Another area that is predicted to grow rapidly over the next few years is the market for emotional toys – intelligent dolls that can train children at turn-taking and communication. At the moment, these vary a lot in complexity – from the super-simple Japanese Tamagotchi toys that were popular in the 90s through to more recent toys such as the Moxie, a robot friend that ‘gets to know’ your child and uses ChatGPT to talk to your child in real time. There are many cheaper and simpler versions, too, such as Eilik, Gilobaby, and Purrble, a cuddly toy specifically targeted at anxious children that has a heartbeat that races until you hold it to your own chest and pet it.
Many worry that children will develop attachments to emotional toys that will get in the way of their real-world interactions (as in the grown-up movie Her) – but the toys currently available are a way off from a level of sophistication that would allow that to happen. And in a lot of ways, it is the relative simplicity of interactions that makes them suitable for early learners. All young children – but especially neurodivergent children – can benefit from engaging in simple, repetitive interactions during early social interaction. For example, emotional toys can be effective at teaching turn-taking behaviours (i.e., you have to wait until the other person has finished talking before it is your turn to speak – which is something that all young children need to learn). And children with Autism, for example, can benefit from (and enjoy) simple contingent interactions – where I do something, and my partner copies me exactly – especially when technology allows you to repeat the same sequence over and over again.
One final area that I expect will show big development in future is in using AI-based tools to explore and augment children’s natural creative instinct. Already, there are lots of different apps that ‘plug in’ to language engines such as Chat GPT and image engines such as Midjourney to help children to make up their own stories – for example, featuring elements from their own lives.
The possibilities opened up by these apps are really mind-blowing. A young child can choose a few elements – for example, they might want to make up a story featuring themselves and their favourite teddy bear, going on a journey. They can upload pictures of themselves and their teddy through a phone, enter a couple of prompts about where they want to go and what they want to happen – and then in seconds they have a full storybook, featuring a story about themselves, and with illustrations of themselves and their teddy going on their magical journey.
We’re not quite there yet, but soon it will be possible to create a fully interactive storybook – where the decisions you make in one chapter determine what you read about in the next chapter. And it will soon be possible to combine a storybook app with a reading app, so that a child has to read their newly created story aloud – and, if there are words that they’re struggling with, it will keep on repeating that word until they can read it fluently, before moving onto another one. The story is made up as they go, and tailored to the reading performance of that particular child.
Other uses of EdTech in Early Years
Of course, in a short article such as this I’ve only been able to scratch the surface of the different ways in which technology can already help early education. Perhaps the biggest use of AI at the moment is in AI targeted at educators – such as loveheart.ai, which allows educators to track and monitor your child’s individualised learning progress. Soon, it will also be possible to use AI to provide a type of ‘Caregiving Fitbit’ – that monitors how responsive you are to children that you’re looking after (i.e. how often you answered their questions, how responsive you were when they got upset). And soon it will also be possible to use child-worn technologies in an educational setting to monitor how children respond to different types of learning environment – i.e. whether that child benefits most from big, stimulating spaces, or smaller, more intimate ones – so that you can tailor a learning environment to find the one that suits each particular child best.
There’s no doubt, then, that EdTech is part of the future of early childhood education. And, from my perspective as a psychologist, there’s also no doubt that they have the potential to make learning more effective – by giving more detailed and continuous feedback to young learners than any human can ever give, and by tailoring learning more effectively to individual differences in learning level and learning speeds. Those children who stand to benefit the most from EdTech are neurodivergent children, who crave the endless, over-and-over repetition that only technology can give.
Does this mean that I – speaking as a father now – am in a rush to give my two-year-old and four-year-old screens, and to expose them to as much technology as I can? Honestly, it doesn’t. The things I enjoy most as a dad are being there to give my kids a nice warm cuddle when they’re sad – and to go out into the woods to collect pine cones for them to play with, and leaves for them to paint. It’s reassuring, then, that the science supports this, too. Young children benefit from warm, tactile comfort, natural elements and wooden textures, just as they benefit from EdTech. The nurseries of the future will, I think, be a mixture of all these things.