STEM FOR PRE-SCHOOLERS: How to promote STEM education and training through a creative use of digital devices for 0-6-years old children

About the expert:

The workshop “How to promote STEM education and training through a creative use of digital devices for 0-6-years old children” was held at the ALL DIGITAL Summit 2019 in Bologna on 10th October 2019 and was led by Antonella Santilli, educator working at Open Group and specialising in early childhood education and development.

About the workshop:

This how-to workshop gave concrete ideas for teachers and educators working in early childhood education and care on activities that they can implement in nurseries, kindergartens and pre-schools, using digital technologies in a direct or non-direct way.

Theoretical background. The 3-6-9-12 rule:

The theoretical references of Open Group’s approach lie in the work of child psychologists and researchers Piaget and Tisseron and their 3-6-9-12 rule. According to this rule, before the age of 3 direct use of devices is not recommended, but we can create amplified experiences for children with the help of digital technology. E.g., the teacher can read a poem or a story (storytelling) to the children and then project the story in an empty room (using video) but supported by the voice of the educator, because the child already knows that voice. With the help of digital technology, the video can involve the whole room/space that the child is in. Children can experiment with all 5 senses. Objects related to the stories can also be put around the room.

Another example, presented in the workshop, involved children going out with educators, taking photos of nature or other surroundings, and then projecting the photos in a room, where cloth sheets are put on the wall. Children can paint on the cloth to elaborate the projected images and add some elements to them.

For the older children (3-6 year-olds), educators can use the approach of Resnik and the spiral of creative learning: Peer – Play – Passion – Project. The approach never involves one child – one device. Instead, devices are shared among children to encourage sharing and playing.

It is very important to define in advance and to be clear about what we expect from technology – with this age range, it is important to start with what is tangible/concrete and then use the digital devices to enhance/elaborate/support learning. Nevertheless, at this age, children explore all the different dimensions of reality, and this includes digital reality.

How can digital devices be used with this age group:

Devices allow more immediate, rapid and direct connection. Digital devices also allow children to reproduce at home, with their own parents, what educators suggested at school as educational activities. Educators at Open Group use free apps and well-known and common devices (smart phones, tablets).

Digital technologies provide access to multiple languages – visual, graphic, written narration, oral narration. In the immersive rooms all five senses are involved. However, it should be kept in mind that devices (and especially screens) inevitably attract children, so a “mind on” mode should be activated in children. Open Group suggests/promotes a new way to use devises. Currently, instead of pacifiers, adults give children tablets. Tablets have become baby-sitters. This should be avoided. Devices should be used by the adult as a tool to enhance the experience and NOT to replace the adult. Children nowadays are considered "digital natives", we tend to overestimate their abilities, assuming that they have skills we don’t have. But in fact, devices and tools are very user-friendly and easy, so the fact that children can use them doesn’t mean they have high level of skills.

Examples of projects from Open Group’s experience:

Open Group started working on the topic because:

  • Children need to be accompanied in discovering the digital world;
  • Teachers/educators should be supported in accompanying children.

Within the programme, teachers received relevant training. In parallel, there are projects with parents, listening to their fears about introducing digital devices and “digital corners” in schools. Educating partners about overusing photos of their children on the internet is also part of the work with them.

In terms of technology, Open Group uses Cubetto – a smart toy, a wooden robot Nino, which introduces coding in a haptic way. The reason to choose this particular robot was that it is made of wood. Antonella demonstrated to the workshop participants how to use Cubetto. “In order to programme it”, she explained, “you need to insert the right pieces”. Deciding how to make Cubetto move promotes different skills – making decisions in the group, experiment and make mistakes in order to get to the solution. Children are able to divide a story into logical sequences. The game already proposes story, but teachers can create more scenarios/stages/situations.

Before working with Cubetto, children can play with it and programme it with sheets of paper indicating the moves. Children take turns to play the Cubetto. Only after experiencing this, they move to programming the actual Cubetto.

The educational objectives of Cubetto are the following:

- Orientation of spatial directions

- Awareness of the measure of movement in space.

- First experiences of visual block programming.

- Computational thinking exercise in the search for logical strategies to arrive at the solution

Then Antonella went on to present some games for learning math and logical thinking. The fact that children have a tablet, also allows them to follow the steps and record the progress, and then review it (which is not possible without a device).

After having read the text “A book” by Tullet (student of Monari – famous Italian educator focusing on children in the centre and graphic – shapes, colours, etc.), children create different shapes and document the evolution if their creations with the tablet. Then their creations are projected on the wall and children could interact with the images.

Another project, mentioned by Antonella, combined nature (outdoor education) and digital. This is a challenge. In Bologna there are guidelines for outdoor education. The method used was Artesella – open air museum where art works are made of local natural materials – artists go there and build their art works. Children can climb and touch the installations.

The main message that Antonella and Open Group try to transmit to parents and educators through all these activities is that digital is cross-cutting and transversal and can go together with different other physical experiences: from analogue to digital, from tangible to virtual, from traditional to new through immersive rooms, art installations, etc.

In another project with children and their parents, parents were invited to take pictures of the school yard. Then some photos were selected and shown in the immersive room. Pictures involved fallen leaves and real leaves were laid in the room to demonstrate the continuity between the outside and inside – experiencing the leaves and seeing them projected. Children re-elaborated the pictures by painting on the wall.

Other possible uses of tablets are to document an activity, to take pictures.

Using free apps, such as the recommended Vivavideo (free and very intuitive), facilitates the work. Vivavideo was used in a workshop with mothers and children about passions. Two videos were created in this workshop – in the first one the child tells about his and his mom’s passions, saying, for instance, that he likes small cars and his mom likes mountains. There is a narrative at the basis, as well as graphics. In the second video, child and parent express emotions by taking selfies of themselves with scared faces, happy faces, sad faces.

Another easy to use application is Pic Pac app. It allows the child to take different pictures of one graphic activity giving the opportunity to make a cartoon/animation. Here children become aware of gesturers starting from empirical level and moving to the visual level. To illustrate this, Antonella showed a video example of a tree who is growing leaves – the child adds elements on the drawing and takes pictures at every stage to have the final image of the tree growing its leaves. This activity teaches children how to divide activities into phases, but also go through the different phases autonomously.

Another interesting tool that can be used with this target group is the luminous board. The recommended app to use both with children and in teacher training was QUIK – with this app one can create videos with pictures, drawings, etc.

Then Antonella went on to explain that is the “classroom digital workstation”. Starting from 2018, Open Group created the concept of the digital corner inside the classroom. Kindergartens in Italy are designed according to interests imitating real life (e.g. construction corner, reading corner, role playing corner, etc.) and Open Group thought that there should also be a digital corner. They were afraid that children will spend all their time in the digital corner, but it didn’t happen. The children went to the corner only then they needed to do a research – maybe in the morning, when a new word came out, the children suggested to go to the digital corner and search for it.

For children in primary school it is used also for reading.

In conclusion:

To conclude, Antonella shared two quotes:

"The risk does not lie in the instrument itself, but that children become passive consumers" by S. Pappert

"Digital devices must enter the educational pedagogical vocabulary and must be reasoned with children"

By Paolo Ferri, University of Bicocca

These are the aims towards which Open Group is working. As one can see, the workshop was very rich in examples and practical tips, and extremely inspirational for the participants. We recommend to all parents and early childhood educators to explore these possibilities, and if in need for further inspiration, get in touch with Antonella. 

If you want to know more:

Antonella’s presentation is available here in pdf format due to its size. The video links are not active. If you are interested in more information, you can contact Antonella at

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