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The Learning Environment for Early Childhood in the digital age



Article By

H.S. Siddamallaiah

Sujin Butdisuwan




Abstract :

The phrase ‘Learning Environment’ is used synonymously with ‘Home Libraries’ which is depicted as a mirror of learning culture at home. Majority of published literature has portrayed the home library as a ‘decorative arrangement of books at home.’ In fact, the home library plays an important role in creating a reading habit and love for books. At the same time, developing a home library should not only be limited to help the child with school work. A good home library creates a good learning environment at home. In the 21st century, homes are equipped with digital devices connected to internet such as smartphones, tablets, laptops and other handheld devices like the e-book reader. This article examines the pros and cons of using traditional (print) as well as digital media in the context of a home library. This review study found that the use of digital devices by children, either knowingly or unknowingly, is increasing. Preventing children from using digital devices is difficult but can be done by diverting their attention from digital devices to a functional and attractive home library. Otherwise, overuse of digital devices causes negative effects on the physical and mental health of children.


Introduction :

The adage ‘home is the first school’ and ‘mother is the first teacher’ clearly depicts the need for support of education at home. As learning cannot happen in a vacuum it is this learning that requires adequate learning materials and support from parents or teachers. The word library is described as a building or room with collections of printed materials like books and periodicals. The collection also includes multimedia such as films, music etc. The home library has been portrayed as a decorative arrangement of books and recognized as a status symbol of the family. In some cases, home  libraries were established as a part  of a professional’s practice  as with  advocates or doctors.  It  is very rare  to  see a home  library addressing children’s needs. In fact, the ideal home library should address all family members of all age groups. Since the innovation and popularity of the internet, one’s attention is now diverted to an electronic information environment.

The aim of this article is not to resolve any issue regarding the comparison or suitability of digital media versus paper media in early childhood, but rather, to examine the pros and cons of different media so that parents can develop a home learning environment using an informed choice of materials and media. As summarised below:

  • Home library has a collection, a mix of media and materials, addressing all family members irrespective of the age group to create a good learning environment.
  • Parents, teachers and the community are knowingly or unknowingly, exposing children to digital devices, indiscriminately, due to their own constraints and lack of awareness.
  • Overuse of digital devices by children in early childhood could affect the physical and mental health of the child.
  • The use of digital devices by children cannot be avoided, but can be minimized by diverting their attention to alternative attractive and interesting reading materials.
  • The informed participation of parents in developing a home library helps to provide a good learning experience to children.

This  review article  discusses the  following: learning and development in early childhood; the traditional  home learning  environment;  present day 21st century home  environment;  the use of digital devices in early childhood; and finally the findings of this study and conclusion.



Early childhood  development  and  the  role of parents  or  care givers is heavily dependent  on understanding  the  anxiety of the  child,  its sequence and continuum  within the contexts of family, community and culture.  Mitchel[1] describes three phases of child development in multiples of seven years:

First phase (0 to 7 years): Imitation – the young child  mimics  everything, uncritically, in  the environment, not only the sounds of speech and gestures of people, but also the attitudes and values of parents and peers.

Second phase (7-14 years): Imagination – toward the end of the child’s first seven years, various changes take place. On the one hand a new and vivid imagination  of life, while on the other,  a readiness for more formal learning.

Third phase (14-21 years): Truth, discrimination and judgment. In  adolescence,  the  child now searches for truth and experience and the power of one’s own thinking.

The  first  two  stages of development  require constant support and attention of the parents. The Ontario study[2]  found that ‘Care and learning are inseparable concepts.’ Learning in early childhood requires  a  framework  rather  than  a  specific curriculum  derived  from  principles  based on beliefs, values, experiences such as:

a) The care in early child development sets a strong foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and health.

b) Constructive support for the child in early learning capitalizes children’s natural curiosity and exuberance to learn.

c) The learning needs to be evolved as an integrated and lifelong culture of the family.


Learning and behaviour of a child is dependent on family involvement and activity and therefore calls for attention of the parents to keep observing the development  of the  child. Early Childhood Australia (ECA)[3] derived an ‘ Everyday Learning Index’ which focuses on children’s attention and interaction  with varied objects, observation  of everyday activities such as how the child perceives space, shape and size, how children compare and classify things and how they begin to place them in order  and  sequence. There  are many  physical objects that  attract  and  help  children  learn reasoning and logic to solve problems, language to communicate,  numbers  to  calculate and  create concept of time, money and basic counting.

There  are some myths about learning that  exist such as learning happens only at school, learning is curriculum-specific and it is the responsibility of the teacher only.

Many schools of thought have derived the concept ‘learning environment’  and  how learning  takes place. Montessori[4] (1870-1952) defined learning environment as “a freedom to learn, encouragement  to explore and independence to the child’s activity with materials and resources”. Piaget[5] (1896-1980), a child psychologist, enunciated the interaction of child with physical and social environments. Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist, found that the human brain does not just react to the environment,[6] but has the capacity to  alter the  environment  for its own purposes. Ulrich,[7] in the biography of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), enunciated that learning is based on providing a suitable environment, with lots of natural and sensory resources such as wood, sheep’s fleece and beeswax crayons, to encourage exploration and creativity.

A learning  environment  is to  support  a child explore, interact and understand  nature. Hence, the concept of a home library is not to have just a collection of books or  other  reading materials; rather it is a creation of an environment with many types of natural objects related to learning. The normal attention span of children is 3 to 5 minutes per year of a child’s age.[8] Therefore,  a 2-year-old should be able to concentrate on a particular task maximum  of 6 minutes,  and  a child entering kindergarten  should  be able to  concentrate  a maximum of 15 minutes (this does not apply for viewing TV). The attention span for viewing of TV or playing digital media games depends on  the program that interests the child or the game in  the digital device. Recently it has been observed that children who spend increasingly longer time (even amounting to addiction) on computers or smart phones was due to the exposure or training given to children by parents or caregivers about games and other entertainment in the digital device.

The  present  study  defines the  home  library considering  a broad  view of learning  in  early childhood as one that is a learning environment with a collection of different types of objects such as books, periodicals, toys,  physical/natural objects, photos, posters, maps, musical instruments, gaming objects, sports materials and including digital devices to invoke creativity and interest in reading, and  not  to just support  the school curriculum. At the same time, all types of objects are not necessary for all the age groups of children. The type of collection varies with the age and interest of the child.



A home library has been recognized as a collection of books supporting curriculum based learning of children at school. Jacobs[9] opined that “a home library is the key to academic success.” The survey conducted by National Book Foundation (NBF)[10] with a study sample selected from  27 nations showed that the presence of book-lined shelves in the home and the intellectual environment those volumes reflect gives children  an  enormous advantage in school. A child coming from a home, rich in books, is 19 percent more likely to complete university education than a comparable child growing up without a home library. NBF further pointed out that children growing up in a home with many books get 3 years more schooling than children from bookless homes. The report by the Scottish Government[11] views the  learning environment in a broader perspective such that ‘a home library does not just mean a collection of books arranged  in a classified  sequence on the shelf, it  is the  creation  of  culture  to  acquire, organize and  share  information  and  hence the home library helps to invoke the child’s interests and enables them to explore and experiment; to accumulate the ideas and organize; to spark their young imagination and think creatively; and to encourage independent  learning and promote  a positive attitude towards learning.’


Organizing The Home Library :

Home libraries, specifically designed for children, are to attract and motivate them to create a healthy reading habit. The key aspects required for a home library are having an appropriate place and space at home, appropriate  media and resources, display and  accessibility to  the  child,  and  parents accompanying  the  child  in  reading  (OECD, 2009).[12]

Book Aid International[13] recommends that the place selected for shelving books should be within reach and in an interesting corner of the house for the child, with child-friendly furniture including shelves, beanbags, pillows, cushions  and  funky kids’ chairs and with adequate lighting. It suggests that rearranging the collection periodically helps to break the monotony. Kennedy-Moore,[14] a child psychologist,  suggested  to  supplement  the collection with big posters, pictures, flannel board stories, picture card games, recorded stories and songs.


Role of the Parents in Traditional Home Library:

Children in their first seven years of age mimic parents[1] and therefore the role of parents is more important  than  the actual collection of reading material  itself. The activities they are likely  to mimic are reading of newspapers by parents over a cup of coffee, picking up a magazine or a good book while you are out of the house etc. It is very important that parents should read with children, give company to them when they are working on school homework. It is recommended that parents should talk to kids[15] about what book they read, why they like it, what they learnt and how it helps. School age children should have some mandatory reading pertaining  to different seasons[16]  like during school days, during the vacation or summer camp, music lessons, so it is essential to  keep materials  related  to  children’s  activities and interests such as favorite sports players.

Usually, parents have a habit of telling stories to children, which is a very good habit. It would be very helpful if parents consistently support story time in the home library, keeping the related book on hand.  A good story[17] sparks a child’s imagination, stimulates curiosity and helps with brain development, word and language patterns. Stories should be selective, safe and easy in order to build relationships, inter-personal skills and contribute to related classroom activities. If we want to encourage children to love books, parents have to read books aloud to them.[18] It is better if parents start at an earlier age, even a baby of a few months can see pictures, listen to your voice and turn cardboard pages. Parental support is recommended[19] as the best start in learning at home  for  the  child. Parenting  behaviors are important in children’s development[20] and care in early childhood by parents becomes important for later development.[21] It was found  that  parental involvement in early learning has a greater impact on children’s well-being and achievement[22] more than  any other  factors such as family income, parental education or school environment. Hence, the importance and success of home libraries for learning in early childhood is very well established through empirical research.

Although people are witnessing a very high impact and transformation due to the large availability and content of electronic information, a home library should not become an exclusion.



Routine observation into most homes makes it clear that a 21st century home environment is rich in its use of electronic devices. It is seen that most young children[23] in developed nations in the 21st century live in media-saturated homes, school or community environments. The National Literacy Trust,  UK conducted  a  survey about  use of electronic  media  and  access and  found  that between 2012 and 2013, the proportion of children who owned e-readers rose from 20% to 30%, tablet ownership increased from 38% to 65% and smart-phone  ownership  from  38% to 70%. The  2013 survey found that tablet use at home by children aged 5 to 15 almost tripled between 2012 and 2013 rising  from  14% to  42%, reading  more  on computers and other electronic  devices than  in print form. Almost all (97%) children had access to electronic devices such  as  computers,  tablets, phones  and  e-readers.  Children  prefer  screen (52.4%) as compared to print (32%). Research by Scholastic US in 2012 also indicated increase in the number of children and young peoples’ preference for reading on screen: the reading of e-book rose from 25% to 46% between 2010 and 2012 and the response about the positive effects of e-books on their motivation to read increased from 33% to 49% over the same period. Girls are significantly more likely than  boys to read in print  (68% vs 54%). Use of electronic devices by girls against boys are (67% girls vs. 60% boys), e-Readers (84% girls vs. 69% boys) and tablets (70% girls vs. 67% boys).

The market is also witnessing many more reading devices such as the iPad, Kindle, Kobo Reader and smart-phones.  The duration  of use  of a digital device by children in 2001 was about 16 hours a week[24] and  in 2010, duration  of use of digital device by children (2-5 years) was about 32 hours a week.[23] The increase in duration of children using digital devices was not just an incremental growth in  10 years;  it  was due  to  improvement  in technology, reduction  of cost and  increase in number  of handheld  devices, convenience and ease of use for children due to touch screen and other factors.



The users of digital devices were grouped based on ‘intentional  activities’ and  ‘non-intentional activities’. Intentional  activities are educational television while “non-intentional”  activities are those with no  expressed learning objectives or curriculum,  such  as, simply watching  non educational television, talking on a phone etc.[23] It was observed that  adults are using a variety of digital media for communication and entertainment, as a result of children followed the pattern. Children borrow and share access to these devices at home[25-29] and parents also find it easier to entertain children using these digital devices. Thereby  children will grow to love digital media whilst ignoring print media.[30] e-Books have been enhanced  and  enriched  with  audio,  video, animation, and interactive games suiting children’s education and parents are making use of them to teach their children using these.[26]


Effects of Reading on Digital Screen :

The  electronic information  and  entertainment environment,  specifically for  digital natives (persons brought up in an age of digital technology, has created an addiction, so much so that, there  is a new word coined called “Wilfing”.[31,32] The word “wilf ” is   derived  from the phrase “What was I looking for?”. Wilfers surf the internet without any real purpose, often forgetting what they were looking for. Those  who read only on digital screens are significantly less likely to enjoy reading[33] and less likely to be strong readers.


Effects on Cognitive Development of Children:

The cognitive research on effects of digital devices for children  shows both  positive and  negative effects.[24] Positive effects are  that  the  use of computer  games can be an important  building block to computer literacy for children because it enhances children’s ability to read and visualize images in a three-dimensional  space and  track multiple  images simultaneously. It  also slightly improves academic performance but the evidence for this is limited. It is found that technology[23] serves as an opportunity for children (3 to 5 years old) to spontaneously engage in emergent literacy activities. Technology provides multiple opportunities to observe, explore and play with the devices like television, DVDs, MP3s, smart phones, computers, video games, smart toys etc. Parents feel that a home computer will provide an educational opportunity for their child and prepare them for the information-age.

Negative effects are that the use of digital devices affect children  in  their  social development, relationships  with peers and  family, and  also increases the chance of becoming emotionally and socially isolated leading to depression.[24] Further, playing violent computer  games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suffering and may blur a child’s ability to distinguish reality from simulation. However, the study suggests a need for systematic empirical research to minimize the negative effects and maximize the positive effects in  children’s  lives. Reading on digital devices distracts  young  minds  from narrative comprehension.

Parents are worried about the influence of the internet on their children and express disappointment over their children using the computer for activities such as playing games and browsing the internet to download lyrics of popular songs. Some parents however consider children without computers to be at a disadvantage.[34]


Effects on Brain :

Susan Greenfield,[35] a neuroscientist, pointed out that the brain can adapt but a computer screen is not  a  sensory component  and  demands  fast reaction. Plasticity allows the brain to adapt to whatever its environment  is. It follows when we interact with two-dimensional, fast-paced, audio- visual interfaces such as computers. Then the brain is adapting to this, but things are fast and bright, with  countless  simultaneous  inputs,  which fragments our attention with so much of interaction. The gain of processing of  simple information is at the cost of impacting upon the development of deeper cognitive thinking. The big question is – What kind of minds will we have in the future as a result and what can we do about it?

A computer screen has a strong sensory component that mandates fast reactions and it is very arousing and exciting. It might skew the brain in the future  from what has previously been a balance heading towards a more infantilized brain and creating a world in which we are all required to become autistic. Computer  games may boost intelligence, but not knowledge because information processing is not knowledge. Neurological effects were found  during  the introduction of mobile phones and now with the overuse of digital media screens for reading, games etc. specifically in early childhood, these effects are a  real concern.  More empirical and  clinical research in this area is required.


Effects On Pre-school Age Children :

Children born today in a digitally rich environment are facing the risk even before they are born as mothers get exposed to the radiation of digital devices during the pregnancy. After birth, if a child cries a parent is likely to expose them to digital devices, because it is easy to entertain their child using these. This  generation has been  the most  targeted  generation  bombarded with information from a very early age.[30] The survey conducted[36] on behalf of World Internet Institute found that in Sweden, 94% of people have internet access, which means  that  children  and young people are now growing up in an  environment where the  internet  is an  integral  part  of the everyday life of the family.

In  2008, every fifth  (21%) three-year-old  child used the internet and among five-year-old children the number rose to half (51%). Among nine-year-olds, the proportion of internet users is over 90% and from eleven years of age, it is difficult to find someone who does not use the Internet. Use of the internet among pre-schoolers is however limited and it is only from ten years and upwards as the majority  have become daily users. The usage pattern identified in the survey is that in the first phase of use (age group 3-6 years) were games and video; in the second phase of use (age group 7-10 years) is videos, games, instant messaging, computers for home work and projects; and in the third phase of use (age group 11-14 years) is mobile phones and internet for social media.

The age of internet use in the year 2002 was 10 years of age; 8 years of age in the year 2005 and 5 years of age in year 2008 and now it is 4 years of age, which happens at home not at school. This trend prevails not only in Sweden, but also in South Korea (MIC/NIDA, 2007) and USA (Rideout et al. 2003; NCES, 2001).


Findings :

The advantages of the traditional home-library with constructive and constant support of parents are very positive.  Comparatively, in the case of digital devices and  reading  on  digital screens, majority of studies indicate the negative effects on children’s physical health as well as on their minds specifically concerning comprehension of what is read.  The  advantages of digital devices  are multimedia capabilities, games, instant access to varied (good or bad) information resources. With regards  to  use of digital  devices, majority  of literature  published by  digital immigrants  (the generation of people  born  before the advent of digital technology) are very reactive, and responses from digital natives (the generation of people born  during  or  after  the  rise of digital technology) are  consistent in supporting  digital devices. Research by psychologists and neurologists are predictive and more empirical and experimental studies including clinical trials are needed to confirm the health problems.


Key Points :

  • Care and learning are inseparable concepts and learning in early childhood requires a framework rather than a specific curriculum.[2]
  • For the child learning is intricately dependent on family interaction  and  involvement and therefore parents need to pay attention to and understand  the  children’s everyday learning index’ and not just their exam performance.[3]
  • A home library helps to stimulate the child’s interests and  enables them  to  explore and experiment; to accumulate ideas and organize; to think creatively with a broad imagination; and to encourage independent learning and a positive attitude towards learning.[11]
  • Key factors required for creating a good home library are an appropriate place and space at home;  media  and  resources  to  be  aptly displayed and accessible to children; creating contextual and  integrated  activities to make children use books and other learning materials appropriate to the context ; and for parents to be involved in participation to support the child learning.[12]
  • Most young children in developed nations in the 21st century live in media-saturated homes, schools and/or with communities.[23]
  • Widely available new reading digital devices like Apple iPad, Amazon Kindle, Kobo Reader and smart-phones.
  • Duration of use of digital devices by children (2-5 years) was about 32 hours in a week.[23]
  • Children are being encouraged towards digital media because it  is easier for  parents  to entertain children, thereby children will grow to  love digital media  whilst ignoring  print media[30] and due to convenience and price, digital media may replace print media permanently.[37]
  • Pre-schoolers have been the  most  targeted generation, bombarded with information from a very early age.[36]
  • One cannot avoid digital devices considering many advantages. Children borrow and have access to these devices at home.[25-29] e-Books have been enhanced for children with audio, video, animation,  and  interactive  games therefore  parents  are making  use of digital devices to teach their children.[26]
  • Use of digital devices affect children in their social development, family relationships, and peer relationships and increases the risk of becoming isolated and suffering from depression. Playing violent computer games may increase aggressiveness and desensitize a child to suffering and may blur a child’s ability to distinguish real life from simulation.[24]
  • Reading on a digital device distracts young minds from narrative comprehension.[24] It might skew the brain in the future, away from what’s previously been a balance in the human condition heading towards a more infantilized brain and creating a world in which we are all required to become autistic. Computer games can  boost  intelligence but  not  knowledge because information processing is not knowledge.[35]
  • To invoke creativity a good learning environment should also include, in addition to books, a broad collection of learning objects such as toys, physical/natural objects, photos, posters, maps, music instruments and gaming objects or sports materials, painting materials. It helps to divert the child’s attention from overuse of digital devices.


Conclusion :

Many studies have found that, whether one likes it or not, the digital environment is dominating and one cannot avoid it totally. The solution is to find means and ways to balance the attention of the child by creating a good home-library with a collection comprising of many attractive traditional objects along with good books. It has been seen that due to convenience and price, digital media may replace print media permanently,[37] and that it is conceivable that print media will be replaced by more convenient tablet devices in the future.[38]

The  interplay  of nature  on  the  human  mind, behaviour and emotion with space, time, resources, abilities and  values are getting lost, because today many children growing up in the digital age have fewer opportunities to experience nature as they are engaged in the virtual world. At the same time, considering the merits of digital technology, it is difficult to limit children from these digital devices. Diverting their attention using suitable alternatives and also having the parents’ attention and constant support is very essential. The onus is on the parents to set a good model to balance the use of traditional materials with electronic devices at home beginning from very early childhood.


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