Bringing Technology to the Sandbox

Young children learn best from active engagement with their world and the people in it—through exploration, experience, and discovery. That’s why preschool classrooms have long been filled with water tables and sandboxes. Pouring water through a funnel, building a sand castle, or touching a butterfly wing helps young kids test theories about the physical world. And learning to navigate the playground with peers or talking with caring adults helps kids learn important social skills.

Early childhood professionals have long been cautious, and rightly so, about introducing screen-based technologies to early childhood classrooms, not wanting these technologies to displace the time kids should spend playing, digging in the dirt, or interacting with peers and adults.

But what if technology weren’t screen based? sandbox-300x351

Engineers at MIT’s Tangible Media Group are experimenting with “tactile computing,” something they say is the wave of the future.

“As humans, we have evolved to interact physically with our environments, but in the 21st century, we’re missing out on all of this tactile sensation that is meant to guide us, limit us, and make us feel more connected,” said Sean Follmer, a PhD student at MIT who’s one of the inventors of inFORM, a type of living clay. “In the transition to purely digital interfaces, something profound has been lost.”

inFORM aims to take technology out of the black box of the iPad screen and turn it into something we can touch, feel, and interact with. The MIT Media Lab website explains:

“inFORM is a Dynamic Shape Display that can render 3D content physically, so users can interact with digital information in a tangible way. inFORM can also interact with the physical world around it, for example moving objects on the table’s surface.”

So one could, for example, play “catch” with grandpa who lives in another state. But both the pitcher and catcher would be able to feel and touch the “ball.” Watch the video for more..

Educators say technology like this that moves, responds to touch, and has consequences could have important applications for the early childhood classroom in helping kids develop sensory motor skills.

“If we can find technology that is relevant to the sand table, to the block area, to the water table, then we have reached an important learning moment,” Frances Judd said at the Fred Forward Conference in June. Judd is a former longtime kindergarten teacher and cofounder of Mrs. Judd’s Games. “And the reality is that this technology is available now,” she said.

Judd stressed that teachers are already the experts in developmentally appropriate practice, and developers need to give teachers technology that meets their needs. “We need to help muscle some of these products into the classroom that the teacher can use intuitively and not have to be trained on,” she said.

If we can find technology that is relevant to the sand table, to the block area, to the water table, then we have reached an important learning moment.

At Tufts University, Professor Marina Bers has done just that. In partnering with Mitch Rosenberg, she’s created KinderLab Robotics, Inc., to make a robotics kit she developed in her research lab at Tufts available to children and early childhood educators. Bers’ KIBO robot kit is designed for kids ages 4 to 7 and consists of a robot and programmable wooden blocks kids use without spending any time in front of a screen.

“Programming is about creating a sequence of commands in a systematic way,” Bers said. “So it’s really about abstraction and helping you think in systematic ways and problem solving in systematic ways.”

Using the wooden KIBO blocks in the kit, children can create a sequence of instructions for their robot to follow. They then scan the blocks with the KIBO body to tell the robot what to do.

Giving children the opportunity to use technology to make things that move and respond to their commands, Bers said, brings together the physical world and computational world. And, importantly, it does this in ways that are developmentally appropriate for early childhood learners.

As we’ve written, the Fred Rogers Center is involved with the Teachers’ Innovation Project, which also uses new technology to build on existing innovations in early childhood classrooms. Teachers in the project are encouraging their students to experiment with technology as another raw material in the classroom. Kids play with simple circuits and take apart toys, which is helping both teachers and students learn about persistence and struggle, as well as collaboration and conceptual thinking.

But it’s also challenging the very of definition of technology. As evident in these examples, if we begin to see technology as only one more raw material for learning, the possibilities are endless.

“What’s exciting here,” said Michael Robb, the Fred Rogers Center’s director of education and research, “is that new technologies don’t replace old ‘technologies’ like blocks and paints, they build on them.”

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