In an earlier post, The Science of Play, I shared my ideas about the importance of playful learning, the type of learning observed in very young children. In my personal experience as a teacher, I have seen that as children mature they often lose some or all of their natural comfort with learning through spontaneous and playful exploration.
Think of a toddler with a big pile of blocks. Does the toddler ask an adult, “What should I do with these blocks?” or does a toddler start with a “product” like a big tower in mind and ask, “How do I stack these blocks to make a tower?” No, the toddler jumps right in and begins to explore, trying whatever he or she wants to try. Does the toddler feel upset and frustrated when the tower of blocks topples over? Doubtful. It is more likely that he or she is delighted by this and may knock it over and rebuild it again and again.
MIT recognizes the importance of the creative exploration of early childhood to the extent that they have created an entity called The Lifelong Kindergarten group.
In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, we’re trying to change that. We believe that it is critically important for all children, from all backgrounds, to grow up knowing how to design, create, and express themselves. We are inspired by the ways children learn in kindergarten: when they create pictures with finger paint, they learn how colors mix together; when they create castles with wooden blocks, they learn about structures and stability. We want to extend this kindergarten style of learning, so that learners of all ages continue to learn through a process of designing, creating, experimenting, and exploring.
As part of their mission to “sow the seeds for a more creative society,” the MIT media lab has developed a free program called Scratch that encourages the kind of open-ended exploration and creative problem solving that is not on the test, but that promotes the trial and error learning that is the heart of math, science and technological innovation. The beauty of Scratch and similar applications is that while the processes they engage are complex, most children are naturally drawn to them and find them fun. Kids ask to “play Scratch.”
In my STEM classes and, to a lesser extent, my weekly lab classes I attempt to provide students with the time and space to engage in this kind of exploration using freely available resources. In my role as the teacher I model possible approaches, support students in their attempts, validate and encourage them as they proceed, and open the door by introducing them to what’s out there. When appropriate, I push students to go a little deeper. Some students are more inclined than others to enjoy the open-ended, for those who require more structure I can help by defining a problem or assignment for them. I can also help them to reflect on their learning styles so that they grow in an understanding of their own abilities. Some students can’t wait to get to the computer and play, others prefer a tutorial (there are many tutorials online for most applications. It can be great practice and reflection to have students who are more advanced create tutorials for others), some students are more comfortable watching first before trying. Any and all approaches to learning are valid as long as students understand the process and challenge themselves.
In addition to Scratch, here are some other recommended resources for open-ended, creative exploration:
Whizzball -from Discovery Education, whizzball is a puzzle creator. Students can design puzzles, submit their puzzles for others to solve and solve puzzles created by others. I have found this to be challenging and fun for grades 1-5.
Fantastic Contraption- physics challenge. Use the materials provided to create a contraption that solves the challenge of getting something from point A to point B. There are multiple challenges and endless solutions. I am using this with a first grade STEM enrichment class, and they LOVE it. I could see it being popular with older students as well, although I haven’t introduced to other grades yet.
Lego Digital Designer – design tool using virtual legos.
PHUN – 2D physics sandbox. This one is more advanced. I recommend viewing at least one tutorial before jumping in to play. I used this with 5th grade, and it was fun (phun) at first, but many of them became frustrated quickly.