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The Early Years

Digital Licking

Science and Children—May/June 2021 (Volume 58, Issue 5)

By Peggy Ashbrook

We think of reading when we hear the word literacy, but there are many kinds of literacy, including digital and media literacy. At home most children use some tools that are internet-connected technology, such as cell phones, tablets, smart speakers, and televisions. Many children have developed beginning digital literacy—the ability to use digital devices—but may not be able to read text on the on-screen buttons that prompt users to “mute” or “unmute” for example, and may use platforms designed by people without an understanding of child development.

Early childhood educator Joe Robinson teaches “digital citizenship” to the young children in his preK–4 class: using digital technology to become part of something—his virtual class—even though they are not all in the same place, forming relationships with peers and teachers that are crucial to learning, and growing kindness and social skills when interacting online. To help children understand another child’s experience and how to make it better, Robinson adapts what he does in person to make it work in virtual settings. He provides opportunities for children to give each other feedback as they show the class a picture they drew while other children tell what they like and what they might add. Robinson observes that children like to “push all the buttons,” making digital literacy education part of his virtual teaching.

Children need time and guidance to safely explore while becoming proficient with digital tools, especially if used for assessment of learning (McCraw 2019). When children use tools, their senses are extended and they expand upon their direct experiences. Hand lenses help children see tiny details of their skin or any other object they view, learning something about the object and that their sense of sight has limitations. They also gain experiences with the properties of lenses—transparent, usually curved, and “makes things bigger.” (I ask, “Does it just look bigger or did it really get bigger?” to help children think about what happens.) Children need time to explore to become proficient with hand lenses and digital microscopes.

Infants and toddlers often use their mouths to learn about their environment. Biting or licking provides information about the shape, texture, firmness, and taste of an object. Early childhood educator Sarah Maynard, explains how this experience is the foundation for later learning: “As an adult, if you look at something, you know how it will feel if you lick it. This is thanks to your direct experiences in early childhood mouthing objects.” Maynard’s students put objects under the digital microscope and take it away, over and over, a behavior she calls “digital licking.”

Maynard says, “Digital literacy work in our class is done with a mindful eye on creating unique, relationship-building experiences, which will allow a child to use media and technology as a tool, rather than as a passive consumer.”


McCraw, B. 2019. Digital Literacy Assessment Footprints in Early Childhood. National Council of Teachers of English blog.


  • Internet access and devices (computer, tablet, or phone) for children and educators
  • Whiteboard in classroom or ability to share screens
  • Time for ongoing discussion about using digital tools and critically analyzing search results

Look It Up!


To use internet-connected technology to image search in support of children’s research of a topic of interest and discuss the results

Young children often have strong interests in specific topics such as rainbows or dinosaurs, and particular activities such as building structures with blocks or role-playing their favorite movie. Using search engines to find images can support young children’s interests and help answer questions such as, “How can we make a bird feeder?” Because online search algorithms can lead children on tangential routes that are not useful and may be inappropriate, adults should preview sites in advance.

  1. Some of children’s questions about a topic of interest (i.e. dinosaurs, tall buildings, bird feeders made of recycled materials) can be researched by doing an image search online. Do several searches without children to refine search terms to limit images to those appropriate for your discussion with children. For example, a search for dinosaurs brings up a wide variety of entertainment and scientific images while real dinosaurs limits results, omitting most toy and cartoon sites.
  2. Showing a variety of images prompts a conversation about what is “real” and what is not. An image may be photo edited (e.g., to show tall buildings from around the world side-by-side). Use the National Association for Media Literacy’s tools to guide your discussion (see Online Resources), including asking questions about the purpose of images—“Why was this made?”
  3. To help children focus on just some of the images, limit how many results you will show. Children will likely ask you to continue paging “to see all of the pictures,” but you set the limits and have children choose one site to use for research if the images alone are not enough. Additional sites can be accessed as children continue to question and want to research.
  4. For ongoing discussion, do an additional search for articles appropriate for children to help them understand that scientific illustrations are based on evidence.

Robinson wants children and families to be aware that teaching media literacy, including learning to be skeptical of information provided through digital tools, should begin in early childhood. Media literacy education strategist and author Dr. Faith Rogow encourages us to ask this about media, “Are the ideas in it ones that are worthy of my time and consideration?” She says, “Answers to our questions about digital media are so much more obvious when we ask them about the analog media that we’re familiar with and then see how the skills we’ve figured out for that world transfer to the digital world.”

Online Resource

National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE)


Rogow, F. Forthcoming. Media literacy for young children: Teaching beyond the screen time debate. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Peggy Ashbrook ( is the author of Science Learning in the Early Years: Activities in PreK–2 and teaches preschool science in Alexandria, Virginia.

Computer Science Literacy Technology Early Childhood

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