Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education

Research Achievements

Heritage Language Literacy Project

Heritage language literacy support at primary level – are YouTube and Apps the answer?

Principal Investigator:

Dr Sabine Little

UKLA photograph

This study explored the ways in which technology can and does assist heritage language literacy development. Drawing on data from 212 online questionnaires and 10 family interviews, the study found that, while 87% of families used books in the heritage language at least once a week, only a fifth of them used online or mobile apps and games for the same purpose - despite 82% of parents acknowledging their children were interested in mobile games and apps, and 78% of children were interested in learning the heritage language.

Qualitative answers and family interviews revealed a number of reasons for this mismatch, ranging from lack of access to suitable resources in the relevant language to parental fears of children having too much screen time. In addition, comments revealed that parents treat apps and games differently to books: whereas books are viewed as a shared resource - something to be enjoyed together - apps and games are more frequently seen as something to keep children quiet, or to be used as a motivator, principally by the child alone. Comments from some parents also remarked that children were playing games "wrong", leading to questions around the purpose of play and language play.

An overview of resources that accompanied the study found that heritage language children's needs are difficult to meet in the current market of apps and games, which are aimed either at learners of the language (focusing on vocabulary development), early learners (focusing on early literacy development), or native speaker children (using language that may be beyond a heritage language child growing up outside the full linguistic space afforded by the language). For children, this had connotations with regards to their identity development, and how they viewed themselves as plurilingual individuals. Further studies are currently under preparation to explore the various findings in more detail.

Findings from the study were disseminated at the following events:

  • UKLA conference, July 2015
  • Festival of Social Sciences (Sheffield, November 2015)
  • Young Language Learners' Conference (Oxford, July 2016)
  • Researchers' Night (Sheffield, September 2016)
  • International Association of Applied Linguistics conference (AILA 2017, Rio de Janeiro, forthcoming).

NB: "Heritage Language" refers to a home language that is different to the language of society, school, etc.


The UK Literacy Association, with further funding received from the University of Sheffield to facilitate local dissemination events.

Video Games Network

Video Games Network on Play for Hospitalised Children

Principal Investigators:

Dylan Yamada-Rice

Elizabeth Wood

Photograph of a tablet on a flipchart

This project is funded by AHRC and is bringing together specialists from hospital play, videogames developers, artists, designers and children's theatre producers, along with academics in Education and English. Two students from the Royal College of Art have also joined the project as part of their Masters studies - Caroline Claisse and Xinglin Sun.

Currently, UK hospital play tends to be based on ‘traditional’ toys and games, with limited innovation in digital play, such as children using tablets/ smart phones brought in by family visitors to access video games. The network has explored the considerable scope for development in the video games industry, using expertise from the arts and humanities to co-create digital play opportunities that respond to the specific needs of hospitalised children, to stimulate their play experiences, imaginations and creativity when confined to medical and recovery spaces, and to connect with siblings and friends.

The group explored the different perspectives and strengths of the project members, including how they come to understand the particular needs of children in hospital and recovery spaces, and the contribution that both traditional and digital forms of play can make to sustaining their play experiences, connecting with friends and families, and supporting their education. Another theme that emerged was the contribution of play to improving patient outcomes, and the important role that digital play might have in helping children to express their emotions and gain knowledge about their illness or condition.

Key outcomes that emerged from the project to inform the videogames industry experts included:

  • Understanding the different purposes for play.
  • Knowing how children blend digital and traditional forms of play, particularly creating their own content and adding this to games.
  • Understanding play from children’s perspectives.
  • Understanding the nature and challenges of the hospital environment – for example, what digital tools can be made available within the constraints of space and daily routines.
  • Knowledge exchange between different participants, particularly the situated insights shared by the hospital play specialists on the specific demands and nature of their work.
  • Developing a co-produced prototype of a videogame ‘Hospital Heights©: a three dimensional version of Top Trump’ to represent the processes of designing for children in hospital spaces.

More information about the project can be found here



Exploring Play & Creativity

Exploring Play and Creativity in Pre-schoolers' Use of Tablet Apps

Principal Investigators:

Jackie Marsh


This study, a collaboration between academics, the children’s media industry and teachers identified the ways in which UK pre-schoolers (aged 0-5) use tablets in the home, and how far the apps they use foster, or limit, play and creativity. The overall study consisted of four stages: (i) A survey of 2000 parents of children aged 0-5, focusing on children’s access to and use of tablet apps; (ii) Case studies of pre-school children’s use of apps in six families (iii) Observations of children aged 3-5 in a school using apps (iv) Content and multimodal analysis of apps.

Under 5s have extensive access to tablets in the home and at the homes of grandparents, other family members and friends. Children have limited access to tablets in early years settings. Twenty-five percent of under 3s and 37% of 3-5 year olds own their own tablets. Children use tablets on a typical day for 1 hour 19 minutes and on a typical weekend day for 1 hour 23 minutes. Parents report that for more than half of this time they support their child’s use of the tablet; 35% of use is independent. Children develop a wide range of competences in their use of the tablet from their earliest years, with over half of under 3s (54%) and 76% of 3-5 year olds being able to swipe the screen to change ‘pages’/ sites unassisted by others and 60% of 3-5 year-olds able to use a tablet independently to take photographs, with 44% of 3-5 year olds able to create videos on their own.

There are differences in tablet use in relation to age, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status. Girls are more likely than boys to use style creation, drawing, story and nurture apps; boys are more likely to use obstacle games apps and sports apps. Socio-economic status impacts on the number of purchased apps that children have access to, with families in social class group ABC1 purchasing more apps. Given that many free apps contain in-app advertisements and in-app purchases, this means that children in the families with lower economic capital are the ones most likely to encounter these features, which often have a negative impact on the quality of game play.

The most popular apps used by under 5s (YouTube, CBeebies apps, Angry Birds, Peppa’s Paintbox, Talking Tom (and similar), Temple Run, Minecraft, Disney apps, Candy Crush Saga and Toca Boca apps) differ in the extent to which they promote play and creativity. The apps that are the most successful at promoting play and creativity are designed specifically for this age group, and foster a range of types of play including object, imaginative and symbolic play. Creative thinking promoted by well-designed apps includes exploratory thinking, analysis, problem-solving and speculation. Augmented reality apps can offer open-ended opportunities for creative play and foster imaginative play that crosses virtual and physical domains.
The study identified 12 features of apps that limit play and creativity and 41 features that foster play and creativity.


A 17 page booklet for practitioners has been produced and placed on the project website. This has been disseminated widely on the internet and through 9 conference presentations in the UK and overseas, which have been attended by teachers and teacher educators. The booklet has informed subsequent reviews of this area, such as a recent (June 2016) report published by the National Literacy Trust on young children’s digital literacy practices.

A 12 page booklet for parents has been produced and placed on the project website. 150 copies of this booklet were distributed at a public event in the Winter Gardens, Sheffield, ‘Apps for play and creativity’, organised as part of the 2015 ESRC Social Sciences Festival, November 2015. The team also produced a blogpost for the CBeebies GrownUps website, offering guidance to parents on children using tablets. ‘Toddlers and Tablets: Ten First Steps’. This had 18,000 hits in the first week of publication.

A 6 page booklet for policy makers has been produced and placed on the project website. A copy was forwarded to Frank Field, MP, on request and other policy makers were made aware of the publication through the OFCOM Media Literacy newsletter. A contribution drawing on the research was made at a seminar attended by policy makers at the London School of Economics on ‘Parenting for the digital age’ on 10.5.16.

Access the booklets on the Tech and Play website


The study is funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council (ESRC).

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