibilities. As teachers grow in confidence and expertise, they can share and reflect on the possibilities for iPad use with colleagues, to the mutual benefit of both groups.

ECE centres and homes:

  1. Complementary practices and consistent guidelines are important in helping children make sense of the role the iPad can have as a tool to support their learning interests and explorations, both at the early childhood centre and in children's homes.
  2. iPad use in centre and home settings can provide a focus of communication between teachers and parents about children's learning, thereby strengthening home-centre links.

Implications for pupils

Young children's learning:

  1. iPads are one of the wide repertoire of digital and mobile technologies available for today's young children to use to access resources to inform their, and their peers' learning. Young children are able to use iPads to express, share and communicate their ideas to others in multimodal ways that are appealing and meaningful to them. Young children are able to emulate teacher talk to help peers become aware of, and use, iPads productively within peer group learning.

Project outputs and publications

Khoo, E., Merry, R., & Bennett, T. (2015). “I want to say…”: Privileging young children’s voice in iPad-supported assessment for learning. Early Childhood Folio, 19(1), 3-9. doi: http://dx.doi .org/10.18296/ecf.0002

Khoo, E., Merry, R., Bennett, T., & MacMillan, N. (2015). “It’s about the relationships that we build”: iPad supported relational pedagogy (Ngā Hononga) with young children. In N. Wright & D. Forbes (Eds.), Digital Smarts: Enhancing learning and teaching (pp. 8-26). Hamilton, New Zealand: Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research.

Khoo, E., Merry, R., & Nguyen, N.H., Bennett, T., & MacMillan, N.  (2015). iPads and opportunities for teaching and learning for young children (iPads n kids). Hamilton, New Zealand: Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research​.

Khoo, E. & Falloon, G. (2014). "Remember your swipy finger?" Understanding iPad mediated talk in young children's learning and exploration. AARE-NZARE 2014 Conference. Brisbane, Australia; 30 November – 4 December 2014.

Bennett, T., Khoo, E., Merry, R., & MacMillan, N. (2014). Using the iPad as a communicative device to foster young children's spatial awareness. Conversations about Technology in the Early Years (CATEY) conference. Auckland, 14th November, 2014.

Khoo. E., Merry. R., Nguyen, N.H., Bennett. T., & MacMillan. N. (2014). Early childhood education teachers' iPad supported practices in young children's learning and exploration. Computers in New Zealand Schools: Learning, Teaching, Technology, 25(1-3), 3–20. Retrieved from http://www.otago.ac.nz/cdelt/cinzs/otago063953.html

Merry, R., Khoo, E., Bennett, T., & MacMillan, N. (2013). The "iPads N Kids" project: An Exploration of the iPad's Educational Affordances. 50th Annual NZCA Conference & AGM. Wellington, New Zealand; 19th -21st July 2013.

Khoo, E., Merry, R., Bennett, T., Macmillan, N., & Nguyen, N. (2012). Exploring the educational affordances of iPads for young children: The"iPads N Kids" project. New Zealand Association for Research in Education (NZARE) Conference and Annual Meeting 2012. Hamilton, New Zealand; 29-30th November 2012.

Khoo, E., & Merry, R. (2012). The"˜iPads N Kids' project: Research on iPads and Opportunities for Teaching and Learning for Young Children. Presentation at mLearning Day. University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand; 16th November, 2012. 

Research findings shared in a TV interview with TvCentral (20th March 2013).