Digital Play

Many parents tell us that they would like to know more about the role of digital media in the lives of children. The ‘Digital Play’ resource aims to support parents and professionals to make them feel more confident about developing strategies for integrating digital media into family life.

Child with tablet

Research hub

Digital Education

Research expert

Professor Lydia Plowman

Research centre/group

Centre for Research in Digital Education


What was the problem?

Parents are hungry for guidance on family use of digital media but they don’t know where to find it. They can get confused by mixed messages about the pros and cons of the digital world and often look to people such as preschool educators, childminders or health visitors for advice. However, training for professionals who work with families has not kept pace with changes in a digital world, so they may find it difficult to help.

The need for support has become more acute since the pandemic, as this has meant that many of us, including children, have spent far more time online than we did previously. Life under lockdown has fundamentally altered how all of us work and relax as many people have made use of digital media in ways that they had not previously contemplated.

What did we do?

Digital Play’ is our response to this need. The resource, which is free to download, focuses on young children aged up to five or six and is intended to be useful for educators, students, childminders and others working with parents and caregivers at home or in early childhood education and care settings.

'Digital Play' Resource

Digital Play’ builds on research conducted within the Centre for Research on Digital Education and others on the use of digital media by young children and their families. The Children & Technology group has been conducting research into the use of digital media by children and their families over many years. We looked at findings afresh and provided an overview of some of the other information that’s available, making sure that it is written in accessible language. The resource is divided into short sections covering topics such as:

  • screen time
  • playing and learning
  • choosing apps
  • digital toys
  • staying safe

One of our key messages is that there are no ‘right’ choices that apply to everybody. We have aimed to provide a nuanced view of some of the issues and to present different perspectives so that readers can make up their own minds. We provide links to other research for those who want to find out more or get alternative views.

We haven’t provided specific recommendations because everybody’s child and family is different and hard and fast rules aren’t very helpful. Nevertheless, our starting point is based on a research-informed position that:

  • Digital media and devices are central to the lives of nearly all children and caregivers in the UK.
  • Used with care, digital media can provide opportunities to play, learn, communicate and be creative.
  • We can lay the foundations for positive use later by thinking about digital play during early childhood.

What happened next?

Originally based on an eight-week online course funded by the Economic and Social Research Council to make research findings accessible beyond academia, the content was originated by Lydia Plowman with important contributions from Freda O’Brien (Playbase) and Lesley Reid (NHS Lothian) along with Valentina Andries, Ben Fletcher-Watson, Juliet Hancock and Andrew Manches (all University of Edinburgh).

The course was created for online delivery by Playbase Training and evaluated by a team from the University of Edinburgh. The evaluation showed that the course met students’ expectations in relation to learning on this topic and participants reported changes in attitudes to digital play and subsequent shifts in family practices.

The ‘Digital Play’ resource is the result of funding from a Knowledge Exchange and Impact grant provided by the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Edinburgh to enable Lydia Plowman to revise and update the original course materials to create a free, downloadable resource for a wider audience.

Related study programmes

Education (MSc) - Children and Technology optional course

Education (MSc)