Serious Play: How Early Childhood Innovators are Changing the Technology Game

Educators, researchers, and scientists in Pittsburgh are using technology as a powerful tool that awakens the imagination and fosters the cognitive development of young children.

By Elizabeth Hoover

In 2010 Newsweek declared a “Creativity crisis,” citing declining scores on test measuring creativity in children. This trend could have dire consequences, according authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. They write, “All around us are matters of national and international importance that are crying out for creative solutions.”

The culprit? Technology. Children parked in front of screens or playing videogames.

However, for a group of innovative educators, researchers, and scientists in Pittsburgh the culprit isn’t technology, but how it’s used. In their projects, technology is a powerful tool that awakens the imagination and fosters the cognitive development of young children.

Early Learning Environment (ELE)

“Not all screens are created equal,” acknowledges Michael Robb, Director of Education and Research at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. In this “screen-saturated world,” Robb helps educators, parents, and caregivers make sense of the deluge of technology available to children.

He oversees Early Learning Environment (ELE), an on-line platform that brings together some of the best resources for early childhood development. In addition to finding activities, apps, and downloads, users can participate in on-line discussions and create playlist of their favorite tools. ELE features slick apps, but also low-tech games such as building a house with a cardboard box. Each activity is accompanied by suggestions for how to prompt conversation and learning.

“Children who grow up in language-rich homes are on a much more solid foundation for early childhood literacy,” Robb says. ELE’s tools are chosen because they help create such environments. In Alien Assignment, an app created by the Fred Rogers Center, children play a game in which they are part of an alien family who has crashed on earth. The child takes pictures to remind the on-board computer what to do. For example, they might take pictures of a rain-speckled flower to remind the computer about the sprinkler system.

At the end of the game, they hand the camera to an adult who asks questions about the choices they made. “Looking at an image and talking about why it was made can create a shared and enriched time of reflection,” Robb explains.

Falk Lab School

At the Falk Lab School, technology teacher Laura Tomokiyo uses simple electrical components and recycled materials to prepare the next generation of innovators. A project scientist at the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab (CREATE Lab) at Carnegie Mellon University and a mother a three young children, Tomokiyo noticed a “gap between what is needed to be an innovator and what is going on in schools.” Schools were training passive consumers instead of empowering creators.

Last year, Tomokiyo helped revamp Falk’s technology education starting with kindergarten. Falk collaborates with the Children’s Innovation Project, an imitative affiliated with CREATE Lab, that uses simple toys like blocks with electric components to teach students about circuits. Once the students at Falk develop an understanding of electricity, they incorporate that knowledge into imaginary worlds made out of recycled material. For example, one group built a movie theater for animals, adding an LED screen that flashed red or green to tell the animals when they can enter the theater.

Their projects are playful and creative, but the students also learn to think critically about technology and its uses.  In addition, “these activities allow the students to develop and identity as someone who can create technology,” Tomokiyo explains. This confidence will hopefully carry over to 4th grade where they will learn computer programing.

By spring of 2013, Tomokiyo and others at Falk hope to have detailed lesson plans to distribute to other schools.

 Hear Me

Simple and affordable technology is at the heart of Hear Me, a CREATE Lab initiative that records and disseminates the voices of children of all ages. Can Pals uses the same type of audio chip found in recordable greeting cards, only placed in a tin can. A child records their story and sends the can across the classroom or to another country, depending on how the teacher incorporates the project into their curriculum.

Hear Me helps students reach developmental milestones like creating and telling a story, but it also gives children a sense that their voices matter. “They gain a confidence when they realize their voices are important,” says project manager Jessica Kaminsky.

Hear Me partners with the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children to gather recordings from infants to 5-year-olds. In 2011 PAEYC and Hear Me organized an exhibit in the Carlyle Building in downtown Pittsburgh. The exhibit featured artwork by preschools accompanied by recordings of the children explaining their art. “You think you’re just looking at scribbles, but then you hear a child talking about how it’s a drawing of their hopes and dreams,” says Jessica Pachuta, who is also a project manager at Hear Me.

Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC)

Working with Hear Me is one of the ways PAEYC promotes creative technology use in early childhood education. They also partner with the CREATE lab on Message for Me, a project that enables children to text pictures and audio messages to their parents during the day. With help from a Spark Grant, the CREATE Lab has installed 15 Message for Me kiosks in childcare centers and Head Starts centers in lower income neighborhoods.

 “Some people think there isn’t a digital divide in early childhood education because they think children this young shouldn’t be using technology,” says Michelle Figlar, the executive director of PAEYC. “Some of these children come from homes where they don’t interact with technology. It’s our responsibility to provide that opportunity.” Message for Me also facilitates conversations between parents and children.  “What did you do today? is a hard question to answer for a 4-year-old,” Figlar says. “Show me what you did today sparks conversation and language development.”

 In addition, PAEYC is helping teachers get comfortable with technology by hosting “tech times” where they can exchange ideas and interact with various tools. “We want them just play with this stuff,” Figlar says. “Play is the best way to learn—for adults and kids.”

On September 21st and 22nd, PAEYC’s “Year of Play” culminated at a conference, PLAY: Transforming Children, Families, Communities and LIVES! The Year of Play was prompted by growing concern among teachers and educators that play was getting lost in the lives of both children and adults because of an emphasize on standards, scheduled activities, and the inappropriate use of technology.

Panels at the conference featured the latest research, including a presentation of the joint position paper on technology and early childhood education authored by the Fred Roger Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But there was also plenty of time to play. At SPARK Early Childhood Program’s session, “Hold It, Catch It!” attendees played with colorful balls meant to help preschoolers develop hand-eye-coordination; Penny Lang from the University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development led a session in which adults explored their creativity by writing and painting; and the session “Mess with Me!” came with the warning to dress to get dirty.

“It’s just fun,” Figlar says about play-based education for both children and adults. Fun with a serious purpose. “On a policy and business level, the future work force needs creative workers, innovators, and people who can think outside the box,” she adds. “Play helps develop those skills.”

Published November 26, 2012