Content uploaded by Pekka Mertala
All content in this area was uploaded by Pekka Mertala on May 05, 2019
Content may be subject to copyright.
Young children’s perceptions of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things
Ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) and the Internet of things (IoT) are turning into everyday
household technology at an ever-increasing pace, for example, in the form of connected toys.
However, while ubicomp and IoT are changing and shaping children’s digital and technological
landscape, not much is known about how children perceive these omnipresent and concealed
forms of digital technology. This qualitatively oriented paper explores 3- to 6-year-old Finnish
children’s perceptions of ubicomp and IoT via interviews and a design task. Initially, the
children were skeptical toward the idea that tangible objects, such as toys, could be computer
and/or Internet enabled. However, these perceptions were subject to change when children
were introduced to a scientific conception of what computers and the Internet are and asked to
apply their knowledge to a technological design task. Implications for early years digital
literacy education are discussed in the paper.
Children; digital literacy; early childhood; the Internet of things; ubiquitous computing
What is already known about this topic
• The role of computer- and Internet-enabled tangible objects, such as connected toys,
is expanding rapidly in young children’s lives.
• The need for early years digital literacy education has been acknowledged.
What this paper adds
• This study explores young children’s initial perceptions of ubiquitous computing and
the Internet of things.
• Children are initially skeptical toward the idea that tangible objects can be
• This initial skepticism is subject to change when children are introduced to a scientific
conception of what computers and the Internet are.
Implications for practice and policy
• The study provides novel insights into how children’s digital literacy can be supported
in early childhood education.
Research on young children and digital technologies has been a subject of rapid growth
(Mertala, 2016); especially, children’s encounters with tablet computers have attracted
scholarly attention (Couse & Chen, 2010; Falloon, 2014; Kucirkova, Messer, Sheehy, &
Fernández Panadero, 2014; Neumann, 2018). Notably, there has been less interest in children’s
perceptions of ubiquitous computing (ubicomp) and the Internet of Things (IoT). Specifically,
studies that explore how young children perceive and understand these technologies are sparse
(cf. Manches, Duncan, Plowman, & Sabeti, 2015).
Such research and knowledge, however, is urgently needed because ubicomp and IoT are
changing and shaping children’s digital and technological landscape and life worlds. According
to one forecast, there will be more than 75 billion IoT-connected devices installed worldwide
as of 2025.
Several market research reports also predict that the already notable sales figures
of computer- and/or Internet-enabled toys will grow rapidly in the near future.
IoT toys may not be everyday playthings for the vast majority of children today (Brito, Dias,
& Oliveira, 2018), they most likely will be in a few years. This qualitative study contributes
to filling this knowledge gap by exploring 3- to 6-year-old Finnish children’s perceptions of
ubicomp and IoT via picture-enhanced interviews and a design task.
Ubicomp, as defined by Abowd and Mynatt (2000), refers to the proliferation of computing in
the physical world. In other words, the core idea of ubicomp is that any tangible object can
either include or be a computer. The idea behind IoT, in turn, is that any ‘thing’ or object that
is appropriately tagged can communicate through an Internet-like structure with other objects
that are similarly tagged (Pascual-Espada, Sanjuán-Martínez, Pelayo G-Bustelo, & Cueva-
Lovelle, 2011). In other words, when appropriately tagged, any tangible object can include
Internet connectivity. As can be seen from the definitions above, to a notable extent, ubicomp
and IoT are overlapping concepts. The main difference is that ubicomp objects do not
necessarily require Internet connectivity, whereas IoT objects need a computer chip (i.e., a
microcontroller or microprocessor) to function. To provide a concrete example, there are
programmable toys that have no Internet connectivity (i.e., BeeBot and Coderpillar), as well as
programmable toys with Internet connectivity (i.e., Dash & Dot and Evolution Robot; (Velicu
& Lampert, 2017). The first group can be referred to as ubicomp toys, whereas the latter ones
can be labeled IoT toys.
Research-based knowledge of how children perceive ubiquitous computing and IoT also has
notable pedagogical value. The importance of supporting young children’s digital literacy has
been addressed by various stakeholders, including scholars (Marsh, 2017); global agents, such
as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (Taguma, Makowiecki, &
Litjens, 2013); and national educational administrations (Finnish National Agency for
Education, 2016). As the pedagogics of early years digital literacy education are in the
emerging stage (Edwards, Mantilla, et al., 2018) (Edwards, Mantilla, et al., 2018; Salomaa &
Mertala, 2019), the development of appropriate and research-based methods requires up-to-
date knowledge of children’s initial understanding of ubicomp and IoT.
The understanding that tangible, everyday objects can be computer and Internet enabled
represents one form of operational digital literacy, which includes the skills needed to
understand the functional properties of digital artifacts (Marsh, 2017). It has been stated that
the proliferation of IoT toys has provided a new world of Internet experience for young
children, and this should be acknowledged in their cyber-safety education (Edwards, Mantilla,
et al., 2018). Put differently, due to the rapidly increasing market share and availability of
connected toys, it is important to teach children that toys—and other tangible objects—can be
connected to the Internet, and especially, that these toys can collect data from them and
distribute the data to third parties. To cite the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s (2016)
complaint and request for investigation,
By purpose and design, these toys record and collect the private conversations of young
children without any limitations on collection, use, or disclosure of this personal
information. The toys subject young children to ongoing surveillance and are deployed
in homes—without any meaningful data protection standards. They pose an imminent
and immediate threat to the safety and security of children. (p. 2)
These concerns are highlighted by the notion that many connected toys have been identified as
vulnerable for hacking (Chu, Apthorpe, & Feamster, 2018). In March 2017, it was announced
that 2 million voice recordings between parents and children were allegedly exposed to
potential hackers, along with 800,000 emails and passwords to their accounts from the database
of the IoT toy company CloudPets,
to provide one example.
Toys are also the tangibles most often used when studying children’s encounters and meaning
making with and around ubicomp and IoT. The existing research has approached the
phenomenon from the viewpoints of how children perceive, for example, the questions of
privacy (Mcreynolds et al., 2017) and learning (Heljakka & Ihamäki, 2017) in relation to
Internet-enabled toys. However, the focus with the greatest semblance to and importance for
the present paper is Manches et al.’s (2015) study of how cognizant 10- to 11-year-old-children
are of IoT toys. According to their findings, even children who commonly played with IoT toys
were not aware of how the technology worked. That said, it is important to apprehend that
children’s limited knowledge is not restricted to ubicomp and IoT; rather, previous research
has suggested that children’s understanding of the Internet and computers is generally narrow
(Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018; Mertala, 2019; Robertson, Manches, & Pain, 2017). Many
children, for example, find it difficult to distinguish whether they are online or offline when
playing games or using on-demand streaming services (Mertala, 2019). This also applies to
children’s understanding of computers. In his study on 5- to 7-year-old children’s conceptions
of computers, code, and the Internet, Mertala (2019) observed that children conceptualized
computers as traditional desktop and laptop computers (or even monitors), whereas
smartphones and tablets were considered to be different forms of technology. Accordingly, the
children did not spontaneously express that computers could be located in tangible everyday
objects, such as washing machines and toys. However, a study by Robertson et al. (2017)
suggested that when children are introduced to a scientific concept of computers (i.e.,
computers as chips) they can identify various devices containing such chips, including tablets,
smartphones, video cameras, traffic lights, and watches. This study first tests Robertson’s et al
(2017) findings and then further examines whether the children are able to apply the new
knowledge when engaged in a design task, which is explained in detail in the Methods section.
Scientific concept here refers to an explanation of what things are and how and why they work
(Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018).
Theoretically, this paper draws on a sociocultural tradition in which learning of and about
things is understood to occur in interaction with the social and cultural (including material)
environment in which the subject acts (Lantolf & Thorne, 2007; Vygotsky, 1978). According
to previous research, much of children’s learning about digital technologies is based on
intentional and/or unintentional tutoring by guardians, older siblings, and other close figures
(Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018; Mertala, 2019); thus, children’s digital literacy varies with the
quality and quantity of these interactions. One benefit of drawing on sociocultural theory is
that acknowledging the role of the social, material, and cultural contexts enables the researcher
to go beyond the (unfounded) generational dichotomy discourse in which children are
portrayed as born-competent “digital natives” and adults are viewed as unskilled “digital
immigrants” (Prensky, 2001). Both of these images are popular in the field of educational
research and practice (Kirschner & De Bruyckere, 2017). Put differently, the way one
understands and conceptualizes digital technologies is more dependent on the sociocultural
context in which one lives than on one’s age and/or generation.
Research aims and questions
The aim of this study is understanding how young children perceive ubicomp and IoT. The first
objective was exploring children’s initial perceptions, which was formulated into the following
● What types of initial perceptions do young children have about ubicomp and IoT?
Based on previous research, it was expected that children’s initial conceptions
would be that
computers and the Internet are tool- (i.e., computers are desktops) and activity-based (i.e., the
Internet is for playing games; Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018; Mertala, 2019) and they would not
be cognizant of what ubicomp and the IoT are (Manches et al., 2015). Previous research also
suggested that children’s perceptions can change when a scientific conception is introduced to
them (Robertson et al., 2017). On these grounds, the second objective was examining how
children’s perceptions change when they encounter a new scientific conception. This was
formulated in the following research question:
● How do children’s perceptions of ubicomp and IoT change when a scientific conception
of computers and the Internet is introduced to them?
Participants, research context, and data collection
In this paper, conceptions refers to children’s explanations of what things are (Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018;
Mertala, 2019). Perceptions, in turn, is a broader term that includes reflection on whether the thing/phenomenon
under discussion, here ubicomp and IoT, is possible in the first place.
The data were collected from 33 children from one Finnish early childhood center in December
2018. Consent to participate in the research was requested verbally from the children and in
written form from their guardians. The distribution of the children’s ages and genders is
displayed in Table 1. The center was chosen via convenience sampling (Patton, 2002). I have
been collaborating with the educators since 2013, and I am familiar with the children as well.
The participating center was also a teaching practicum placement for the university’s early
childhood teacher education program, and the children had become accustomed with the
culture of new people working alongside their own educators for fixed short-term periods.
Age and Gender Distribution of Participating Children
Providing detailed verbal accounts on functional principles of digital technologies is sometimes
difficult for young children (Robertson et al., 2017). Thus, they should be offered alternative
mediums for self-expression for ensuring rich data. The use of visual methods and materials,
such as drawing and pictures, is typical in contemporary childhood research (Lipponen, Rajala,
Hilppö, & Paananen, 2016), and this has proven to provide rich data for exploring young
children’s meaning making around digital technologies (Brito et al., 2018; Edwards, Mantilla,
et al., 2018; Mertala, 2016, 2019; Robertson et al., 2017). In this study, visual materials were
used as supports for verbal narration (pictures shown to children) and forms of visual narration
(drawing task). From a sociocultural viewpoint, children’s drawings do not emerge in a
“cultural vacuum” (Mertala, 2016), but instead, they are always influenced by the
communication and symbol systems around them (Anning & Ring, 2004).
In practice, the data were gathered via individual picture-enhanced research interviews and a
drawing task that took place during the first day of a three-day pedagogical project carried out
by a group of preservice early childhood teachers.
The project was part of a compulsory course
about technology-enhanced learning. The method for data collection, as well as the entire
Performing the data collection as part of a broader project was partly based on ethical reflection in research. As
data collection was carried during the first day, the following two days were considered requital for the time and
effort the children had invested into us during the data collection period.
project, was designed in collaboration with the educators of the participating center to ensure
the project respects their pedagogical values, as well as the children’s interests. The preservice
teachers were trained in how to carry out the interviews and drawing task prior to data
collection. They were, for example, encouraged to create a relaxed atmosphere by playing,
reading, and chatting with the children before addressing the issues related to the research
objectives. Before data collection was performed, the children were introduced to the aim and
methods of the research (Einarsdottir, Dockett, & Perry, 2009) by me during the morning circle
time. Then, the preservice teachers introduced themselves to the children and began to
familiarize themselves with the children with support from the educators.
The actual data collection process consisted of five phases. These entailed the following:
i. The children’s initial conceptions were explored by asking them to freely explain what
they knew about and understood by computers and the Internet.
ii. Next, the children were shown pictures of a car, washing machine, and teddy bear
by one and asked whether these objects could include a computer or the Internet. These
specific objects were chosen because they present a pool of everyday objects that are
likely familiar to all children. All these objects can contain computers and connectivity.
For example, all modern cars have at least one computer in them, and many have
integrated on-board computers that can display error signals and/or be used for
iii. In the third phase, a short scientific explanation of computers and the Internet were
introduced to the children. The explanations were based on two children’s nonfiction
books Kuinka tietokone toimii? Kurkista ja Koodaa (Flip-the-flap: computers and
coding; (Dickins & Nielsen, 2015) and Miten Internet toimii (How the Internet works;
(Nilsson, 2015). The size of a computer chip was also concretized for the children by
letting them examine a Raspberry Pi computer. Scientific explanations are provided in
Table 2. Reference pictures of the books and Raspberry Pi are provided in Figure 1.
iv. Next, the children were shown the same three pictures again, and they were asked
whether they could contain a computer or the Internet.
v. Finally, the children were asked to use drawing to design a toy that would have a
computer or Internet connectivity in it. The children were oriented for the task with a
fairy tale about a Christmas elf who hit his/her head on a tree in a sledging accident,
See supplementary file 1.
and therefore, was unable to invent any new toys for the coming Christmas and needed
help from the children.
The children’s responses to the questions and their
presentations of toy designs were recorded by writing them down (Einarsdottir et al.,
All the interviews were conducted with one child at a time.
Scientific Explanations of Computers and the Internet
See supplementary file 2
A computer is a device that can follow instructions and solve problems. However, computers do
not come up with solutions independently; instead, they follow the instructions given by people
using the buttons, mouse, or keyboard. For example, pressing A on the keyboard is a command
to write an A on a computer-connected display. Computers can be really small. Many devices,
such as cameras and remote-control cars, have computers inside them.
The Internet is a large network of computer cables and computers that enables devices to
communicate with each other. You can connect to the Internet, for example, over a telephone
network, fiber optic cable, or wireless network. The wireless network is also known as WiFi.
The Internet sends things called digital information. This information is made from ones and
zeros because computers and computer programs can only read information in that form.
Computers then convert this information so that it can be viewed, listened to, and used by
Figure 1. Pictures of the books and of Raspberry Pi
The analysis process was guided by an abductive approach in which the researcher moved
between deductive and inductive reasoning to open up new ways of theorizing the phenomenon
(Dey, 2003). To put the results in context, the author reviewed the existing research and
acknowledged its findings by using them as the basis for initial analytical readings of the data.
However, due to the novelty of the research objective and exploratory nature of the study, data-
driven interpretations were also performed to refine the existing theoretical views.
In practice, the data were analyzed via qualitative oriented monotype mixed analysis (MMA;
(Onwuegbuzie, Slate, Leech, & Collins, 2007) and the constant comparison method (Boeije,
2002). In MMA, the data—whether qualitative or quantitative—are analyzed using both
qualitative and quantitative methods. The use of MMA requires that qualitative data are altered
into a form that can be analyzed statistically, while quantitative data are transformed into a type
that can be analyzed qualitatively (Onwuegbuzie et al., 2007). This mixing can be characterized
as a combination of measurement and interpretation (Biesta, 2010). In the present study,
transforming the data meant quantifying the responses containing specific types of information,
for example, children’s conceptions of what computers and the Internet are. These frequency
counts were then converted to percentages for calculating the frequency effect size
Interpretative analysis was carried out by reading the data, comprising both the drawings and
interviews, in a holistic manner; the aim of doing this was identifying the essential qualities of
the phenomenon under investigation (Miles, Huberman, & Saldana, 2013) and making
comparisons between the theory and data, between the data from different participants, and
within the data from individual participants (Boeije, 2002). In other words, the analytical focus
was not only on what the children said but also on how they expressed their views and
perceptions. For instance, it was noted that some children used more intense narration when
describing why there could not be a computer inside a teddy bear than why there could not be
a computer inside a washing machine or car.
First, children’s descriptions of what computers and the Internet are were coded and
categorized based on content using three literature-informed (Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018;
Mertala, 2019) categories as starting points. The categories were as follows: “function-based
explanation” (i.e., how computers and the Internet work), “tool-based explanation” (i.e., what
counts as a computer/the Internet), and “activity-based explanation” (i.e., what can be done
with computers/online). Next, the children’s answers to the first-round questions on whether
there could be a computer and/or Internet in a car, washing machine, and teddy bear were coded
and categorized based on whether the children thought these items could or could not include
computers and/or Internet connectivity. The answers were then further coded and categorized
regarding the nature of their reasoning. Three categories were formed, as follows: “function-
based explanation” (the child explained what a computer and/or connectivity would afford for
the object), “non-function-based explanation” (the child explained where a computer and/or
connectivity could be located but did not provide an explanation of what this would afford for
the object), and “no explanation” (the child agreed that there could be a computer and/or
connectivity in the object with no further explanation). A similar procedure was conducted for
data from the second round of questions. In the last phase, children’s toy designs—that is, the
drawings and what the children said about them—were coded in relation to how ubicomp
and/or IoT features were exhibited in them. Data extracts from each category are provided in
the Findings section to improve the clarity and transparency of the analysis process.
Before presenting the findings, the limitations of the data should be addressed. The types of
objects used as examples and the way the scientific concept was introduced potentially
influenced the data by providing cues to the children. To put this in context, a remote-controlled
toy car was used as one example of a computer-enabled toy, and remote controllability was one
of the ubicomp features included most often in the children’s toy designs. This skewness in the
data is considered in the analysis and conclusions made from the findings. Another possible
limitation is that the unbalanced age and gender distribution of the participating children
prevented gender- or age-based comparisons between them.
The findings of this study are presented in four subsections. The first discusses the children’s
initial conceptions of computers and the Internet, while the second considers their initial
perceptions of ubicomp and IoT. The last two subsections focus on the change of children's
perceptions after the introduction of the scientific concept of computers and the Internet.
Children’s initial conceptions of computers and the Internet
Table 3 displays how children’s initial views of what computers and the Internet are were
distributed regarding the nature of their conceptions. In some cases, a child’s response included
examples from several categories, and thus, the number of examples is higher than the number
Distribution of Children’s Initial Conceptions of Computers and the Internet
“I don’t know”
Function-based explanations of computers and the Internet were rare in the children’s initial
perceptions. One child, for example, commented that computers are built from different types
of parts. His knowledge had strong sociocultural roots, as he related that he knew this because
his grandfather had different types of computer parts. Relatively few tool-based references
were made. Some children commented that computers include laptops and desktops, while a
few noted that tablets and smartphones are computers as well (“Tablet is a computer” [Child#6,
4y]; “Smartphone, it is a computer too [Child#20, 6y]). In terms of the Internet, tool-based
explanations included notions like “Mother’s phone has Internet” (Child#23, 5y).
Activity-based conceptions were the most prominent category. Most often, the mentioned
activities were playing games and watching movies and children’s programs. Some of the
children commented that an Internet connection is needed for buying things and ordering food:
One child remarked, “You can buy stuff” (Child#14, 4y), while another stated, “You can order
pizza” (Child#13, 5y). In addition, one child commented that an Internet connection is needed
for video streaming services to function, stating, “You cannot watch YouTube if you don’t
have [an] Internet [connection]” (Child#27, 6y). Nevertheless, the main trend in the data was
that the difference between being online and being offline was unclear for the children. One
child, for instance, stated that he had searched for ideas for Christmas presents with a computer,
but at the same time, he stated that he had never used the Internet. Finally, five children made
references to computers’ appearance, that is, size, shape, and color, in their responses. Two
children commented that computers are big, which is essential information regarding children’s
initial perceptions of ubicomp and IoT: If computers are big, they cannot be found inside small
Children’s initial perceptions of ubicomp and IoT
Table 4 summarizes the quantitative distribution of the children’s initial perceptions of
ubicomp and IoT. As the table shows, the great majority of the children thought that cars,
washing machines, and teddy bears could not include a computer or Internet connection.
Distribution of Children’s Initial Perceptions of Ubicomp and IoT
However, there were notable variations in the depth and level of detail in the children’s
descriptions of why there could or could not be computers and/or Internet included in cars,
washing machines, and toys. In terms of cars, for example, there were children who were aware
that some modern cars are self-directed. One child stated, “My cousin’s father has an electric
car. The car can reverse by itself” (Child#26, 6y). In addition, some of the children knew that
the navigating systems of modern cars require computers and/or an Internet connection. A data
extract from Child#33 (6y) provides an illustrative example: When asked whether a car could
contain a computer, he answered, “Yeah, because it has a map that guides you to where you
are going.” However, at the same time, several children commented that there could be
computers and/or Internet in cars, but they were not able to provide explanations for what these
components could do in them.
Table 5 presents how the children’s answers were distributed on a function-based/non-
function-based/no explanation scale. “You can put on a navigator with an Internet
[connection]” (Child#6, 4y) is an example of function-based reasoning, whereas, “It [washing
machine] has a screen that has a computer in it” (Child#1, 4y) was categorized under non-
function-based reasoning. The main difference between these categories is that the first
describes how the specific technology affords the essential functions of the Internet-enabled
device in question, whereas the second includes no such description; instead, it merely states
where a computer could be located. Comments with no concrete explanation, such as, “Yeah,
there could be Internet” (Child#21, 6y), were labeled with the “No reasoning” code.
Qualitative Distribution of Children’s Yes Responses in the First Interview Round
Changes in children’s perceptions of ubicomp & IoT
Table 6 summarizes the quantitative distribution of the children’s perceptions of ubicomp and
IoT in the second round of interviews. As can be seen in the table, there were notable
quantitative changes in the children’s views after the introduction of the scientific concept of
computers and the Internet, the most prominent being the increase of 49% points in the
perception that cars could contain a computer.
Distribution of Children’s Perceptions of Ubicomp and IoT After the Introduction of Scientific
Concepts of Computers and the Internet
When comparing the distribution of answers, it appears to be easier for children to apprehend
computers and connectivity in objects that are mechanical to begin with. The teddy bear was
the only object that more than half the children said could not contain a computer or Internet
connection. In other words, even the introduction of scientific concepts was sufficient for
shaping the children’s perceptions about cars and washing machines; the teddy bear, at least in
part, was a different matter. For instance, Child#26 initially thought that there could not be a
computer or connectivity in any of the three objects. After the introduction of scientific
concepts, he changed his mind about cars and washing machines, but not about the toy. In his
words, a teddy bear “is a soft-toy. It helps you to fall asleep. There can’t be a computer in it”
(Child#26, 6y). Put another way, the plush toy bear and digital technology were mutually
exclusive categories for him.
Comparably to the first interview round, there was notable variation in the depth and level of
detail in the children’s responses. Table 7 displays how the children’s answers were distributed
on the function-based/non-function-based/no explanation scale. As can be seen from the table,
the increase mainly took place in the “no explanation” and “non-function-based” categories. In
other words, although the shift of perceptions was notable in a quantitative sense, much of this
change took place at a rather superficial level.
Qualitative Distribution of Children’s Yes Responses in the Second Interview Round
There were also cases in which the children’s perceptions had evolved significantly. The data
from Child#3 (6y) provide a piquant example of such a case. When asked about his initial
conceptions, he stated that there could be no computers or Internet connection in a washing
machine. In the second round, however, he was able to provide a rather detailed description of
how an IoT-enabled washing machine could work. In his words, “There could be an Internet
connection in it. You could control it with a computer and turn it on.”
Ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things in children’s toy designs
In the last phase, the children were asked to design a toy via a drawing that included computers
and/or Internet connectivity. Once again, there was notable variation in the children’s
responses. Some of the children provided detailed descriptions of what a computer and/or
connectivity enabled in their toy. For instance, one child drew a toy robot and stated, “[This is]
a robot. The computer is inside the robot. The computer makes the robot move” (Child#17, 5y;
see Figure 2); another related, “Somebody moves this [toy car] with a smartphone. It has an
Internet connection” (Child#4, 6y; see Figure 3).
Figure 2. Ubicomp robot Figure 3. IoT car
Nevertheless, designs in which references to ubicomp and IoT were more implicit appeared
more commonly. One child, for instance, designed a toy hamster (Figure 4) and stated that it
was “remote controlled. It has three buttons. One button makes it dance. [One button] makes it
walk forward. One button makes it make sounds” (Child#13, 5y). However, she did not explain
what the specific technology was that enabled these features. Furthermore, in some cases, the
children’s initial activity- and tool-based conceptions of computers and the Internet were
reflected in their toy designs. Child#13 related that computers can be used for playing games
and games can be downloaded from the Internet. These activity-based conceptions were also
present in her toy design (Figure 5). In her words, “[This is] Barbie’s smartphone. You can
download games on it. It has a heart-shaped screen that you can watch and play stuff”
(Child#31, 6y). In other words, she did not incorporate ubicomp and IoT into the doll, but
instead, she designed a ubicomp- and IoT-enabled accessory for her.
Figure 4. Toy hamster and its house Figure 5. Barbie’s smartphone
The types of toys the children designed can be understood to reflect the material environment
they live in, and all four examples above can be traced back to existing toys. Remote control
cars and Barbies (and other fashion dolls), for instance, have been regular items in young
children’s “toy pool” for decades. Accordingly, technology-enhanced hamsters (and other
animals) designed by several children recall popular interactive “care toys” that are either IoT
enhanced (i.e., Hatchimals) or traditionally battery operated (i.e., Chatimals). One more
example comprises the remote controllable and camera-enabled helicopters and airplanes
designed by four children, as these designs notably resembled miniature unmanned aerial
vehicles, known as drones in colloquial language. Figure 6 provides a piquant example of this;
here, the child has designed “an airplane that can make YouTube videos on the Internet”
(Child#28, 6y). The arrow indicates the location of the camera.
Figure 6. IoT-enabled airplane
Discussion and conclusions
This qualitative study has explored 3- to 6-year-old Finnish children’s perceptions of ubicomp
and IoT. It was found that the children were initially skeptical about whether tangible objects
could include computers or connectivity. This was mainly due to the children’s initial
conceptions of computers and the Internet, which were profoundly activity- and tool-based, as
also identified in previous research (Edwards, Nolan, et al., 2018; Mertala, 2019). The findings
also suggest that children’s perceptions of ubicomp and IoT can be shaped and refined by
providing them an age-appropriate scientific definition of what computers and the Internet are
and having them apply this new knowledge to a design task. In some cases, there were notable
qualitative changes in the children’s perceptions. However, in most cases, the changes in the
children’s perceptions were superficial rather than profound. Thus, more research is needed to
explore the further development and persistence of children’s changed perceptions.
To conclude, this study has provided original knowledge involving young children’s
perceptions of ubicomp and IoT. The use of multiple child-centered data collection methods,
such as picture-enhanced interviews, drawing-based design tasks, and reading of non-fiction
books and thought-provoking stories, has made it possible to gather rich and deep data, which
is one of the prerequisites of credible and trustworthy qualitative research (Fusch & Ness,
2015). Furthermore, detailed descriptions of the research context, data, and methods support
the transferability of the findings to other contexts in the areas of research and practice
(Shenton, 2004). In other words, while the findings cannot be automatically generalized to
other populations, the study provides several implications for early years’ digital literacy
education in early childhood education centers, which are discussed next.
According to the present study, the huge majority of young children do not possess an initial
understanding that tangible objects can be connected to the Internet. This finding implies, that
we should move beyond the prominent screen-based understanding of technology toward a
more holistic approach. It is important that both, children’s guardians and their professional
educators, demonstrate for children that computing and connectivity are not features restricted
only into screen-based devices. This, as shown in this paper, can be done by using children’s
non-fiction books and drawing-based design tasks. This notion challenges the contemporary
discourses around digital literacy that are dominated by a device-centered view in which the
focus is on the affordances of different digital tools (i.e., tablets, interactive whiteboards, and
apps; (Neumann, Finger, & Neumann, 2017).
This notion positions this study in the emerging branch of research indicating that traditional
(and non-digital) early childhood education practices, such as drama, drawing, and crafting,
are sound methods of exploring our digitized lifeworld with young children (Edwards,
Mantilla, et al., 2018; Salomaa & Mertala, 2019). These are valuable notions for early years
professionals, who have been found to struggle with how to provide digital literacy education
(Edwards, Mantilla, et al., 2018; Salomaa & Mertala, 2019) and who find it difficult to integrate
digitality and technology into the traditional practices of early childhood education (Lindahl &
Folkesson, 2012). As Bassey (1981) proposes, if practitioners believe their situations to be
similar to the one described in the study, they may relate the findings to their own positions.
The present study was carried out in a natural early childhood education setting by using means
and materials familiar to all practitioners. Thus, the findings presented in this paper are
potentially empowering for practitioners struggling with the new and somewhat ambiguous
curricular alignments around supporting and developing young children’s digital literacy.
Statements on potential conflicts of interest
The author does not report any conflicts of interest.
Statement on open data and ethics
The researcher has followed the ethical guidelines of the University of Oulu. The data cannot
be distributed openly as the participants are underaged. However, requests for data may be
made to the corresponding author.
Abowd, G. D., & Mynatt, E. D. (2000). Charting past, present, and future research in
ubiquitous computing. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction, 7(1), 29–
58. doi:10.1145/344949.344988research in ubiquitous comp. ACM Transactions on
Computer-Human Interaction, 7(1), 29–58. https://doi.org/10.1145/344949.344988
Anning, A., & Ring, K. (2004). Making Sense of Children’s Drawings. Maidenhead: Open
University Press. Retrieved from
Bassey, M. (1981). Pedagogic research: On the relative merits of search for generalization
and study of single events. Oxford Review of Education, 7(1), 73–94.
Biesta, G. (2010). ). Pragmatism and the philosophical foundations of mixed methods
research. In A. Tashakkori & C. Teddlie (Eds.), Sage handbook of mixed methods in
social and behavioral research (2nd ed., pp. 95–117). SAGE.
Boeije, H. (2002). A Purposeful Approach to the Constant Comparative Method in the
Analysis of Qualitative Interviews. Quality and Quantity, 36, 391–409.
Brito, R., Dias, P., & Oliveira, G. (2018). Young children, digital media and smart toys: How
perceptions shape adoption and domestication. British Journal of Educational
Technology, 49(5), 807–820. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12655
Buchanan, R., Murray, T., & Buchanan, R. (2018). ’ The Internet is all around us ’: How
children come to understand the Internet ‘ The Internet is all around us ’: How children
come to understand the Internet . Digital Culture & Education, 10(July), 1–21.
Retrieved from http://www.digitalcultureandeducation.com/cms/wp-
content/uploads/2018/07/Murray and Buchanan.pdf
Chu, G., Apthorpe, N., & Feamster, N. (2018). Security and Privacy Analyses of Internet of
Things Children’s Toys. IEEE Internet of Things Journal, PP(5), 1.
Couse, L. J., & Chen, D. W. (2010). A Tablet Computer for Young Children? Exploring its
Viability for Early Childhood Education. Journal of Research on Technology in
Education, 43(1), 75–96. https://doi.org/10.1080/15391523.2010.10782562
Dey, I. (2003). Qualitative data analysis: A user-friendly guide for social scientists. New
York, NY: Routledge.
Dickins, P., & Nielsen, S. (2015). Kuinka tietokone toimii? Kurkista ja Koodaa [Lift-the-flap:
Computers and coding]. Helsinki, Finland: Tammi.
Edwards, S., Mantilla, A., Henderson, M., Nolan, A., Skouteris, H., & Plowman, L. (2018).
Teacher Practices for Building Young Children’s Concepts of the Internet through Play-
Based Learning. Educational Practice and Theory, 40(1), 29–50. Retrieved from
Edwards, S., Nolan, A., Henderson, M., Mantilla, A., Plowman, L., & Skouteris, H. (2018).
Young children’s everyday concepts of the Internet: A platform for cyber-safety
education in the early years. British Journal of Educational Technology, 49(1), 45–55.
Einarsdottir, J., Dockett, S., & Perry, B. (2009). Making meaning: Children’s perspectives
expressed through drawings. Early Child Development and Care, 179(2), 217–232.
Falloon, G. (2014). What’s going on behind the screens? Researching young students’
learning pathways using iPads. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 30(4), 318–336.
Finnish National Agency for Education. (2016). National Core Curriculum for Early
Childhood Education and Care 2016.
Fusch, P. I., & Ness, L. R. (2015). Are we there yet? Data saturation in qualitative research,
Heljakka, K., & Ihamäki, P. (2017). Preschoolers Learning with the Internet of Toys : From
Toy-Based Edutainment to Transmedia Literacy. Seminar.Net, 14(1), 85–102.
Kirschner, P. A., & De Bruyckere, P. (2017). The myths of the digital native and the
multitasker. Teaching and Teacher Education, 67, 135–142.
Kucirkova, N., Messer, D., Sheehy, K., & Fernández Panadero, C. (2014). Children’s
engagement with educational iPad apps: Insights from a Spanish classroom. Computers
and Education, 71, 175–184. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2013.10.003
Lantolf, J. P., & Thorne, S. L. (2007). Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning.
In B. van Patten & J. Williams (Eds.), Theories in second language acquisition (pp.
Lindahl, M. G., & Folkesson, A.-M. (2012). Can we let computers change practice?
Educators’ interpretations of preschool tradition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(5),
Lipponen, L., Rajala, A., Hilppö, J., & Paananen, M. (2016). Exploring the foundations of
visual methods used in research with children. European Early Childhood Education
Research Journal, 24(6), 936–946. https://doi.org/10.1080/1350293X.2015.1062663
Manches, A., Duncan, P., Plowman, L., & Sabeti, S. (2015). Three questions about the
Internet of things and children. TechTrends, 59(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11528-014-
Marsh, J. (2017). Introduction. Makerspaces in the early years: A literature review.
DigiLitEY. Retrieved from http://makeyproject.eu/wp-
Mcreynolds, E., Hubbard, S., Lau, T., Saraf, A., Cakmak, M., & Roesner, F. (2017). Toys
that Listen: A Study of Parents, Children, and Internet-Connected Toys. Chi, 5197–
Mertala, P. (2016). Fun and games - Finnish children’s ideas for the use of digital media
in preschool. Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy, 10(04), 207–226.
Mertala, P. (2018). Young children’s conceptions of computers, code, and the Internet.
International Journal of Child-Computer Interaction.
Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldana, J. (2013). Qualitative data analysis. SAGE.
Neumann, M. M. (2018). Using tablets and apps to enhance emergent literacy skills in young
children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 42(October 2016), 239–246.
Neumann, M. M., Finger, G., & Neumann, D. L. (2017). A Conceptual Framework for
Emergent Digital Literacy. Early Childhood Education Journal, 45(4), 471–479.
Nilsson, H. (2015). Miten Internet toimii [How the Internet works]. Helsinki, Finland:
Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti.
Onwuegbuzie, A. J. (2003). Effect Sizes in Qualitative Research: A Prolegomenon. Quality
and Quantity, 37, 393–409.
Onwuegbuzie, A. J., Slate, J. R., Leech, N. L., & Collins, K. M. T. (2007). Conducting mixed
analyses: A general typology. International Journal of Multiple Research Approaches,
1(1), 4–17. https://doi.org/10.5172/mra.4184.108.40.206
Pascual Espada, J., Sanjuán Martínez, O., Pelayo G-Bustelo, B. C., & Cueva Lovelle, J. M.
(2011). Virtual Objects on the Internet of Things. International Journal of Interactive
Multimedia and Artificial Intelligence, 1(4), 23. https://doi.org/10.9781/ijimai.2011.144
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks,
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives , Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
Robertson, J., Manches, A., & Pain, H. (2017). “It’s Like a Giant Brain With a Keyboard”:
Children’s Understandings About How Computers Work. Childhood Education, 93(4),
Rücker, M. T., & Pinkwart, N. (2016). Review and Discussion of Children’s Conceptions of
Computers. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 25(2), 274–283.
Salomaa, S., & Mertala, P. (2019). An education-centred approach to digital media education.
In C. Gray & I. Palaiologou (Eds.), Early learning in the digital age (pp. 151–164).
Shenton, A. K. (2004). Strategies for ensuring trustworthiness in qualitative research projects.
Education for Information, 22, 63–75.
Taguma, M., Makowiecki, K., & Litjens, I. (2013). Quality Matters in Early Childhood
Education and Care: Norway 2013. https://doi.org/10.1787/9789264176713-en
Velicu, A., & Lampert, C. (2017). The composite world of IoToys. In G. Mascheroni & D.
Holloway (Eds.), The Internet of Toys: A Report on Media and Social Discourses
around Young Children and IoToys (pp. 15–24). DigiLitEY.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes.
Massachusetts, MA: Harvard university press.