A teacher and student stand talking to eachother in a gymnasium while holding hula hoops.

photo: Ben Filio

The Simple Human Interactions That Make Learning Possible

For many years, on the desk of Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, visitors would spot a framed piece of calligraphy of the famous theme from the children’s novel “The Little Prince” that read, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Fred Rogers, with his gentle persistence and deliberate approach, tried to find and articulate for children and families what the “essential” in life was all about.

This post is the first of a three-part series on the simple human interactions that make learning possible. The series is co-authored by Junlei Li, Kelly Martin, and Kalani Palmer.

For many years, on the desk of Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor, Fred Rogers, visitors would spot a framed piece of calligraphy of the famous theme from the children’s novel “The Little Prince” that read, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Fred Rogers, with his gentle persistence and deliberate approach, tried to find and articulate for children and families what the “essential” in life was all about.

Looking at Pittsburgh’s Remake Learning movement, it is easy to be dazzled by the array of technology-enhanced approaches to support children’s learning. From traditional computers to the latest touchscreen devices, from 3-D printers to state-of-the-art multimedia classrooms, creative individuals and organizations have tried to put the best technological inventions to use. These approaches may seem different from what was considered “traditional” or “regular.” But there is something essential across traditional and innovative approaches that makes children’s learning and growing possible.

Fred Rogers had a strong hunch about what was essential to children’s growth no matter what technological era we live in:

Nothing will ever take the place of one person actually being with another person. Let’s not get so fascinated by what technology can do that we forget what it can’t do. A computer can help you learn to spell “H-U-G,” but it can never know the risks or the joy of actually giving or receiving one. It’s through relationships that we grow best–and learn best.

It is more than a hunch–it is good science. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child, the leading organization connecting child development research with practice, program, and policy, stated in its inaugural working paper in 2004 that “relationships are the ‘active ingredients’ of the environment’s influence on healthy human development.” In its latest (13th, 2015) working paper on children’s resilience, the center echoes its inaugural message: “Decades of research in the behavioral and social sciences have produced a rich knowledge base (about resilience). … The single most common finding is that children who end up doing well have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

How do we put into practice the notion that relationships, built through everyday interactions, are the “active ingredient” in children’s development? In the Pittsburgh region and beyond, whether in classrooms or out-of-school programs, in childcare centers or museums, or even at a children’s hospital, we seek to capture, understand, and grow these “simple interactions.” Across places where we see people in all walks on life helping children learn and grow, we can consistently identify four elements that make an interaction positive and enriching.

  • Connection (Being With) – Are the adults and children connected and in tune with each other. When adults and children are connected, they appear to “match” each other in their emotional state, body language, even attention.
  • Reciprocity (Sharing Control) – Do the interactions between adults and children go back and forth, trading who is “serving” and who is “returning.” No one is dominating and driving the interaction the whole time, and no one minds following the other’s lead.
  • Progression (Growing) – Are there opportunities for the children to stretch their boundaries? Is the adult sensitive to the growing confidence and competence of the child, and adjusting the level of support correspondingly.
  • Participation (Belonging) – Regardless of children’s abilities, are they given a chance to be part of their group and engage with other children and adults? This is especially important when children lack the confidence or ability to engage on their own.

(You may find more technical details at the Simple Interactions website, view video examples at the Everyday Interactions website for early childhood educators, see how this might work in the classroom, and view video examples in blogs here and here.)

Within the Remake Learning network, we visited three settings to see what these interactions look like. Below, in video and notes, are our observations.

Part One: Five Minutes to Impact

Learning Party

If you have but a few minutes to spend with a child, what role can you play to help the child learn and grow? At fairs, community demonstrations, or classroom show-and-tells made possible by partners in the Remake Learning movement, there are many opportunities for “drop-in” interactions that help children encounter innovative technology and meet its developers. However brief, those personal encounters can enrich children’s learning and growing.

Assemble is a Pittsburgh-based community space that connects adult experts and enthusiasts across diverse disciplines with neighborhood kids to foster curiosity and exploration. The name, according to Assemble’s founder and director, Nina Barbuto, “is a verb that means to come together but also to put together.” One opportunity for togetherness comes through learning parties hosted by volunteer scientists, artists, technologists, and college students. This four-minute video offers a glimpse of what the party is like:

In this learning party, the theme is “energy.” Children can talk to a nuclear scientist, a windmill engineer, or people who can use art or other objects to describe energy. The experts come ready to help children make sense of new ideas and equipment without dumbing them down. Despite obvious differences in understanding, the adults find ways to get on the children’s level and see their craft through the children’s perspective. Youngsters are encouraged to listen, ask questions, and touch, make, and experiment with objects under the guidance of experts. More than the gadgets themselves, the reciprocal interactions between inquisitive children and adult experts make learning-party encounters enriching and developmental.

Here is moment between a preschooler and a nuclear scientist:

Nuclear physics is not a simple concept. That does not stop the boy from asking an adult scientist about his nuclear reactor:

Child: What does this do?

Scientist: It makes heat.

Child: But how?

Scientist: Well, you mix certain chemicals together, and gas … and when … (goes on to explain)

Child: And what is this rope thing for?

Scientist: Well, that starts the reaction. This is a test reactor …

Child: What happens on the inside when it heats up?

Scientist: When it gets hot? I don’t know, I can’t see inside the reactor …

Child: Well, if there’s a thing that lets you see in there …

Scientist: Yeah, I thought of that. Maybe in some future reactor, I’ll build a window, right in the middle.

The scientist took each question seriously and was comfortable answering “I don’t know.” The two engaged in a kind of reciprocal, serve-and-return interaction. They each took turns asking, listening, and respond to each other’s thoughts. Neither dominates or condescends. The child, with the adult’s help, had good questions about the reactor. The questions were possible in part because the adult was tuned in to the child’s interests. Even when the boy interrupts, the scientist listens carefully and answers each question in turn. This boy may not grow up to be a nuclear engineer, but asking questions about something he does not understand is the first step toward engaging in any discipline. For the child, developing the curiosity and confidence to know how to ask questions—and know that his questions are respected—is just as important as learning facts and concepts about a subject.

For Remake Learning to engage a new generation of innovators, it needs to connect young learners with adults doing science, technology, and arts in addition to exposing them to the objects and products of those fields. Fred Rogers took children on television visits with “neighbors” in many different professions. Person-to-person connections makes possible the type of reciprocal interaction that ultimately shape and inspire children’s curiosity and confidence to ask, learn, try, fail, and try again.

Sponsors and Partners

This three-part series is supported by the Sprout Fund, the Grable Foundation, and the R.K. Mellon Foundation, and conducted with partnerships among the Fred Rogers Center, Sprout Fund, and University of Pittsburgh Office of Child Development.