This post originally ran at the Fred Rogers Center. It appears here with permission.
Children sit in a circle around a pile of loose parts. They are asked to play with the parts and talk about what they notice and what they wonder. They play with hinges, a door knob, screws, pieces of plastic, scraps of wood, a small motor, a piece of conductive rubber, a spring, some wires, old circuit boards, a toggle switch, and odd scraps of things.
These students are part of the Children’s Innovation Project, an effort for young children to create with technology in new and meaningful ways. The project is now in its fifth year of development at Pittsburgh Allegheny K-5 in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Children observe and debate what they see: “It looks like a part of a sponge.” – “It has a circle.” – “Maybe it’s a waterspouter.” – “I put it together and it turned around.” – “This is metal.” – “I put this in.” – “This is for a light.” Even what makes a hole a hole is debated. Some children think a circle is a hole; after much discussion, they come to share an idea that you can’t poke through all circles.
Next, children take one object back to their table. They begin to draw. Each child picks up a pencil with no eraser and looks closely at one small object. Children move their eyes back and forth between their objects and the paper in front of them. This is slow work. It is quiet. Children are looking so closely to see more. They are often asked, “What more do you see from your drawing?”
After a long period of observational drawing, children come back together to talk. Their drawings are presented to the group and other children are asked to look in the pile to find the object that was drawn.
Teachers ask, “How do you know that is the object s/he drew?” And, “What is good about the drawing?” Children talk about line, shape, and space related to the objects they noticed and drew. They talk about perspective and what someone else saw that they could not see.
This is an example of the kind of learning children experience with the Children’s Innovation Project. The project was developed from a question posed in 2010 by Carnegie Mellon’s CREATE Lab: “What might innovation with technology look like in a kindergarten classroom?”
Now in our fifth year exploring this question, we’re finding more questions as we continue to watch and listen to children’s exploration with the raw material of technology.
Our approach to technology as raw material permits us to view technology as a means for—not an end to—learning.
The Children’s Innovation Project grows children’s habits of mind to notice, inquire, and persist. Children take these habits with them as they continue to explore, create, and socialize in the world. They develop a sensibility to notice small things and be curious inside parameters, rather than keep pace with consumption of the never-ending flow of new digital devices.
Our theoretical frame allows us to think about “technology” and “innovation” quite differently from other definitions operating in conversations about young children’s innovation with technology.
“Technology”: Our interest in “technology” is as raw material, rather than a tool. Children explore with the raw material of technology much like they would play with clay, paint, paper, or sand. Locally produced Circuit Blocks are our primary technology materials.
“Innovation”: We think of “innovation” as finding something new inside something known. We ask children (and teachers) to slow down and look closely because there is always more to see. Infinity is in the smallest of things. Depth comes from slow and small.
At first glance, Children’s Innovation Project learning experiences might appear invisible in the end-of-year classroom technology survey (unlike the cool, new technological tool or iPad app), but these are the experiences that empower children in their relationships with a digital world.
We want children to grow a critical relationship with the world—one that encourages tough questions and complicated relationships. We believe this is what will prepare children to become civic-minded adults ready to change the world for the better.
The Children’s Innovation Project will continue to develop in the coming years in partnership with the Fred Rogers Center, Carnegie Mellon University, Carlow University, Clarion University, Pittsburgh Public Schools, The Sprout Fund, and the Kids+Creativity Network.