This blog post is an installment of a six-part series of posts about supporting children’s Positive Technological Development (PTD) through hybrid/distanced learning.
In our first post in the series, Introduction, we shared our background in education, our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, and a summary of foundational research in creating a learning experience for young children that aligns with Positive Technological Development framework. In this post, we are going to break down the PTD behavior, Content Creation. We have invited our friend and colleague, Madhu Govind, to share a curriculum project centered on using the KIBO robot in PreK-2nd grade.
How can technology help children become creators, designers, and inventors who bring their ideas into the world?
We’ve shared ideas for helping children become comfortable and confident using technology to express themselves, share ideas, and create technological projects and artifacts. One of the most central ideas in the PTD framework is something you’ve probably heard before: children can learn and grow by being creators, and not just consumers of digital content. But how can you support kids who aren’t sure where to begin with content creation? What should you do when you aren’t sure how to create content yourself?
When we work with children, we always introduce the Engineering Design Process as a step-by-step way to build, create, and invent. The order of the steps may change, and one child’s plan may look very different from their classmate’s. But, the general pattern of imagining, designing, and testing a construction is exactly what professional engineers do in the real world. In fact, it’s similar to other kinds of creative and knowledge-generating processes, such as the writing process, the scientific method, and more. We teach the engineering design process as a way to give children some ideas about how to be creators, not just what they might want to create.
In this post, we’ll be drawing examples from the Coding as Another Language (CAL) curricula, a suite of grade-based curricula for PreK-2nd graders exploring ScratchJr and KIBO, recently developed by the DevTech Research Group. See lesson 4, Let’s Make Something, for a summary of how you might introduce the Engineering Design Process in a typical early childhood setting.
Figure 1. The Engineering Design Cycle from the CAL curriculum involves six steps (ask, imagine, plan, create, test & improve, share) that are constantly repeating and connecting with each other.
Research on PTD and Content Creation
How can we have the same kinds of free, messy, and playful creating experiences with technology that we have in the classroom, at an art studio, or on the playground?
Researchers who advocate for early childhood computer and tech experiences continually point to the importance of engaging children as creators, not just consumers, of digital experiences (Papert 1991, Bers 2020). Not only does this give children agency and freedom in domains that can feel restrictively dependent on “right answers” and precision (e.g. math, engineering, computer science), but this approach also welcomes girls, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, and children from backgrounds underrepresented in professional STEM careers who might feel unwilling or unable to explore their own STEM identity out of stereotype-based anxieties, such as a belief that they must conform to narrow, “correct” ways of learning and knowing (Sullivan 2019).
One of the best ways to invite children into the world of content creation when they might feel hesitant to begin is to include plenty of time for free play with new tools and materials. This low-stakes exploration helps build confidence–especially during inevitable tech and design failures–and builds a foundation of competence to try more complex tasks with the tools later on (Sharples, 2019).
PTD Cards for Content Creation
As you think about more ways to foster content creation at home or school, consider the following question prompts from the PTD card deck (a tool created by Dr. Bers to help educators align their technology teaching with PTD).
Design Prompts for Technologies:
How does the technology support a playground (child-directed and open-ended) as opposed to a playpen (adult-directed and closed-ended) type of experience?
How does the technology engage children in learning how to code?
How does the technology engage children in learning how to build?
How does the technology engage children in expressing themselves by creating projects they care about?
Design Prompts for Environments:
How are tools and materials made visible and accessible to children?
How are locations in the space designed to present or document children’s work and the process of creation?
How much time and space is available for children to focus on the process (rather than the product) of their work?
In what ways are children given time to test out and iterate their projects?
Content Creation in Context
What kind of content can young children create? Why is content creation important for your students?
When starting children on any new skill or exploration, most often educators will start small, build on the foundation, and offer opportunities to take ownership and exert agency while they work and learn. Computers and technology are no different. Just as practice with physical tools (e.g. scissors, paints) support children’s fine motor skills, practicing with digital tools supports their developing computational literacy. It’s important to let kids lead and take their play seriously as an important part of the learning process.
In Angie’s classroom, whenever a new manipulative was introduced, the first activity involved time to explore and play. For example, if her plan was to teach the standard on “Identifying and describing shapes” (NGSS), she devoted time to playing and free-building with their pattern blocks. Only on day two would she begin to introduce standard-specific learning objects through guided prompts and questions. By setting aside time for exploration and play on day one, students were better able to focus on the learning goal by day two.
Positioning a new tech tool as a creative, playful opportunity is a great way to foster content creation. Try to refrain from immediately telling children the “right” way to engage with the tool, if possible. Instead take a moment to silently observe and learn from their actions, or to offer questions to try and understand their thinking. We know that many children will be comfortable at this point with the video calls and computer instruction required for their remote schooling. For those who continue to be frustrated by technology, those who are learning a new app or tool for the first time, or for students just “graduating” into a remote school day from preschool, try to take breaks from academic learning to focus on special “tech time”. In addition to helping children decompress their emotions, this also helps with computer literacy skill-building.
To explore keyboarding skills, for example, you might invite children to use a word processing software (opened with help from a parent or family member) and allow them to simply type anything they want as a play experience (for cursor practice, try a paint editor). Save and share their digital creations as a way to celebrate their bravery and creativity in exploring computers with you. Slowly graduate to softwares designed for this learning, like typing tutorial games, as the child shows interest. Later, you might refer back to early free-play digital works as a way to help children reflect on how far they have come in their typing skills. Parents can support this work at home through open-ended, child-directed free play with keyboards, cursors, and even Zoom calls to loved ones as practice for children’s regular school day.
Tips on how you can support content creation in any setting:
Celebrate failures – practice doing this without judgemental or apologetic language.
Teachers can hold “work in progress” circle times to let children share their challenges and mistakes
Parents can help children take “oops photos” – pictures of bugs, broken projects, or other failures – that they can share with the class for show and tell.
Wave goodbye and saying thank you to our digital creations, before disassembling and recycling parts
Adults can model how to react when something they build or test doesn’t work as intended. Try to keep emotions calm, and focus on solving the problem rather than lamenting the failure.
If you need to troubleshoot with children, practice speaking out loud about your thought process. This invites children to be involved as problem-solving collaborators and lets them learn how to think about solutions and decide which ones to try first.
Using Tech to Support Content Creation
How do we help children create their own content with technology?
Content creation can happen with any technology that lets children “create”. Even a regular word processor can be a tool for content creation. But for developmentally appropriate playground-style experiences like the ones that support PTD, look for what we like to call “playground tech”. Playground tech provides opportunities for children to play with their whole selves – minds, bodies, alone or with friends, and even to explore different emotions. Just like on the playground, children should also be the “director” of their play, with the ability to play the way they want, and even to change the rules of the game–for example, through coding! It’s hard to find a “wrong” way to play on the playground. Finally, to enable the kind of idea sharing and collaboration that playgrounds naturally foster, playground tech should allow children to share their creation or artifact with other friends. This could be a built-in way to share projects digitally, or simply a robot creation that children can physically touch and show to friends.
Since any playground tech can work for content creation, we suggest starting with the child’s imagination to inspire projects. Storybooks can be a great source of ideas for kids to build solutions with technology.
For younger students, try a picture book like Robots, Robots Everywhere, featured in the CAL curriculum. Think of the many ways that robots are used and built to help solve problems that humans have. Can children think of their own robot that would solve a problem for them? How would they design it? Walkthrough steps of the engineering design process to create a prototype.
Older students may be interested to try building a solution to a challenge that a character in a story faces, like how Rapunzel can escape her tower. Or, they might wish to create their own alternative ending to the story using animation or coding apps or to put on a play or film a movie with phone cameras and video editing software. In addition to literacy skills of following a plot-based story and perspective-taking with fictive characters, this also emphasizes design and creativity.
In this guest contribution, Madhu Govind shares about the Coding as Another Language (CAL) curriculum, a resource for creative building and coding ideas in early childhood.
Guest Contribution: Content Creation Ideas & Considerations for Different Spaces by Madhu Govind:
Look around your home or school setting. What different kinds of technologies are there? Which ones are used by children, by adults, or by both children and adults? Are the technologies used for consuming, for creating, or both? The answers to these questions can help us think about how to foster content creation in different spaces. Depending on the types of physical and digital materials children have available to create with, content creation may look different in homes and schools. However, when the focus is placed on the process of creation rather than the final product, the outcomes may be similar and just as fruitful.
In this Medium post, I highlight three strategies for parents to consider when using technology with young children in their homes: 1) choose activities that engage children in doing and creating, 2) listen to what children say while they play, and 3) allow children to do the heavy lifting and drive their own learning. Each of these key principles highlights the importance of learner agency and parental support, but they also drive home the point that what children say and do matters. At the same time, it’s also important to consider how parents (and educators) react to children, especially when they fail or make mistakes. Celebrating the process of making mistakes and learning from them is a critical aspect of content creation that cannot be understated.
The final lessons of the CAL curriculum (lessons 25-30) take children on a journey through the engineering design process to design their own creative robotic creations. Children read the book Pete the Cat: Robo-Pete by James Dean. They ask and imagine: What are some things Robo-Pete can do that Pete can’t do? What are some things Pete can do that Robo-Pete can’t do? What are some things they can do together? Children then plan and create their own robot-friend using KIBO, assembling their codes using a variety of programming blocks and decorating their robots using an assortment of arts and crafts materials. Once children have their initial creations, they test out their designs, troubleshoot bugs, and then share their projects with their peers, families, and community members.
For more content creation ideas, check out the full Pre-K KIBO CAL curriculum and the set of KIBO family newsletters for tips to continue children’s learning at home.
How are you encouraging content creation in your classroom this year?
We want to hear your creative ideas about how you are promoting active creation in your classroom. Share your thoughts with us on social, and follow along for updates about this series and other resources on education:
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Bers, M. U. (2020). Coding as a playground: Programming and computational thinking in the early childhood classroom. Routledge.
Papert, Seymour, and Idit Harel. “Situating constructionism.” Constructionism 36, no. 2 (1991): 1-11.
Sharples, M. (2019). Practical pedagogy: 40 new ways to teach and learn. Routledge.
Sullivan, A. A. (2019). Breaking the STEM stereotype: Reaching girls in early childhood. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
About the Authors
Angie Kalthoff is the Product Manager for Curriculum and Instruction at Capstone. Over her career, she has been an English Language (EL) teacher, Technology Integrationist, Program Manager, and University Instructor. She has an M. Ed in Teaching and Learning. Connect with Angie on Twitter: @mrskalthoff and visit her website: bit.ly/angiekalthoff.
Dr. Amanda Strawhacker is the Associate Director of the Early Childhood Technology (ECT) Graduate Certificate Program at Tufts University’s Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. She holds a Master’s and Ph.D. in Child Study and Human Development, which she earned while designing and researching EdTech like ScratchJr and the KIBO Robot at the DevTech Research Group, and was a speaker with TEDxYouth@BeaconStreet. Connect with Amanda on Twitter: @ALStrawhacker and visit her website: amandastrawhacker.com
Madhu Govind is a doctoral student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University. Her research interests include collaborative family programming and teacher perceptions of robotics and coding education in early childhood. Connect with Madhu on Twitter: @MadhumitaGovind or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/madhumitagovind