​Digital media: a powerful tool to support literacy education

Leigh Hodgkinson is an author, illustrator of children’s picture books, and co-creator and art director of Cbeebies’ show, Olobob Top. She’ll be participating in a panel discussion about Creativity, Play and Digital Media at the UKLA International Conference in July. Ahead of the event, she spoke to us about the role of digital media in learning.


The times we live in are undoubtedly digitally driven and absorbed. From my perspective, the addition of digital media is a very powerful tool that can be added to our toolkit to help initiatives within literacy education, creativity and play.

The focus of this toolkit, regardless of its format, should be on the creative journey and not the end destination. So that the aim is to play, explore and learn in the actual doing and making, rather than having a prescribed end result. Eliminating the pressure of what the outcome should be gives children/ young people and adults(!) a space which is open, flexible, individual and free from judgment. This can help develop a healthy creative process and practice that is fun. And we all know that when something is enjoyable we are likely to do it again. I’m in favour of anything that can help do this, whether it is digital or using the simple basics of paper and pencils; these things have the capacity to work in tandem with each other and shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

What digital media has to offer this process is that it is by its very nature non-linear which removes the jeopardy of undo-able mistakes and failure which can feel overwhelming and off putting for people.

The freedom and joy we see in very young children when they create, mark make and play, is both inventive and pure. It is simply for the journey and the pleasure. They are not thinking about what they are learning or what the point is of their creation. But unfortunately, children soon become savvy about the way adults respond and judge what they have done. This I think is really damaging, even if the words of the adult are complimentary and positive because the focus is on wanting to please to get that positive reaction again. If they don’t get that, they then feel they have failed and think they have done something wrong. This then starts to stunt their instinct and desire to explore and try new things as that feels risky and scary. So sticking to what they know, which will get a good reaction, seems the safe bet, but this is a travesty. We should be encouraging our children and young people to be daring in their play and creativity, to embrace and nurture their individualism and foibles.

The inspiration of our animated show “Olobob Top” came from when I used to go to schools in my author/illustrator capacity. I found that some young people, and children from quite an early age, were uncomfortable with drawing on a blank piece of paper. It felt intimidating and they became anxious. The feeling that if they made a mark which they (or anybody else) considered a mistake or wrong was noticeably strong. This saddened me greatly and I felt it was not right. So then I started incorporating collage shapes and games into my workshops with a view to creative play and it being FUN. The results were amazingly instant and joyful. The children and young people instinctively understood that it wasn’t definite and just did what they do naturally…. they played. It amazed me how the simple act of changing the process had unlocked such beautiful and individual creativity.It was fascinating to see how, with the same set of quite limited shapes and patterns, each child had created something unique and interesting. In addition to this, during this process, their imaginations had been working to support and enhance what they were creating visually. It was as if without the stress and worry about the end result, their minds were free to play and explore too. Ideas of character, story and themes started to emerge.

This idea of creative play and story led us to develop and create “Olobob Top” where everything is made from a set number of shapes, patterns, textures and colours. Sometimes having parameters can be freeing and be less creatively paralyzing than having none at all (in the same way that having some tactile collage pieces felt freer that the blank piece of paper). In each episode of “Olobob Top”, a new character is created out of shapes, which helps solve the narrative in an unexpected way. Our show is made digitally, and watched digitally. Our objective is to give the viewer a platform to be able to absorb these concepts of creative play patterns as being both achievable and fun. We have worked hard on supporting these objectives in our live events, books, magazines, craft makes and collage printouts on our website. We are currently looking at new partnership opportunities and ways to create an exciting synergy between the digital and the traditional.

I think there are a few challenges, but like all challenges they can be overcome. Financial issues are always a sticking point. I think in terms of creative concepts, focus and passion – we have them in abundance. But unfortunately, for them to work in a commercial level, there has to be a budget that supports that. I know this from personal experience with “Olobob Top”. Anything that is innovative and pushes creative boundaries in a new way is risky in terms of investment, which I feel is really sad, as then what tends to happen is the same old safe mediocre formats and formulas get made again and again. How are children and young people going to be inspired and creatively thrive when they are constantly served a creative and educational diet of beige and magnolia?! I see this in publishing; I see this in TV programming; I see this online. It is easy for the small independent creative companies who have little money who do embrace and promote innovative ideas to get squashed by the bigger established commercial corporations. It takes time for attitudes to shift and trust to grow in a new brand/idea.

The panel session, Creativity, Play and Digital Media, took place at the UKLA International Conference on Friday 12 July and was chaired by Becky Parry and Fiona Scott from the Centre for the Study of Literacies at Sheffield Universities’ School of Education. Leigh Hodgkinson was joined on the panel by Sharna Jackson, Artistic Director at Site Gallery, Sheffield, Chris Lindgren, play designer and user experience researcher, and Iain Simons, the cultural director of the BGI. watch the panel in discussion here:

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