The new wave of educational technology will leverage our greatest natural resource: the curiosity inherent in every child.
Project Play Experience - Nurturing A Child’s Interests
Young children are often excited to extend their play, developing focus through continued exploration and discovery. How can we nurture this desire? One way is knowing when and how to guide free play into project play mode.
I recognise a cluster of ‘related play’ and think of it like a focused ‘mini-project’ based on a child’s specific play interest. By extending and supporting a child’s interest in their free play activity and exploring an idea or interest a bit deeper in the form of a project, their play can shift into longer periods of motivated focused play, where they learn it is possible to discover even more.
A free play activity may be over and done with, named, dated, and retired to the wall or stored away. But what happens when they build on and continue to extend these activities? What if they keep projects accesssible for further exploration? When young kids realise they can dive deeper into their play- introducing them to various tools, techniques, resources, technology, it opens up many new exciting opportunities for learning through play.
Generating a tangible or digital ‘journal’ by collating creations and play experiences, means children can bring everything together in a digestible format. Play becomes more real and relevant, new connections are formed, they observe their own progress, creations are shared and their creative confidence grows. It’s about having something to talk about and continue to build on from - it’s taking play a little bit deeper where children still have control to lead the way in their exploration.
Creating To Actuate Play
Children have many interests, problems and all those never ending questions that can be guided into ‘action thinking’. They love to explore topics of interest through play. Children want to engage in more ‘doing’ stuff, ‘creating’ stuff, ‘action’ play.
This is not the work they have to do for school, but are things they want to explore. Hands-on fun projects that they can engage in after school, kindy and work hours. A three-year-old may need guidance, but a six-year-old is happy initiating and evolving a ‘play project’ on their own once they get the hang of it.
For children this is real work in the real world - play that has meaning and purpose.
As well as basic skills, many design thinking skills are involved - imaginative exploration, ideation, drawing, prototyping or build-to-think, creation, story-telling and active problem solving. Design thinking is an approach or set of methods and tools that also focuses on developing creative confidence. Children are inherently good at making use of the designer’s toolkit. When kids shift into ‘explore’, ‘make’ and ‘do’ mode, their creativity soars. Anything they ‘make’ will foster their imagination and give them belief in their creative skills. They feel more creative - especially when play using one’s imagination is central.
Creativity if practiced, can become a long term habit for children.
The Train Play Project
A simple example: My three-year-old has developed a keen interest in trains like many kids his age do. He always talks about various aspects of trains but often goes back to the obvious and easy play with his train-set. A little of my observation and guidance with new tools and resources to trigger exploring train related activities helps him progress further along his fascinating play journey. Some of his project play included the following:
Create/Modify/Design: While playing with his train set he built numerous versions and complained about the tracks not always meeting male to female, his solution was to ‘hack’ or ‘adjust’ the train-set track piece to have it work as ‘he’ wanted it to. He wanted to be the creator not let the train set dictate his play. I’m glad I was there to witness the much desired modification. With a little effort we changed the connector piece.
Research/Learn: He wanted to know if all trains look like his train-set, so I set him up to watch some videos of trains on YouTube to find out. He discovered in the process how trains work. What makes them move. The mechanics of the train workings fascinated him and opened up a while new area he could not experience with just his little train-set.
Role-Play/Imagination: With a cardboard box, as kids do - he designed a few controls and acted out a trip to the city as the driver with his passengers, with a train sounds song on repeat in the background. A child’s imagination is so powerful you can see it’s just like the real thing to them. Totally absorbed in play. He wouldn’t hop out unless the train sounds stopped, as if the box was actually moving. It took me a while to notice I had to stop the music so he could get out urgently for nature’s calling.
Observation/Experience: We went for a train ride across the city- absorbing every tiny detail - learning about train directions, tickets, maps, journey details. Utterly mesmerised with the entire experience, he spoke with the train conductor and waved out to the driver. A passenger even helped him step up onto the train when he paused noticing the gap between platform and train. He formed new connections during the experience and there were many things he observed that we take for granted.
Drawing/Mapping: After a train ride he was fresh with a new experience and excited to draw what he observed and experienced. He talked about what he discovered by drawing a visual explanation to communicate with me. He was drawing to think about all the parts of a train, what made the noise, where it may have came from and designed the train how he experienced it to be. When we initially set out for our trip, he wanted to know where and how far the train station was from our house, so we drew a map together and he modified the train map to include his observations of what we passed by.
Story-telling/Sharing: He was excited to tell his brother and friends about his train trip so he told me a ‘story’ which we documented about his experience so he could recall and share the events with others.
Design/Build/Problem-Solve: We had some timber offcuts which he was improvising with as a train and carriages. He asked how we could connect them like a train but keep them removable too. I gave him a box full of bits and pieces to sort through to find something that may work for it. A screw-eyelet and a blind-bracket he selected and tried out were great solutions. I assisted with some wheels and a few nails, but he found the parts from our build space and even painted it.
Project Book: Rather than let each piece of the clustered ‘play experience’ float around and get lost, we collected all his play work together in his very own simple little stapled paper book. Something tangible with contents he had created, experiences to talk about. He can pick it up and share with others, tell stories about the photo’s, he can modify his drawings, re-build his train, new experiences to add. His project book continues to inspire and motivate him to explore more through play. It is his own and he’s proud of what he’s done. Most importantly- the project is never complete.
It’s Not About How They Do It, But About Having Time To Do It
All of this ‘train project play’ was spread over a week or two. He focused on different aspects at his own pace and I was asked to help at times. If a parent has a certain viewpoint, there is always the other parent with a different viewpoint, or a sibling, the internet to research or even a teacher to ask. He even took his project book to share at kindy for ‘show and tell’ prompting the kids to all share their experiences together. My six year old often comes home with contributions from his friends during class.
These are play projects that resonate with kids because they select them. They control their learning experiences. When kids ‘do’ and ‘make’ they feel more creative, its hugely empowering to have results to be proud of.
Some projects are light and quick over in just an hour, others resonate deeply and kids may be more interested in continuing their exploration over days or weeks. Some need a little guidance others need no inturruption. It doesn’t matter how they do it, they just love creating tangible results, and always at their own pace in their own time.
We all want to see our children develop their own interests, motivation and passion in life. Young children often just need someone to notice when they want to dive deeper in play, a little guidance, but most of all - plenty of free time to develop their own play interests.
Full Immersion - Play With Materials
Place a glossy bright plastic toy and a pile of wood in front of a young child and I’m sure they will initially choose to play with the colourful toy. But typically not for long…
My son received a box of kindling for his sixth birthday, by special request. He wouldn’t even know what most people buy it for, neither would he have cared. As long as he had plenty of nails, a kid sized hammer, a ‘work’ room, he was the happiest birthday kid ever, just to have material to build with. He could almost even carry the box on his own - I think the substantial weight of his gift made it feel so much more impressive too.
Materials Inspire And Challenge Creative Thinking
We live in a world with materials all around us, they are the substance of everything we see and touch. As humans we have a unique ability to make things out of materials, an ability to design, an inherent drive to take materials and make something out of them.
Inspiration - the ability to stimulate creative thinking has many sources. One of which is the inherent nature of materials. Observe a child playing with ordinary materials which are new and unknown to them - they challenge what it can be used for, what they can do with it, sparking innovative ideas through play.
Exploring The Attributes Of Materials
I try not to waste my time buying many toys because they never hold their interest for long. But provide the kids with plenty of random materials or other media and substances and they will play fully immersed for hours … play-dough, clay, sand, water, paint, feathers, blocks, mud, rice, fabrics, marbles, charcoal, pastels, chalk. Anything that lets them be the creator and gives them freedom to choose and decide.
Experiencing texture, noise, weight, density of different materials and how they combine, pour, blend, mix, stack are exciting opportunities for open ended play. Setting up a canvas with paint brush and paint can already be too prescriptive, but paint poured in a large tray with no brushes may encourage further exploration.
Think: new ways to play with ordinary materials, media and substances, elements, components and ingredients = an immersive creative exploration experience.
Experimenting with substances changing from fine powder to gluggy mixtures which can further develop into dry set solids. Combining elements such as glue and paper to form paper mache paste. Observing ingredient transformation from liquid state to dry baked cupcake state. Rough prototyping, constructing and modeling develops naturally when children are provided with a new unfamiliar material and no instructions.
I’ve always been fascinated by materials science and have many design books on materials but I still have plenty left to discover myself too. As a designer I’m also naturally a hoarder (there’s always another use for something, or this is too cool to throw away) with plenty of random offcuts and cool stuff like electroluminescent panels or honey-comb structured non-woven fabrics floating around.
I recently found my box of fabric and leather samples that were once referred to for designing a jet interior but have since been fashioned into hammock slings for mini action figures, flags, catapults, tiny houses, secret spy wrist bands and the like. I often hesitate before throwing something away. A burst backrest pillow containing many thousands of tiny polystyrene balls, (much to my hesitation) was thrilling for the kids to play with. After creating match-box-car crash pits during their play they also discovered static electricity when they couldn’t brush it off. I know they will always encounter these learning discoveries during play, so it’s always worth the huge mess factor.
Some old rice flour was apparently just like ‘snow’ when my three year old found some spilled outside and stated “yes! winter has arrived!” even though we never get snow here, it was as good as snow to him so he claimed the entire bag full of flour to play with. He made some fascinating discoveries - one of which was creating perfect ‘stamp prints of his toy animals much better than sand does because of its very fine powder form compressing into picture perfect molds. He loved the clapping action to generate a fine mist of flour that floated away.
Paint is so tactile, thick and creamy to apply, but I think mixing the paints in their pots is sometimes more fun then the act of painting itself. Creating swirling rainbows of colours - transformation as they blend.
We have a magnetic construction toy which contains many marble sized ball-bearings. Apart from the fun of making and exploring connections with magnets, my boys are still fascinated with the way reflections move across every surface in unison when the sphere’s are grouped together, the sound, the feeling of the cold metal against the skin and when it warms to your body temperature you can’t let it go - it becomes a part of you.
There are many innovative materials being created and combined with new technology for various applications all the time - Ceramic Cloth, Translucent Concrete, Stone Paper or Electronic Paper to name just a few. Designer’s are often developing these materials, or are utilising them in a new innovative product. Designer’s also rely on new materials as a source of inspiration.
It’s been science week for my six old, so we’ve tried out a few simple experiments at home. The first stop is always a bottle of vinegar and some baking soda. I walked away but observed quietly, waiting for his expression as he generously poured them together into a bowl. He was astounded at the resulting reaction, surprised, worried and panicked with excitement as it overflowed onto the bench. We then moved onto cornflour and water and I left him for a good half hour, while hearing his excited announcements of his discoveries with the way the liquid/solid behaved as he played with the non Newtonian fluid.
Learning first hand through play how materials and substances can change their state or create reactions when combined is both exciting and memorable. Discovery always leads to more explorative how, why and what if questions.
Play To Learn
Materials surround us, everything is made of something - natural, processed, or manufactured. Providing children with opportunities to play and experiment with raw unedited materials and substances allows them to think creatively and develop their own idea’s of what they can do with it, what is can be used for, what it can become or transform to, how it behaves when we interact with it or when elements combine.
Children are often motivated deeply during their enjoyable fully immersed play experience, which means they are also more likely to remember. Fun open exploration creates a very efficient way of learning and storing away knowledge. They don’t need to know every detailed fact about non Newtonian fluids right now, but they have gained new information through their own experience that will help build new connections in the future.
It’s great to know my children now think flour is not just for baking with. They have discovered what else it can be used for by exploring with their creative ‘child’s mind.’ We just sometimes need to remind ourselves that there are no set rules or answers about what materials are for - they are just waiting to be played with in new ways.
Neoteny, one of my favorite words, means the retention of childlike attributions in adulthood. Childlike attributes include learning, idealism, experimentation, wonder, and creativity. In our rapidly changing world, not only do we need to continue to behave more like children - we can teach our children to retain those attributes that will allow them to be the world-changing, innovative adults who will help us reinvent the future.
Time To Notice The Little Things
Avoiding The Rush
Imagine a child wandering along through a bustling village market, an environment replete with a layered richness of noise, smell, textures, colours, for all our senses to soak up and experience. Or picture the CBD where it appears people are all going somewhere in a hurry and not even noticing what, or who, is around them anymore- taking everything for granted.
If you watch a child in any environment it’s fascinating to observe what they notice, what stops them in their tracks. Often we hurry them along from an apparent dawdling state, but they are in fact taking it all in. They notice the little things. Kid’s listen, learn, observe, think and question. They use all their senses and in a different way to us. They don’t want to be hurried along like adults in their busy, rushed lives. They want to stop to explore, to absorb, to discover as they go. Mini researchers quietly in action. They are interested in what’s new to them- experiences they want to understand.
We in contrast are often preoccupied, not stopping to take it all in- instead meeting deadlines while sometimes missing the obvious- that a ‘child’s mind’ would otherwise see. I try to let my kids slow me down and focus on the little things that can actually mean so much and are so easily forgotten or overseen.
Observation Skills For Innovative Thinking
Innovative thinkers must notice what needs a solution- the problem, before they can attempt to solve something. An ability to slow down a little and observe even familiar things with a fresh ‘child like’ mind.
In an earlier video post, founder of IDEO David Kelley speaks about the power of a ‘Child’s Mind’ and elaborates on having a mind that notices things that can be improved. Observation skills are valuable if we are to be innovative thinkers, but actually allowing the time to observe is something else all together.
We want our kids to have time to discover- while they still have the freedom to. They crave unhurried experiences to practice these observation skills, helping to understand what is around them and where they are. I hope my kids will take every opportunity they can to explore their world.
Pearls Before Breakfast
Time-pressured means making priorities- we know we miss out on some things. I hope you find time to read this widely circulated article from the Washington Post, if you haven’t already- it’s fascinating. In the context of a ‘child’s mind’, I don’t think it’s even relevant who the musician was, It’s just a wonderful example of how children can remind us what we’re missing out on. So when will kids get to experience these things? Sooner or later they too will be just as busy as we are…
The following is a summary of the original article.
A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by, and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace, and stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping, and continued to walk.
A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money, but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars.
Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
…each time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and, consequently, from understanding it completely.
Tinkering, Deconstruction And Discovery
I’m remembering my childhood like it was just yesterday… when I find my son’s bunk bed wobbly and discover that he has an allen key under his pillow to unscrew the framing and to take apart his sisters highchair. I’m not sure how many kids sneak screwdrivers and allen keys to bed at night, but just as long as the house doesn’t collapse I think it’s ok…
We all did it- tinkering and taking things apart as a kid. Wondering how things work. I have fond memories of taking apart a large heavy old transistor radio that once lived in the basement. About 9yrs old, I sat with newspaper laid out on my bedroom floor with a few simple tools and screw by screw took apart casings, right down to dissecting the internal components, all pieces carefully and individually removed. I enjoyed the fine detail work, driven by fascination of what was inside to make it work.
With many pieces on the floor I had discovered what was hiding inside- not exactly knowing how it worked, but I had made some learning progress on my own already. Fast-forward many years later and not surprisingly my interest in creative and technical things lead me to a career as an industrial designer, working for big innovation think-tanks such as IDEO, working alongside all sorts of creative minds, mechanical and electrical engineers to name a few, gaining even a few of my own patents… and so my fascination with ‘design thinking’ and ‘stuff’ continues…
Motivated To Learn How Things Work
I was not at all surprised when my son asked for his own tools to take apart an old phone he found. One thing lead to another and he now has a full box of electronics which he spends hours on just like I did.
But he has taken it a few steps further and built miniature cities of circuit boards and what he calls ‘robot’s’ by connecting internal components and has even tried searching on the internet about how some things work or what he could make with those components. His curiosity spark has been engaged.
He now looks at a DVD player and tells me how the drawer mechanism works because he enjoyed the motion of the internal parts once he could manipulate them from the inside. He kept button pads and showed me how they connected to circuit boards. He laid out the layers that made up an LCD screen. In his own way he was seeing how things connect and how they are built.
Discovery = Learning
Tinkering is hands-on-learning. Sure I could give my son all the answers, tell him what all the parts are called and what they are for, or buy a book to explain it, but I let him ask and discover this on his own which is much more fun than coming from me. Stepping back a little lets him look for what he wants to know and when he’s motivated to, he can refer to the internet or the classic ‘how stuff works’ books to find out more. He know’s the resources for finding out more are right at his finger-tips.
Modern Technology, The Digital Age And The Future
If anyone has tried taking apart an iphone or ipad, these are insanely difficult. How are modern electronics changing the way our kids learn through tinkering? Will their focus turn to hacking rather than just deconstructing the physical product? Will tinkering like we used to know it, become tinkering of software, re-programing and all things digital? Does having access to all the information on the internet give our kids so many more opportunities to explore?
It’s sometimes hard as parents to understand why, but kids will destruct their toys, pushing the limits of what a toy can do, take things apart, mess up computers and explore digital interfaces- it’s all effective self-learning. That’s got to be why the kids are so good at setting the clock on all the electronics that their parents can’t set- children are innately more confident and motivated through tinkering to discover how things work.
Fostering innovative minds is about letting kids tinker to discover how something works and maybe even trying to improve on it, re-build it another way or even fix it. Taking things apart is the learning and does not require one to have to try to memorise and reassemble it like a puzzle- unless of course repair is a fun challenge too.
Repair Is Recycling
I personally get great satisfaction from fixing things. Anything. I want to try to fix it if I can. It’s practically a daily task for me and the kids know to come to me if something needs repair and they can’t do it. There are also lots of books out there for resalvaging components for reuse if it’s beyond repair.
There is also the concern about making things last longer. Repair, fixing, and reusing. Reducing the impact on our environment of increasing landfill with toxic electronics. The lifespan of our electronics are getting shorter. People don’t know how to repair them. Repair is recycling. An incredible initiative called ifixit are creating a repair manual for everything. yes everything! It’s well worth taking a look at their site and getting addicted to it.
My son posted me a letter a while ago and it contained deconstructed and decapitated lego men, carefully organised into groups of which body parts belong together and taped to paper encompassed by circles so I could reassemble them with ease. He obviously assumed that would be fun for me to do…
How Can Childhood Play Inspire Future Innovators?
I wrote a bit about Biomimicry in an earlier post. There are so many discoveries and inspirations to be found in nature, just being in the great outdoors provides a limitless array of things for children to explore and experience.
I read an article recently regarding research findings about children spending less time outdoors. Whatever the reasons, it makes me think about how the digital age has pulled us inside to our screens too. We can access the world from our devices, but just how many innovations occur from what we find sitting inside on the internet compared to what we find outside in nature?
Discovery = Inspired Learning
My three year old found a butterfly at a nearby park that had completed it’s life cycle and was lying on the grass. He was sad to learn it had died, but that emotion soon turned to excitement to be able to hold it, to look at it more closely than usual when they flutter off in fright. He took it home and I left him outside to play with it.
After several minutes he exclaimed with disbelief that his butterfly was like a ‘dart’ or paper plane. I watched him as he stood at the top of the steps and let it go. The butterfly with wings still spread, gently glided along just as if it was alive. We shared our surprise, a discovery I had obviously never made myself. My son pointed out the way the butterfly floated or glided along because of it’s shape. In his words he spoke of it’s delicate fine form which resembled the folds of a paper plane and the motion of gliding.
He was recalling previous experiences- memories, and relating them, in a way categorising information in his mind for future use. I think of it like an ‘inspiration bank’ that he can draw on at any time, similar to a designer connecting knowledge in many innovative ways.
Natures Design Inspiring Innovative Solutions
This butterfly experience made me recall an experience from my childhood, a wonder of nature’s design- helicopter seeds. Seeds from the Maple tree. What can these seeds teach helicopter’s about flying?
These wonderful ‘whirlybirds’ as some called them, are just begging to be played with. Designed to spiral delicately and gracefully down from tree tops to grow, they are also terrific fun collecting up piles of them to throw- like the delight of launching a paper plane over and over again.
My six year old often invents his own versions of paper planes, trying out different designs he folds himself, when an adult is not available to help construct pre-designed ones. It’s fascinating to observe his process of evaluating his own designs, refining and re-testing. It’s obviously more rewarding for him to be creative than following the instructions in a book.
I’ve always been curious how the famous Wright brothers as children played, and if anything inspired their interest in flight. Interestingly, I’ve since discovered they referred to a ‘toy’ given to them by their father which mimicked an early helicopter design, made from paper, bamboo, cork, and a rubber band. Wilbur and Orville played with it until it broke and then built their own. In later years they pointed to their experience with this ‘toy’ as the initial spark of their interest in flying.
I wonder how many other famous innovators started out this way- inspired as a child during play?
Children spending time outdoors opens up so much for them to discover and a lot of which we take for granted. We can never underestimate the learnings children have when simply mucking about outside. I did get a laugh recently before Easter when my three year old shouted out in excitement that he had discovered what he thought was an early delivery of easter eggs but were in fact huge mushroom-like fungi… I have never seen such wide eyes before!