Natterhub’s lessons are about so much more than just online safety. They’re about teaching children the skills they need to be good citizens, both online and offline - and no skill is more important than empathy.
In an interview with Toria Bono, host of the Tiny Voice Talks podcast, Caroline discusses her feelings on being an assistant headteacher, how some simple drawings led to the creation of Natterhub, and how to make abstract online spaces more accessible to children.
Answers have been edited for clarity and length. To listen to the full, unedited interview, go to the Tiny Voice Talks website.
You've had a really interesting and varied teaching career; you haven't just stuck around England as many of us have.
My father was in the forces, and that gave me a taste for living somewhere warm and sunny. So I spent my first two very happy years [as a teacher] in York, then I was fortunate enough to get my first international position in Barcelona. I actually did part of my teacher training in the British School of Amsterdam, so I always knew that I was heading overseas. I came to Hong Kong in 1999 and ended up staying there for 14 years.
You actually reached the dizzying heights of headship really quite quickly in your career. What age were you?
I was about 27. I hadn't been in Hong Kong very long when this position became available; I stepped in temporarily and then it became more permanent. But whilst I really enjoyed it, it's an amazing high-profile school in Hong Kong, I enjoyed the relationship with my children first and foremost.
International children have a resilience and a global perspective that's always really fun to work with in the classroom. The parents had high expectations, but I really enjoyed having a professional dialogue with [them]. So it was a really exciting place to teach.
And yet you chose not to continue on in leadership.
I realised that I was spending more and more time investing energy into adults rather than children. As an Assistant Head you're a go-between; I was having to implement changes that wouldn’t have been my choice and then carry them through genuinely, which I definitely struggled with.
But more than anything my love of education and being in schools came from creative teaching, and when you get up to management there's less of that and more box-ticking.
Back in 2007 you created The Pedagogs, and that was out of a creative moment as well.
I really wanted to celebrate small steps, because - especially when you teach younger children - small steps are the ones that really count. So if my children had started using full stops for the first time, I would say 'Wow, this is great! I'm so proud of you! I need to make a big fuss of this.' The idea was that they would come in the next day and think “Ooh, she was really pleased about me using full stops, I'll do it again.”
So I would get a piece of paper and draw the child (not very well) as a mermaid or a knight, and write “I USED FULL STOPS TODAY” in big letters. They would walk around school preening with it on the front of their sweatshirts, and people would notice it and say “Wow, you used full stops? This is great!” Seeing children puff their chests out and be so proud of themselves was a great way of reinforcing that learning moment.
Your passion for developing children and helping them to feel valued and safe has led you to create Natterhub, an online environment - do you want to tell me about it?
Natterhub came about as a result of being both an educator and a parent. I realised that my greatest concern as both a parent and as a teacher was this idea that we just put our children in online space, even though the internet was never designed with children in mind. We just assumed that they would be able to navigate their way around that digital landscape and somehow get through it.
If children feel they have the emotional support of their school and their environment they're far more likely to take risks and reach their potential, whether it's in maths lessons, or jumping off the highest part of the climbing frame, or standing on a stage and singing by yourself.
The idea of Natterhub came about as a result of my time as an early years and Key Stage 1 teacher and understanding the importance of roleplay. I thought that if I created a role-playing environment that looked like social media but was still very safe, it would give children the opportunity to metacognitively make good choices and role-play digital empathy.
It's such a good idea. Take something as simple as an emoji: as an adult, I don't really consider emojis terribly carefully, and yet you've had some really powerful conversations with children about using emojis.
Everyone's had that conversation with somebody who’s said, “My 18-month-old can swipe across my phone.” It's because children are mimicking what they see around them all the time. When you unpack the components of this kind of communication you realise that we all adopt certain habits to express ourselves. Children are still finding out who they are and how they want to be perceived - they are, by nature, self-obsessed. But they're not always naturally able to empathise with somebody at the other end of the conversation.
My daughter is 13, and she got her first mobile phone (as many children do) at the start of secondary school. I remember her sitting on the edge of the bed eye-rolling, saying “I know not to share my details and to remember my passwords,” but those weren't the things I was worried about. I was more concerned that she has this beautiful group of friends, and that one of them would use the wrong emoji and there’d be this unnecessary upset.
I was working with a Y2 class just a few months ago. I asked them, “If you wrote the message 'You're coming to my house today', which emoji would be a good one to put on the end?” And the children were really quick to suggest the cool dude with the sunglasses or the smiley face.
Then I said “OK, let's do the same thing again, but I'm going to use a different emoji.” I chose the angry red face, and you could hear the gasps in the air: “Oh, that's so bad!” “That would make me so sad, that means he doesn't want me to come.” “That would make me feel like he wasn't really a very nice person.” It was just a great opportunity for them to understand the impact of a really simple choice.
My daughter is 14 and finds it obscure that I write in full sentences with punctuation. She sends me all these initials and I haven't got a clue what she's on about half the time. It must be so challenging for them, because they're navigating a whole new world where they have to learn what all these acronyms mean.
There's so much potential risk. We're talking about an abstract space, and being online or having an 'online presence' is an abstract concept. We know that the more abstract something is, the more difficult it is for children to perceive.
The more tangible we make the internet, the more impactful learning can be. You want children to learn by making mistakes and getting it wrong, and that's the beauty of the role-play area: when you've got a hairdressing salon in the corner of the classroom with a colander that they put on their heads, that's a big deal for them - they understand how it feels to be in a salon. When you create those real-life moments in the classroom, they’re so much more able to apply that knowledge in real-life situations.
We absolutely have to be having those conversations with young children and not waiting until it's too late. We owe it to them to be digitally literate.
Teaching children in primary schools is about engaging them with lifelong learning skills. We've got amazing things in our curriculum, and the UK curriculum is a highlight around the world, but I do think that it's important that we stay relevant. Now the new [Relationships, Health & Sex Education] elements are compulsory [in the UK], and it's great that there's so much online safety and digital literacy there.
Can we really have a literacy curriculum at all without digital literacy? It dominates how we all communicate, how we live and work and form relationships and present ourselves. It really is a crucial set of skills.
There’s no more relevant issue for young children today than online safety. That’s why Natterhub combines 50 years of educational experience with a realistic approach to create a leading-edge platform that can make a real difference in children’s digital lives and turn them into safe, kind digital citizens.
Natterhub’s cleverly-designed interface looks and feels like social media, allowing pupils to create valuable learning moments through ‘structured play’. Our resources allow teachers to not just deliver against the demands of the online safety curriculum, but create truly impactful digital citizenship lessons. As well as learning the skills they need to safely use devices on their own, pupils are taught skills like empathy, kindness and resilience - skills that are vital both online and offline, and will last them a lifetime.
With the backing of TwinklHive, Natterhub now has users in over 50 countries. TwinklHive is a part of Twinkl, a global educational publishing house which offers primary and secondary learning resources to over 10 million members worldwide.
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