With App, Kids Can Communicate Through Art

“Early career” is not a phrase you’d readily apply to an educator whose work has brought him to locales as diverse as Chicago, Florida, and New Zealand, and who’s authored one book, with another one in the works. But Brian Puerling, the director of education technology at Chicago’s Catherine Cook School, has done all of the above. At age 32, he’s only in the first decade of his career as an early childhood education and technology professional.

Puerling is also an early career fellow at the Fred Rogers Center. The fellowship is a chance for early-career technologists, writers, artists, educators, and others to create high-quality media or conduct research on how digital media and technology tools can be used to support social-emotional development in early childhood.

The fellowship provided Puerling an opportunity to explore territory previously uncharted in his inquiry into early learning: touchscreen app development. Catherine Cook School has more than 200 iPads, and Puerling is constantly imagining apps he wished existed. But he’s not a programmer, so the fellowship allowed him to connect with developer Synvata and children’s book author and illustrator Todd Parr to bring his ideas to fruition.

Puerling’s app—still in the development stage—will allow young users to make drawings on the screen and record audio narrations to go along with them. The children can send their drawings and audio recordings to friends on their buddy lists, who can then add to the drawings and return them, or new creations, to their friends.

Puerling, a former preschool teacher in the Chicago Public Schools who now works with children ages 3 to 14, has always noticed how his students gravitate to the art materials in a classroom. “Sometimes they’ll draw with intention, and sometimes they’re exploring what the tool can do,” he said. “But when you sit down and talk to them, there’s usually a story that goes with it. It seemed like a very developmentally appropriate entry point for them to be able to share ideas and experiences with others.”

The app, designed for ages three to eight, provides an immediacy essential for young kids, Puerling explained. They can send a message to a grandparent or friend who lives elsewhere and get a response right away. It’s like an email, he joked—only instead of text, the kids communicate in their own languages: pictures and speech.

Having worked in both public and private school settings, Puerling says the level of access young children have to digital tools varies wildly. At Catherine Cook, Puerling introduces classrooms to document cameras, touchscreens, and video conferencing. At his former job in the Chicago Public Schools, he secured a fitted sheet to a bulletin board to create a makeshift projection screen. But he says kids in both settings were no strangers to digital technology. He recalls showing them a disposable camera. Confused, they turned it around, searching for the digital preview screen.

Of course, many parents and teachers are still skeptical about incorporating iPads into preschool lessons. And Puerling gets that. He speaks with parents to try to identify the source of their hesitance, and he makes sure “they know I’m not the technology person that’s just trying to cram technology down their throats for technology’s sake,” he said.

“Really, we just have a shared intention of providing meaningful experiences for kids,” he said. “And there’s a wide range of tools we can choose from for that, and we can have a conversation together about those choices and when technology or digital media might be the right choice and when it might not be.”

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