The Little Scholars School of Early Learning recently joined forces with Southern Cross University for an innovative project, looking at how children engage and interact with social robots. NAO is a social robot that has been programmed to interact socially with people and this digital tool has the potential to serve as an educational aide in early learning settings.

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Little Scholars’ Yatala campus was buzzing with excitement as it welcomed Dr Michelle Neumann, Research Assistant Ruby-Jane Barry, and of course, NAO. The visits were part of an educational initiative that captivated the preschool and kindergarten children, as well as educators. The children couldn’t wait to see if Dr. Neumann and NAO had arrived and would dash to the parent lounge to check, educators reported.

The children had the opportunity for one-on-one interactions with NAO, participating in games like ‘Simon Says’, Q&A sessions, and activities focused on literacy.

Dr. Neumann, who leads the project, is an associate professor in early childhood education at Southern Cross University. She believes that this is a frontier that early learning is just starting to venture into.

Interestingly, Dr. Neumann’s journey into early childhood education began after becoming a mum to five children. With an honours degree in science, she decided to pivot her career towards education and early learning. She went back to university, earned her Graduate Diploma in Education, Bachelor of Primary Education, and then completed her PhD focusing on early literacy development. Her dedication has earned her a recent award for research excellence from Southern Cross University, recognising her work in early literacy, digital technologies (tablets, apps, social robots), child development, parent-child interaction.

Helping with social development

While NAO has been used to support children’s learning about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and coding, social robots also have the potential to be used to support language, literacy and social learning in the classroom, according to Michelle

“As a physically embodied version of a screen, a social robot may help young children from a range of diverse backgrounds develop their language and social skills,” Michelle said.

“Michelle and Ruby were so approachable and more than willing to let our little scholars meet NAO,” says Raylene, lead educator in the senior kindergarten room. “I was fascinated with NAO’s abilities, and the potential social robots could have in a classroom setting. As a lead educator, the benefits of having an additional learning assistant was something I was happy to advocate for, so I was quick to start drumming up more families to participate in the visits.”

Raylene said she had a lot of conversations with children preparing them for NAO’s visit, even conversations that maybe one day, the children might have robot friends to help their teachers in the classrooms.

“This was super exciting for the children. I did have to remind them and to the families that it wasn’t happening straight away, but the concept was well received. Families enjoyed the debates of whether it would take jobs from educators, and I enjoyed discussing this with them. By day two, Michelle and Ruby were needing to organise additional days to attend the service due to the influx of families wanting to participate,” Raylene said.

Raylene said on the first day, it was evident that although the children were excited, there were also plenty of nerves. Most of the children participated well, with a small handful quite shy, she said. As the program continued, the children got used to seeing Michelle, Ruby and NAO in the parent lounge, those children who were a little shy to begin with looked eager to have another turn.

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“This was obvious in my own son Tannen. Tannen was one of the few who participated on day one. The whole lead up was a confident ‘I’m having a robot friend’ until he got his robot friend,” Raylene said. “After his turn he told me he didn’t like it a lot because it was scary, however as the days went on, and more friends started to participate, and NAO became a familiar face, all of a sudden he was eager to come to the door to see if they were there yet, and talk to other children on the way in to see if they were going to go and play games with NAO that day. This is the way it unfolded for several children,” Raylene said.

After a few one-on-one visits to introduce NAO to children, Michelle made a final visit to introduce more campus children to NAO and play some games.

“You could see the comfort of the children who were already familiar with NAO, and it acted like a scaffold for the children who hadn’t had the chance yet to interact with him. Comments from children like ‘Oh, that’s just NAO’ and ‘I already played this game and it’s really fun’ to encourage peers along were incredible to hear because it was listening to four- to five-year-olds comforting each other and being confident with the experiences they had just had,” Raylene said.

The future of social robots

Michelle said one day she’d love to introduce a full program which sees social robots in more early learning classrooms. But, she says, these are still relatively early days. Social robots are a work in progress, and she acknowledges they’re limited in what they can currently do. She’d love to also work with children who would benefit from additional language and literacy support. For that to work, NAO’s voice recognition needs development as it would need to have the ability to understand a spectrum of language milestones, she said.

“It would take a lot of time, guidance and professional development for educators… and a lot of support to be able to use the social robot in its current form,” she said. “But they’re working on AI generated social robots and these innovative opportunities may make using social robots more usable in the classroom.”

And, the robots are not cheap. NAO can cost up to $20,000 AUD, which she acknowledges would be financially prohibitive to many early learning settings. Michelle says her hope is that more research to can be done to better understand the role that social robots could play in supporting young children’s early learning experiences. With emerging advances in robotics, it may be possible that the production costs of these devices could one day become a more affordable educational tool.

The collaboration between Little Scholars and Southern Cross University has opened up new avenues for early learning, showcasing the potential of integrating social robots like NAO into educational settings. The overwhelmingly positive response from both children and educators alike underscores the limitless possibilities this technology could offer. As we look to the future, the hope is that advancements in AI and robotics will make these educational tools more accessible and tailored to the unique needs of early learners. This pioneering initiative serves as a testament to the boundless curiosity and adaptability of children, and the commitment of educators like Michelle and Raylene to push the boundaries of what’s possible in early education.

Jae Fraser, founder of Little Scholars, wholeheartedly supports the NAO project with Little Scholars.

“This is such an exciting project for our little scholars to engage in,” he says. “Introducing social robots to Little Scholars, isn’t just a leap in technology; it’s a giant step in nurturing young minds.

“We look forward to where this will go, and how we can use resources like this to continue the learning journey for Little Scholars.”

Additional information

The potential of social robots in early learning includes:

  • Fostering learner engagement and attention to tasks
  • Acts as a guide or teaching assistant in the early years classroom
  • Reduces educator workload
  • Makes learning fun

Potential barriers and obstacles for social robots in early learning:

  • Limited functionality of social robots, such as voice recognition, conversational turn taking, understanding context
  • Financial and technical maintenance of social robots
  • Professional development for educators
  • Ethical considerations

We live in a digital world, and for many of us, our small children are quicker to learn and use technology than we are. For a parent, letting your child use technology can be a bit of a break, so you can have a few minutes to work, cook, tidy up or even just have some peace. And increasingly, children are required to have their own devices for their education once they get to big school. Technology allows them to learn things in ways a book or even a television show can’t teach them, but it also comes with risk of which parents need to be aware.

Here are our top tips on how to keep your child safe while using devices.

1. Conversations about what your child does online

Engage with your child on their digital experiences. Parents often talk about what a child does during their day – how school or daycare was, what they had for lunch, what they’re reading, but do you talk to them about what they’re doing online or on devices? We recommend being an active participant with your child while on the phone, iPad or computer and watch, read or do online activities with them. Be curious about what interests them and ask questions — at the same time, you can gently introduce online safety tips, such as not clicking on pop-ups, or question links coming from sources they don’t know before they click. Remind your child to always talk to you about anything, and to come to you if they find something online that makes them feel uncomfortable or if someone outside their immediate trust circle contacts them online. Make those conversations commonplace, because the more you interact with your children during and about screen time, the better.

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2. Your child's digital footprints

Digital footprints can last for a long time. Talk with your children about what the internet is, and how (when they’re older) what they post can influence people’s opinions of them—good or bad. This is also a reminder to you about considering what you post, especially when it comes to your child.  Asking them early if you may take their photo, and if you plan to share it on social media, let them know who will see it, why you want to share it, and respect their decision if they don’t want to share it. This shows respect for your child, models consent and respectful data sharing practices. The more they know about this, the better off they’ll be when it comes to making decisions about their online presence when they’re older.

3. Age-appropriate screen time

Children under two years of age are not recommended to have any screen time outside of occasional video calls, according to national and international guidelines, such as from Early Childhood Australia and the American Academy of Pediatrics. Children younger than age two are more likely to learn when they interact and play with parents, siblings, and other children and adults. After age two and until at least age five, it’s suggested that little eyes only be exposed to one to two hours of high quality programming per day.

Too much screen time and regular exposure to poor-quality programming has been linked to:

  • Obesity
  • Delays in language and social skill development
  • Insufficient sleep
  • Behaviour problems
  • Violence
  • Attention problems
  • Less time spent learning.

Unstructured playtime is more valuable for a young child’s developing brain than is electronic media, but not all screen time is ‘bad’ and can even be beneficial.

Sites such as Children and Media Australia and Common Sense Media can help parents understand the quality of the media and apps that their children are using with programming ratings and reviews.

4. Parental controls

Parental controls are software tools that allow you to monitor and limit what your child sees and does online.

They can be set up to do things like:

  • Block your child from accessing specific websites, apps or functions (like using a device’s camera or the ability to buy things)
  • Filter different kinds of inappropriate content — such as ‘adult’ or sexual content, content that may promote self-harm, eating disorders, violence, drugs, gambling, racism and terrorism
  • Allow you to monitor your child’s use of connected devices, with reports on the sites they visit and the apps they use, how often and for how long
  • Set time limits that block access after a set time.

The Australian government’s eSafety Commissioner is a great resource with important information on how to protect children of all ages when they spend time online.

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5. Device-free time and zones

Obviously, with the recommended screen time guidelines for small children to be somewhere between zero to two hours daily depending on age, your child’s time should be mostly device-free, but this is a great idea for all family members to carve out some time each day without devices to focus on other interests and each other. Your children are always watching what you’re doing, and seeing you keep the phone or iPad away so you can read or play with them, or even focus on other passions or hobbies of your own, models healthy behaviour when it comes to devices. As mentioned above, you can set time limits on devices, with both Apple and Android, and switch things up so that when the limit is up, go do something outside.

Maybe as a family everyone can agree to device-free time together, such as at meals or weekend mornings – whatever works for you. Research shows that devices shouldn’t be used for at least an hour before bedtime to ensure your child has the best quality sleep.

You could also agree to areas in which devices are to be used such as living rooms or the study. If you keep mobile phones and other devices out of your child’s bedroom at night, your child won’t be able to play games or potentially wander into online territory you don’t want them to see. This can also stop your child being disturbed in the night by messages and notifications. Reducing the areas in which devices may be used also allows other areas for connection – like car rides and restaurants, as a family.


Come and see the Little Scholars difference

Let us hold your hand and help looking for a child care centre. Leave your details with us and we’ll be in contact to arrange a time for a ‘Campus Tour’ and we will answer any questions you might have!

Come and see the Little Scholars difference

Let us hold your hand and help looking for a child care centre. Leave your details with us and we’ll be in contact to arrange a time for a ‘Campus Tour’ and we will answer any questions you might have!