Audio-visual technology & a toddler's view of early childhood development
Photo: Stephanie Chapman. Creative Commons. 

Audio-visual technologies promise toddlers’-eye views of early childhood development

By Jack O'Sullivan and , | February 2019 

Literally being able to see and hear the child’s perspective will revise our understanding of early childhood development.

We will soon know more about early childhood development because we can at last see the world directly through the eyes of young children themselves.  This extraordinary opportunity will help us to think afresh about language acquisition, learning, play and the roles that parents and teachers should provide.

Technology will allow us to move beyond the types of evidence that typically underpin  knowledge about early childhood development, such as observation and reporting of young children’s behaviour, usually  by mothers, researchers and teachers.  A camera strapped to a toddler’s head can now tell its own story.

The ethical question of a child’s informed consent in such circumstances may be challenging. But it’s not insurmountable, and research using these techniques has already taken place.

Changing conventional views of early childhood development

Audiovisual technology is already justifying a critical review of some conventional wisdom. Tracking the eye movements of young children has been possible since the 1960s, but today the technology has been miniaturized and is much easier to use. Tests are demonstrating that toddlers’ inattention can be strategic: it frequently reflects their swift assessment of whether they already know the thing they are observing and, if not, whether it’s cognitively within their developmental reach. Celeste Kidd finds that this strategy is rational and efficient, preventing young children from wasting time on stimuli  that offer them limited learning opportunities.

Likewise, as Catherine Tamis-LeMonda shows, such technologies can better describe the realities of young children’s play in highly resourced societies – flitting among as many as 100 objects in an hour – than traditional research approaches which might place a mother and her child alongside a limited number of toys, with a researcher observing their interactions.

Using technology to see the world through children’s eyes is rehabilitating the concept of exploratory learning. Kidd’s research highlights that the apparent distractibility of many young children is, in fact, a mark of their efficiency as learners. Meanwhile, following the child in what Tamis-LeMonda calls ‘foraging’ behaviour also helps to identify multiple opportunities for parents to boost language development by naming what these busy children see, touch, smell, taste and explore.

Technology’s insights into early childhood development at home

We may be just beginning to improve our understanding of early childhood development, particularly when it comes to how homes operate during the early years. Technology should help to show more clearly how children interact with parents, siblings and others in the home; how children are directed in their day-to-day lives; and how much freedom they have to explore as they wish. The childs’-eye view may reveal patterns of play and language that go unnoticed by busy adults.

“This extraordinary opportunity will help us to think afresh about language acquisition, learning, play and the roles that parents and teachers should provide in support early childhood development.”

Getting an accurate picture of such things through parental reporting can be difficult, because parents’ reports may be unreliable. Likewise, observations by researchers may be tainted by the fact that their very presence alters home dynamics. With newer technologies, young children can testify for themselves.

Another characteristic of these technologies is their capacity to generate much more and more varied data than we’ve had in the past, thereby helping to redress past imbalances. Early childhood development researchers should be better able to study linguistic minority and minority ethnic families, extended families, children’s relationships with their fathers, and diverse forms of child-rearing—particularly as recording devices become ever smaller, so that they become less obtrusive and disruptive.

Risks of existing research approaches

The current imbalance in research may have led, in some instances, to pathologising and problematizing disadvantaged, Black, Asian and Hispanic families, when the real issue may be inadequate understanding of these families, based on insufficient data.

Technologies that view the home  through children’s eyes – and which allow data to be collected more cheaply than through direct observation – might help to address such inadequacies in the study of early childhood development.

They might build on earlier evidence developed by Gordon Wells in the UK and Shirley Brice-Heath in the US. Their findings suggest that children from less well-off families use a much wider, richer range of language at home than they do at school, where they are less culturally confident than some of their better-off peers. It would be good to revisit such observations using more modern tools. Technology could, for example, provide insights into the highly contested claim that in high-poverty households, children are exposed to an average of 30 million fewer words in their early years than their middle-income peers.

Insights into multiple models of early childhood development

We know much more about what goes on in white families than in families of other ethnicities, and we know much less about early childhood development outside Europe and the United States. As Jaipaul Roopnarine demonstrates, there are multiple routes to maturity, and we need to understand them all to optimise early childhood development. Without a more thorough understanding, research may advocate models based only on Western evidence, treating them as universally applicable when alternative models from other cultures might be equally or even more effective.

The value of seeing the world through new eyes is very apparent. Footage on YouTube of domestic cats roaming around with cameras strapped to their bodies is captivating, mapping where cats go, what they see and what they do.  Likewise, wildlife programmes have been re-energised by similar methods that capture birds’-eye views of the skies and the land.

Audiovisual technologies hold out the prospect that young children, as unconscious recorders of their own behaviour and of those around them, can shed light on how they are agents of their own early development and what works best for them. The evidence collected may also prove to be just as entertaining.

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