Digital Documentation in Early Years Education: Tactile Losses and Gains

Guest post, by Kate Cowan (@katecowan)

Documentation of children’s play is an important part of early years practice that helps educators to make sense of children’s interests and interactions, informing planning, pedagogy and assessment. This practice is currently undergoing significant change as paper-based scrapbooks (consisting of written notes, photographs, paintings, collages etc.) are increasingly being replaced by digital documentation systems. My research with Rosie Flewitt, ‘Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning’ funded by The Froebel Trust, explored the potentials and constraints of this change, including tactile losses and gains.

Image 1.pngImage 1: Child exploring their paper-based observation of a bubble-blowing and printing activity

Traditional paper-based scrapbooks are likely to consist of a variety of materials and textures, such as paper of various kinds, paint, crayon and collages, which offer a range of tactile surfaces and diverse haptic and textural experience as they are revisited by a child. Bezemer and Kress (2014) argue that touch is not only a sensory, affective form of engagement but also a resource for making meaning: “The person touching something attaches meaning to and gains meaning from that which they touch” (p. 78). As a child engages with their paper-based documentation through touch, they are actively making meaning, reflecting on the physicality of how it was made and its tangible properties. For instance, touching the bubble painting shown in the image below and feeling the patterned texture may prompt a child to make meaning of the experience in a way that is different from viewing the photograph above it. Because young children are unlikely to be able to read an educator’s written comments, the visual and touchable qualities of documentation could be considered a particularly important way for children to make meaning.

Image 2.jpgImage 2: Paper-based observation of a bubble-blowing and printing activity

As children’s documentation increasingly becomes digitised, it is necessary to reflect on the gains and losses this involves. In their marketing materials, much is made of the benefits of digital documentation systems for educators (e.g. saving time, reducing printing costs, supporting communication with parents) but less attention has been given to the more direct consequences for children.

Shifting to digital systems inevitably loses the richly tactile qualities of paper-based documentation, making observations touchable only on the surface of a screen. On a touch-screen device, touch is used as a means of ‘activating’ (Bezemer and Kress, 2014) the various functions of the documentation system (e.g. through tapping and swiping) rather than as exploration of tactile qualities of the surface being touched. By changing the possibilities and functions of touch, digital documentation alters how children can independently make meaning when engaging with their documentation. Some early years settings seem to be compensating for this by using both digital and paper-based documentation, although this takes additional time and means observations are split across two systems.

While they do not offer the same tactile experience as paper-based documentation, touch-screen devices may support children’s engagement with their documentation in other ways. Touch-screens provide an interface that can be easily used by most children, allowing content to be ‘activated’ in ways that are not possible in paper forms. In their comparison of children’s mark-making on paper versus iPads, Crescenzi, Jewitt and Price (2014) found that children demonstrate different ‘touch repertoires’ with screens, including more continuous and faster sequences of touch. Flewitt, Kucirkova and Messer (2014) point out that touch-screens have particular potential with students experiencing disability, as their ease-of-use supports greater independence. Additionally, being able to incorporate moving image and sound provides audio-visual modes for children to engage with their documentation, including ways of sharing dynamic and ephemeral aspects of play that are challenging to document in writing. Our research suggests that this feature has the potential to expand what gets recognised as ‘signs of learning’ in early education.

Image 3.pngImage 3: Sharing digital documentation on a touch-screen tablet

Touch-screens therefore have some advantages for what can be included in documentation and how this can be accessed by children themselves. However, our research found that there is still a way to go in ensuring that digital documentation is made readily accessible to children day-to-day in classrooms. Firstly, owing to cost and the fact an early years setting may have just one or two touch-screen devices, these may not be made available to children regularly in the same way as paper-based documentation. Secondly, digital documentation systems are typically designed for adults (educators and parents) to record and communicate progress, so are not particularly child-friendly in their design. In our study, we found that even when children were invited to look at their digital documentation, features of the system design (e.g. small icons, written instructions) made it difficult for children to independently navigate through the documentation themselves.

Image 4.png
Image 4: Example of a child’s digital documentation on the system ‘Tapestry’

Moving from paper-based to digital documentation systems therefore involves both gains and losses relating to touch. Our research has recommended that developers of digital documentation systems consider ways in which documentation can be made more accessible to children themselves. This might involve making the most of children’s digital ‘touch repertoires’ (Crescenzi, Jewitt and Price 2014), utilising the accessibility of touch-screens for young children and recognising that these devices make audiovisual material available in new ways. However, there should also be acknowledgement that tactile qualities of documentation are lost in digital forms, limiting one way in which children make-meaning with their documentation. Eventually, perhaps developments in digital systems will be able to incorporate greater haptic feedback to compensate for such losses.

The project ‘Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning: Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms’ was carried out by Kate Cowan and Rosie Flewitt, funded by The Froebel Trust.

Froebel Trust Logo.png


Bezemer, J. and Kress, G. (2014). Touch: A resource for making meaning. Australian Journal of Language & Literacy, 37 (2). 77-85.

Crescenzi, L., Jewitt, C. and Price, S. (2014). The role of touch in preschool children’s play and learning using iPad versus paper interaction. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 37 (2). 89-96.

Flewitt, R. and Cowan, K. (2019). Valuing Young Children’s Signs of Learning: Observation and Digital Documentation of Play in Early Years Classrooms. Project Report for The Froebel Trust.

Flewitt, R., Kucirkova, N. and Messer, D. (2014). Touching the virtual, touching the real: iPads and enabling literacy for student’s experiencing disability. Australisan Journal of Language and Literacy, 37 (2). 107-116.

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