Exploring East Coast Forests and Nature with Children

Tag: digital literacies

“The child acts upon the environment, and the environment acts upon the child”

“The child acts upon the environment, and the environment acts upon the child (Harwood & Collier 2017, p.55)”

This week, I had the chance to meet up with Dr. Debra Harwood in a  Bluejeans chat. Debra is  an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies at Brock University (St. Catherine’s, Ontario).

Debra has conducted research both in the indoor and outdoor classroom that focuses on children’s play and inquiry with mobile technologies (Ipads/tablets, Iphones, and gopros). She has also lead the first outdoor experiential learning class for Masters of Education students at Brock University, which includes the use of technology in the outdoor environment.

The following is a summary of my conversation and some of the research Dr. Harwood has been a part of.

Inquiry with Technology

“Technology can take them far beyond their classroom (D. Harwood, personal communication, October 28, 2019).”

Mobile technologies, in their design, provide opportunities for children (and educators) to document in many forms whether through text, photography, video, or audio their interests, thoughts, curiosities, and happenings in their environment. The internet provides a further opportunity to connect with resources beyond those available in the early childhood classroom. For instance, a group of preschoolers who were interested in knowing more about a “mysterious” plant, that they were unable to identity using the resources (print or otherwise) available in the classroom were able to connect with a botanist and share their photo. Technology can support the “in the moment” questions and propel children to start planning the next steps of their inquiry.

Debra however, emphasized the importance of including technologies with intention. Asking, WHY is this technology being introduced ?

Multimodal Digital Literacies

“Its a mode like a pen, shovel,stick (D. Harwood, personal communication, October 28, 2019).”

Through her research and her experience working with preschool children, Debra believes that for children the digital and non-digital world are seamless. For her, it is adults who delineate between the two, not children.

Pulling from the Reggio Emilia philosophy, digital technologies are another tool, another mode to communicate. In the programs she has been a part of the children have access to what they need. As an aside she explained that outside, the children have access to many resources in a wagon that is brought to the forest. Though iPads are available, the children tend to access them for specific purposes, such as to document (photos, video, audio) or to access specific apps such as plant identification apps. Further,  the children have not “privileged” the iPad over other modes such as markers and paper, or guide books, instead the  iPad is used alongside these other resources.

As we discussed technology as another mode and Reggio Emilia, Debra made reference to a quote pulled from a recent a recent Reggio and technology exhibit, Bordercrossings, to futher illustrate her point.  After the interview I located the quote in the book Crayons and iPads

“Technology enters the everyday, not dominating, not replacing, but mixing with other languages. It enters as an environment, not strictly instrumental and functional, but rather as the connector of multidisciplinary learning and explorations, supporting children’s ways of knowing, inaugurating new environments of socialisation and sharing, in which each child’s ‘mental world’ finds a possible representation. (Loris Malaguzzi International Centre, 2016)”

Posthumanist & new materialist influences

“For them the materials are alive .. thinking .. feeling(D. Harwood, personal communication, October 28, 2019)”

A second attraction to Dr. Harwoods work, was that much of her research was framed or viewed through a posthumanist and new materialist lens, which I have recently been diving deeper into. I have been particularly interested in how these theories may inform (disrupt) my practice as an ECE and forest school practitioner.

Debra explained that she came to these theories during her research involving children wearing gopros. The intent was to look at different ways to involve children in research, however as the study commenced and the researchers were reviewing the videos with and without the children they felt were noticing something new about children’s interactions with the natural environment, especially when wearing technology, that they could not explain with child development theory.

The researchers noticed that children’s play changed once they were harnessed with a gopro (children could choose whether they wore one, and when they wanted to take it off). As Debra explained, some “children who were reticent in the woods, who gravitated to the calm activities or mirrored what they did indoors” appeared to become more “powerful, agentic and leading .. even their voices boomed (D. Harwood, personal communication, October 28, 2019).”

At first the researchers focused on the child-technology intra-actions, noticing, the impacts it appeared to be having on the way they moved their bodies and the stories children were telling. Elaborating on the latter, Debra explained that the children were narrating their play, giving tours of the forest, and introducing other children to the camera and then narrating what these other children were doing. Further, other children would cue children if their battery was “dying” because the red light wasn’t blinking. Talking about the lifespan of the technology and how to care for it became a regular part of children’s conversations.

Looking deeper at the technology-child intra-actions led the researchers to looking deeper at the human and more-than-human intra-actions and dive deeper into post humanist and new materials literature.

Reflecting on a portion of Flora’s (pseudonym) video, Debra and Collier (2017) write,

“Flora is not separate from the snow, ice, mittens, tree; rather the matter acts upon and alongside Flora as she climbs. The snow and ice slow her climb and she lowers herself to a crawling position, gripping tighter to the tree. The snow is grounded into the folds of the tree. The viewers sways along with Flora’s body as she stands, muscles becoming taught to maintain her balance. The sound of the ice pellets landing on her mittens cause her to pause and comment ‘wow’(p. 57). 


After speaking with Dr. Harwood and reviewing my notes from our conversation, than rereading a few of her articles there were a few points that kept spinning around in my thoughts.

Over the past several weeks the children at forest school (various programs from preschool, to home school, to school age weekend adventure play group) have been following an inquiry on .. with mushrooms. As I have been observer on the sidelines, documenter, provoker, and co-inquirer, I have been simultaneously been making connecting to articles and blogs I have read, as well as conversations I have had regarding my inquiry for this class (Interactive and Multimedia Learning Theories).

I really appreciated that Debra made a point in our conversation as well as in her published articles and chapters to reiterate that children’s learning and play are inseparable, including inquiry and digital technologies. Which I have really seen this week.

The mushroom inquiry began as children started noticing mushrooms “appearing” in the forest, using the tools available to them they got a closer look, began to ask questions, and simultaneously began to share stories and start discussions about mushrooms and other fungi. Interest in the inquiry has ebbed and flowed over each session and over the past few weeks. The inquiry was completely embedded into their play and children flowed in and out of the inquiry, just as my presences flowed in and out of the inquiry. Throughout this process I also took note of the materials and tools used by the children to deepen, extend, and document their inquiry. While the children chose to use the tools always available to them (guidebooks, markers, paper, magnifying glasses and so on), they requested my phone to photograph the underside of the mushrooms (to aid in identifying the type of mushroom), that were growing low to the ground.

I’ll end with a final quote from Hardwood’s (2017) in “Final Thoughts”, the concluding chapter of Crayons and ipads, 

Supporting these types of classroom communities of inquiry requires an educator who is curious, flexible and collaborative with an orientation to teaching/learning as a shared responsibility among all protagonists, including children … The coherent thread throughout this learning and writing journey was the idea that listening is a central ‘premise for any learning relationship’ (Rinaldi, 2006, p. 65), and listening requires a sensitivity and openness to the interconnections between people, materials and discourses (Lenz Taguchi, 2010). P. 114


Harwood, D., & Collier, D. R. (2019). “Talk into my Gopro I’m Making a Movie” Using Digital ethnographical methods to explore children’s sociomaterial experiences in the woods. In The Routledge International Handbook of Learning with Technology in Early Childhood (pp. 49–61). Abingdon, Oxon, NY: Routledge.
Harwood, D. (2017). Lingering thoughts. In D. Harwood Crayons and ipads (pp. 112-116). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781473916012.n11

Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Going beyond the theory/practice divide in early childhood education: Introducing the intra-active pedagogy. London, UK: Routledge.

Loris Malaguzzi International Centre. (2016). Bordercrossings exhibit. Reggio Emilia, Italy.

Rinaldi, C. (2006). In dialogue with Reggio Emilia: Listening, researching, and learning. New York, NY: Routledge.

Inquiring about inquiry

“Collectively, we all view the 21st-century child as capable and competent with a particular disposition towards technology … We argue the digital habitus of children is unique given the technological culture they are a part of, challenging educators to recognize the ways in which children’s ways of acting and being are shaped with/alongside technologies … [child-world entanglements are]  dynamic, mutually interdependent agents contributing equivalently to knowing. Consequently, as educators and researchers, we are challenged to find ways to appreciate the naturalized ways children move in and out, within, between and among these formal and informal spaces, both digital and non-digital (Harwood, 2017, p. 5). “

I was recently introduced to the work of Debra Harwood. Finally, someone whose research aligns with my context and interests. I have chosen for this post to focus on a chapter from a book she edited and contributed to (Ipads and Crayons: Learning and Teaching of Young Children in the Digital World,) and an article she co-authored, Both of which focus on the use of tablets, inquiry, and preschool settings.

I have felt both curious and unsettled by the use of tablets and other smart devices in the outdoor classroom, however, I am eager to dive deeper in the research surrounding their use, and the theories and pedagogies used to critically reflect on their usage and purpose in preschool (and outdoor) environments. I have become aware of what possible biases I may hold about childhood “innocence” and natures “purity” and how these may be creeping into the way in which I view children’s usage of certain technologies (such as the Ipad). I would like to believe that as I question my own biases I have been able to think more with child-nature-technology entanglements, and the blurring of these ‘boundaries.”

 Rose, S., Fitzpatrick, K., Mersereau, C. & Whitty, P. (2017). Playful pedagogic moves: digital devices in the outdoors. In D. Harwood Crayons and ipads (pp. 16-28). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781473916012.n3

This study took place at a demonstration centre at the University of New Brunswick and spans over two years of pedagogical documentation, since the introduction of six ipad minis into a preschool classroom of four-year-olds. The authors, who are also educators within the classroom, reflect on the documentation through a critical lens, asking “How do iPads, children, educators and the living and inert non-human others mutually affect each other? ( Rose, Fitzpatrick, Merseau & Whitty, p. 19).”

The ipad was chosen as it was easily portable, and had a special case that kept it protected while in the forest. It was noted that the glare of the sun on the screen sometimes made the device difficult to use for photos and videos by the children, and that wifi connectivity was often tethered from a practitioners phone, as the centre’s wifi was weak or out of range.

The authors chose assemblage theory to frame their work, as a means of moving away from ecological theory, which they felt privileged the Ipad over other tools. The focus would remain on the intra-actions between agents (child, ipad, educator, stumps, moss, snow, Shakespeare etc.) and the dynamic assemblages they formed ( child-animal skull-ipad- identification chart OR educator-ipad-Macbeth-voice).

The Ipads allowed children to revisit experiences, extending the longevity of original artifacts, such as animal tracks in the snow, later destroyed by human traffic, or songs made up on the spot, recorded and played back. The camera function also allowed the children to get up close, through the zoom function, to artifacts such as animal scat and an animal skull without touching them.  Images and videos taken by children were compared with their own drawings and verbal observations, providing additional multi-modal layers to the children’s inquiries. When children’s inquiries reached beyond what was available through the ‘classroom’ resources (educator/child knowledge and texts), the children were able to search google for additional images and information.

Near the end of the article the authors turn their focus to a piece of documentation, The Evil Witches, to illustrate the way in the design of the Ipad allowed it to adapt it’s use to be a creative storytelling tool, a tool for playful experimentation, and research tool depending on context.  The Evil Witches documentation begins as one of the educators, Candace, is observing a group of children who have turned a hollowed out tree stump into a cauldron and pretending to be witches.  Candace interjects by chanting “‘Double, double, toil and trouble. Fire burn and cauldron bubble” from Act 1, Scene IV of Macbeth.  This propels a inquiry in many different directions – spanning many months, over different time periods, and in many different topics. For instance words and language used in Macbeth, creating a poetic poison soup recipe, observing seasonal changes in the forest, orienteering using a compass on a phone, just to name a few. Throughout the inquiry the children traveled in new directions, always circling back to the witches story-line, and again traveling out in many different directions. In this way the witches storyline was both shaped by the travelling inquiries, while also inspiring their travels.

The authors summarize the intra-actions with nature-child-educator-technology-experience-imagination, in all of their entangled configurations inspired “new aesthetic experiments and creativity (p. 11),” through co-constructed knowledge, inquiries, and multi-modal texts.

Linking to my context

I appreciated that the authors in the article were conscious to not “privilege” the Ipad over other tools for expression, reflection, and inquiry. I think for myself, part of what makes Ipad use unsettling, is that I feel as if it will become privileged over other tools within the class. However, reflecting on my own use of my smartphone I use it for reading, organizing, and communicating, however I continue to use analogue tools (paper, pencil, calendar, books, magazines etc.). I chose what I need given the context – what I am doing/trying to achieve and where I am.

This chapter has also made me more cognizant of how my intra-action with space-place-children-nature-technology intra-acts with children’s same intra-actions with these same agents.  Further, how these intra-actions deepen, extend, and link inquiries, explorations, and playfulness with(in) the space/place of nature.

Harwood , D., , Mirjana Bajovic1, Woloshyn, V., Cesare, D. M. D., Lane, L., & Scott, K. (2015). Intersecting Spaces in Early Childhood Education: Inquiry-Based Pedagogy and Tablets . The International Journal of Holistic Early Learning and Developmen, 1, 53–67. Retrieved from https://ijheld.lakeheadu.ca/article/view/1358/698

This article uses ethnographic data from a larger research project on children’s use of tablets in preschool classrooms. The focus of this article is on the coming together of tablets and inquiry based learning in five early childhood classrooms in Ontario. Three full day kindergarten programs and two childcare programs. Child participants were 2.5-6 years old. At least at the time of publishing, the authors felt there was very little research illustrating the usefulness of tablets or smart technologies for inquiry based learning in preschool/early childhood settings. 

The researchers were interested in how children position themselves in place and in relation to others with multi-modal communication and literacy tools both digital and non-digital.  Additionally, the researchers were interested in how tablets could “support communities of inquiry in early childhood educational contexts ?(p. 57-58)”. Comparisons were made between the inquiry process before and after tablets were introduced. 

As a means of evaluating the role of tablets in inquiry, the researchers followed Bruce and Bishop’s (2002) inquiry process.

    • Ask, observe, wonder
    •  Exploring, experimenting, investigating
    • Analyzing, creating, playing, and constructing new understandings
    • Discuss and collaborate
    • Reflecting, sharing, feedback

While this illustrates a linear process, the authors assert that particularly in an early childhood context the inquiry can start at any point and may not include all parts of the process.

Educators in the classrooms made apps available on the tablets based on the interests of the children, with a belief that blending concrete experiences (snow in the water table) with apps (Max and Rubies: Science! – See app preview below) would extend children’s inquiries. Further, that apps such as Fluidity were able to illustrate abstract or challenging terms such as ‘viscosity’ and ‘momentum.’ As a result, the authors argued that children were able to use these terms ‘correctly’ later, in their play. The tablets were also used by the children as a means of experimenting and expressing themselves through movie making and animation.

The article does not follow one single inquiry, and often each inquiry does not include each of the components as outlined by Bruce and Bishop (2002). The researchers believe some limitations to their research was their style of data collection (ethnography) and they speculate that  school policies of wiping tablets on a weekly basis, poor internet connectivity, and the limited number of tablets may have impacted the depth of inquiries.

The affordances highlighted within the research include:

    • the immediacy of finding the answer to children “impromptu questions (p.59)”
    • Multi-modal in design, therefore provide access to various multi-modal tools such as videos, photos, audio recording
    • Blend formal and informal learning 
    • Afford research, record keeping, communication, and review to happen throughout the inquiry process, due to their high portability  
    • Support the flexibility and unpredictability of the inquiry process.
    • Inquiries don’t even need to ‘finish” as they can be revisited and taken up again.
    • Increase a child’s sense of agency, due to their easy to navigate design
    • foster collaboration
    • Bring together playfulness and inquiry


Linking to my context:

While some aspects of the article piqued my interest, I felt uncomfortable with the apps chosen as a means of “extending” the children’s interest and inquiries. Each app appeared to be game based, providing little to no affordances for creative or innovative thought, and for the most part appeared to “extend” children’s inquiries in shallow ways. For instance using the ColAR Mix App to explore 2D and 3D dimensional objects and drawings, provided very little opportunities for open-ended, process based explorations of 2D/3D dimensions. I would be interested in knowing how the introduction of this app (and others) influenced children’s inquiries and what other tools/mediums (clay, wire, loose parts) were also used to explore this inquiry.


“Inquiry-based Learning is a dynamic and emergent process that builds on students’ natural curiosity about the world in which they live. As its name suggests, Inquiry places students’ questions and ideas, rather than solely those of the teacher, at the centre of the learning experience. Students’ questions drive the learning process forward. Teachers using an inquiry-based approach encourage students to ask and genuinely investigate their own questions about the world. Teachers further facilitate students’ learning by providing a variety of tools, resources, and experiences that enable learners to investigate, reflect, and rigorously discuss potential solutions to their own questions about a topic the class is studying,” (Natural Curiosity, 2011 as cited by Forest School Canada 2014 p. XX). 

Based on this view of inquiry-based experiences, it appears as if the children’s inquiries were hijacked by the educators responding to interests, inquiries, questions, and curiosities with the introduction of related, though restrictive (not-opened ended), and didactic. While I also see the value of many of the affordances that the ipad could provide to the inquiry process, I felt that the the authors attempted to illustrate these affordances through apps that hindered or limited children’s inquiry. Therefore my critique is not on the use of the Ipad, but on the choice of apps.

One final critique of the article was the suggestion that the immediacy that tablets afford the user to search and find answers to their questions. While beneficial at times (for instance researching the whole “witches poem” to share with the children, as seen in the previous article), relying on a tablet to find immediate answers to ‘impromptu’ questions seems to contradict inquiry based learning.

While I have found somewhat conflicting research surrounding inquiry-based learning with technology in the early years, I decided to focus my inquiry on the use of tablets and other handheld smart devices in inquiry place-based learning in natural spaces. I chose these devices because they appear to have the potential to provide the most affordances within multiple contexts.


Bruce, B. C., & Bishop, A. P. (2002). Using the web to support inquiry-based literacy development. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 45(8), 706-714.

Harwood, D. (2017). The digital world of young children. In D. Harwood Crayons and ipads (pp. 1-5). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781473916012.n1

Harwood , D., , Mirjana Bajovic1, Woloshyn, V., Cesare, D. M. D., Lane, L., & Scott, K. (2015). Intersecting Spaces in Early Childhood Education: Inquiry-Based Pedagogy and Tablets . The International Journal of Holistic Early Learning and Developmen, 1, 53–67. Retrieved from https://ijheld.lakeheadu.ca/article/view/1358/698

 Rose, S., Fitzpatrick, K., Mersereau, C. & Whitty, P. (2017). Playful pedagogic moves: digital devices in the outdoors. In D. Harwood Crayons and ipads (pp. 16-28). 55 City Road, London: SAGE Publications Ltd doi: 10.4135/9781473916012.n3