How to engage in possibility thinking in digital play in preschool today

By Michael Hilkemeijer


What if you could change your mindset about the use of digital play in early childhood education towards other possibilities? Children who live in a digital world are already asking the key question ‘what if” when they engage in the use of digital technologies.

This type of thinking is actually a natural progression from children’s traditional play. In fact, it is fundamental to how they learn as they explore different ways of thinking about objects.



As if Thinking

This type of questioning is momentary and is significant in its practice in the early childhood learning environment. Along with the question, it is also important to act ‘as if’. For young children, this opens up new ways of understanding and engagement in their digital play.

Children need opportunities to:

  • Initiate, take on and explore roles;
  • Use space and resources in ways that support these;
  • Sustain ‘as if’ play over time.


Sustained shared thinking encompasses this way of thinking and it is ideal to use in digital role playing situations. You might ask the open-ended question “What would happen here if I pressed this button?” or “I wonder what would happen if …?”


Possibility thinking

Going Digital

‘As if’ and ‘what if’ questions fit right into the use of digital technology in early childhood education. In digital play the journey of ‘what if’ thinking is typically shaped by the particular affordances of the digital technologies involved.


Digital play can offer resources that enable this type of thinking to truly take off! They include the following.

  • Playfulness – digital spaces are co-exploratory and young children like to improvise with imagination. In the case studies that follow you will also notice that the children show playfulness through their spontaneous vocalisations and share positive affect as they smile and giggle together.
  • Risk-taking – when it comes to digital play, you will see as in the case study that children will engage in immediate touch. This suggests that they are not anxious about starting the task.
  • Question posing – while at times children may not phrase their suggestions in the form of a question this does not preclude it from being something else.
  • Immersion – digital play naturally brings young children together and most of the time, as you will see in the case study, they will be intent on the digital activity.
  • Self-determination – when young children engage in digital play their exploration is purposeful and actions can be swift with attention being focused and real momentum in the engagement.
  • Imaginative – imagination inspires new possibilities and creativity.
  • Innovation – as in the case study, there are at times large jumps in the possibilities of representation.

Sakr (2020)


Digital play in the early years also extends itself to gaming devices such as Nintendo Wii in which Craft believes the four Ps apply:

  • Playful – young children can continue to play long after they credibly go and play at the local playground.
  • Plural – connecting with many digital playmates who are experimenting with their own online presence.
  • Participate – young children access playmates who are both real and virtual. Digital play spaces are democratic where all ideas welcome.
  • Possibility – young children explore possibilities. Translating ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’.



Trusting the ‘as if’ and ‘what if’ – what might be!

There are many benefits of incorporating digital play in early childhood education. The use of digital tools will help develop fine motor skills, enable them to develop their knowledge and understanding of the digital world, problem-solve, and promote creativity in the early childhood learning environment.


They also contribute to personal, social and emotional development.


Possibility thinking is essential in preschool education and as childhood changes as it allows you to consider how to nurture a high-trust culture that recognises children as active, capable digital producers and consumers, with virtual and actual lives.


As adults and early childhood teachers, it is up to us to enable exciting and relevant digital experiences for young children. And to do that, we need to harness the use of digital technology in play-based learning with our capacity to ask open-ended questions such as “What if..?” and to experiment with acting ‘as if’.



Case Study – Collaborative drawing on the iPad: What could it be?


Sakr (2020, p.67) offers a good example of possibility thinking in the following example.

Context: Two children (aged 6 years old) are drawing together on the iPad. They are playing the game Squiggle, which involves one of them starting a drawing and the other child finishing the drawing off. It is the turn of Child A to start the drawing. Child B is gazing intently at the iPad. They have a conversation about the drawing as it develops.


B: agaaaaahhhhh


A: ahh ahhhh


B: that looks like a mouse, now it looks like a dinosaur


A: It’s a dinosaur


B: I knew it’s a dinosaur. I want one colour… arugh, what’s this?


A: What’s that?


B: Oh no, not dotty again


A: It’s so funny


B: Weee, that’s better


A: It’s like a squiggly… like a squiggly snake


B: It looks like a slide that’s so squiggly


A: It looks like a ….wow, colourful


B: With lots of colours

A: That’s the rainbow one


B: I love rainbows


A: Once I saw three rainbows



What strategies can you use?

There are three key early childhood pedagogies that you can apply that will support possibility thinking when integrating digital play learning experiences. This includes:

  1. Standing back – this involves you stepping away from the children’s learning activity so that the children feel that the locus of control is with them and that they have the freedom to develop the digital play activity in the direction that they would like.
  2. Profiling learning agency – when employing this early childhood pedagogy, it involves you placing emphasis on the child’s choice and their ideas.
  3. Giving space and time – this early childhood pedagogy involves you making time available and constructing environments that are appropriate for possibility thinking. Children need time to engage in possibility thinking that is unrushed by adult-created deadlines.


5 Steps to think about

Here are five steps that you can employ today to help you nurture possibility thinking in your early childhood learning environment now:

  1. Create inclusive early childhood learning environments – this is a place where children’s ideas and experiences are highly valued, and dialogue is encouraged.
  2. Recognise opportunities for ‘what if?’ and ‘as if’ thinking.
  3. Challenge young children to raise big questions, enabling ‘possibility broad’ learning, ensuring tasks extend rather than constrain (promote independence rather than just use templates).
  4. Employ an active, sensitive digital pedagogy, valuing children’s activism, and making time and space for children to truly engage in digital play. Standing back with acute sensitivity to when and how to respond and lead.
  5. Value children’s independence and collaboration, encouraging reflection among children and adults.

Craft (2020)


By employing these early childhood pedagogies you will begin to engage in ‘possibility thinking’ and transform ‘what is’ to ‘what might be’ today.