Find Five Friday: Tinker Gnome Academy Edition

Sorry for the lack of post the last couple of weeks. The past few weeks have been a bit crazy, and the blog has been lost in the shuffle. But this week, I thought I’d share some posts I’ve been gathering about learning from playing and doing.

Because…you know…I never talk about those things.

Anyway, off we go!

1. Allow me to introduce you to Sylvia, a kid who loves to explore and share what she’s learning. She’s a great example of what the Maker Movement can inspire, and she’s an up-and-coming role model for girls interested in STEAM topics. (Source: Why Kids Need to Tinker to Learn)

2. Does Lego No Longer Promote Creativity? They do. The fact that the back wall of Lego stores are walls o’ brick proves that. There’s just a lot of money in tie-in materials for movies and games. But a lot of artists and fancrafters have realized they can show their love for genres and properties by recreating scenes, characters, and the movie itself through Lego creations, often pioneering new building techniques in the process. (For good examples, look up Bruce Lowell and Rick Martin. Both are doing some pretty cool things with Lego bricks.)

3. Why You Should Become Curious Today The title pretty much says it all, and the article does a good job explaining why inviting curiosity into your life is a good thing. And curiosity isn’t just for creative and scientific types. We can all benefit from being just a little more curious.

4. Have you seen that Lego ad from the 80’s with the little girl proudly holding her Lego creation? Well, someone caught up with that little girl, all grown up now, and interviewed her on the directions Lego has developed since then. It’s a good reminder that play exists in all its forms without being hemmed in by grown-up gender issues.

5. And finally, remember these very smart words from Rene DescartesEach problem that I solved became a rule which served afterwards to solve other problems. (Just try not think of Lefler’s Laws every time you read that.)

So, there you are. Five more links for you. I don’t know if there will be any of these “link dump” posts during the holidays, and I’m thinking about changing the name of this series. Keep an eye peeled, and have a safe holiday!

Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Children’s Play

This fall, American children are being treated to something never before seen: Saturday mornings without a single cartoon not bearing the e/i rating. In 1998, the FCC ruled that basic stations had to serve at least three hours of educational content a week, and so stations decided the easiest way to do that was to dedicate a programming block already targeting children to that cause. The e/i rating is given to children’s programming that meets certain criteria, both education and marketing related. (I used to have a really good resource on e/i, but the site appears to have been taken down. Sorry.) They’ve commonly been isolated to PBS, although other stations have woven them into their line-ups.

At first, this doesn’t seem like much of an issue. Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and Disney all offer Saturday morning blocks. But while nearly every home in America has a television, just under half of those homes has some sort of cable service. That means kids in just over half of these homes don’t have access to cartoons that aren’t trying to shove some sort of learning down their throat. I know what  you’re thinking: Isn’t that a good thing? How can we make the cable companies come around and stop making our children stupid? And that’s not a healthy way to think.

We can’t process a lot of information coming at us constantly. This is part of the research-based thinking in how daily class schedules are designed in schools. The brain needs time to process what it’s just been exposed to. This is actually one of the keys to learning. If the brain doesn’t get that time, the material bounces off like a skipped stone on the water. This isn’t just true at school, but everywhere in life. We’re nearly always in situations that expose us to new information, to new skills. Without down time, our brains just can’t handle it and burn out. Kids are the same way; and for just over half the kids in this country, they’re now limited in how they can choose to spend that necessary down time. (I’ll just let you think on the ramifications of that.)

It’s almost like we’ve been led to believe that if we aren’t laying out very obvious teaching moments 24/7, kids can’t possibly learn. But just because a kid isn’t being told by a big fuzzy creature that two and two together equals four (as happened in Magi Nation, a cartoon from a few years ago aimed at tweens), it doesn’t mean the child isn’t gaining something useful from watching a cartoon that has no deliberately educational elements. Children’s play has long been inspired by the characters and worlds they meet through cartoons. They become inspired to draw, to write, to incorporate their favorite cartoons into their imaginative play. And sometimes, the skills inspired by watching cartoons as a child become a career path. That’s not insignificant.

This isn’t to say all cartoons bearing the e/i label are painful mini-lessons. A handful of cartoons, such as the much beloved PBS cartoon Arthur and the perpetually re-launched Winx Club (although it’s only the mid-2000’s series that achieved this distinction), focus more on character building skills that have formed the basis for so many social-emotional curricula…without taking the preschool show tack (where it is needed because this may be the first time those very young children actually hear any of this. Preschool shows really are their own class.) of being very literal about what is going on.

It took well over a decade from the initial ruling to reach this point, but I think we’re going to see a pushback. Whether it comes in the form of relaxing restrictions on what all children can be exposed to or higher quality educational cartoons remains to be seen. It should prove interesting, though.

Gaming as Civics

I may also have this noted somewhere, but Brandon Sanderson’s FB post on playing Hide-and-Seek with his son (who hid his head in the couch cushions and left the rest of himself visible) got me to thinking about it.

There’s some thinking that encouraging game design in young children, who admittedly come by the practice naturally, is to develop a number of skills in those young children. But I’m thinking about how younglings come to build their game rules through what they understand of Big People Rules. Is it reflective of their limited understanding of how Big People work? Is it just them trying to see how they can influence their world through rules?

Is it a bad idea to capitalize on that natural curiosity and exploration to help understand why rules exist and why they need to be fair (a hard concept for younglings when they are creating their own games and rules)?

More to think about.

Let Children Be

I worry about the kids I work with. Some of them have a schedule so packed with sports or outside classes that they can’t find a moment to or do their homework or study for tests…or relax. And it shows not only in their academic lives, but in their personal lives as well.  I’m constantly telling my overextended test prep kids to relax, especially in the days leading up to the test, if for no other reason than to keep them from choking on a test they’re otherwise capable of dealing with…and they all look at me like I’ve lost my mind. They’re really too young to be feeling that pressure.

In filling a child’s schedule with all of these activities, we’re really robbing them of the time to be kids. They get no time to just play, and so they don’t learn the skills that come along with play- creative thinking, storytelling, social skills, problem solving. They don’t get to have the experiences and form the memories that will shape and inform their adulthood. I’d even argue that they lose the opportunity to develop empathy because they don’t experience what it means to simply be at a time in their life when they’re learning what life is.

So many creativity and career change blogs advocate reconnecting with childhood to fuel and inspire your work…but if there really wasn’t much of a childhood, what fuel is going to be there to inspire your work?

The Art of Re-Imagining

I was seriously into creative play as a kid. Building blocks. LEGO. Play-Doh. Crayons (my own Crayola carousel and a coffee can of crayon remnants).A dress-up box full of clothes, discarded cloth, jewelry, and safety pins. I even collected two or three lines of pop-beads.

That was my childhood. That pile of toys. Sure, I played video games and read books and rode my bike, but even through high school, these were my preferred toys. I loved creating things and experimenting with what each medium could do and how I could blend them.

Reading this comic brought back memories of hours spent drawing and coloring and molding props for different games, of taking a base piece of clothing and using ribbons and safety pins to embellish and change the clothing to fit a game. I spent so much time creating things for whatever game I was playing or that I was playing with my cousins, and then taking everything apart and putting it away so that it was ready to become something else next time.

My play was creative and modular. Sometimes, I wanted to preserve something so I didn’t have to recreate it next time, but often I didn’t give a second thought to smashing a Play-doh creation or trying to find interesting ways to dismantle a LEGO construct. The destruction was almost as much fun as the building.

Children don’t need more specialized toys (although I do admittedly wish I’d had a rough-and-tumble digital camera when I was little). They need toys that encourage them to look at a bunch of material and see a cup and plate, and then to look at the same bunch of material the next day and see ponies. They need toys that allow them to explore both the toy and their own imaginations.

Oh, and Mom, Play-Doh and LEGO make small packs perfect for care packages. Big kids need creative low-tech toys, too!

The Token Girl

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been keenly aware of female characters in the everything I read or watch. I love a good strong female character, but was always very aware that there just weren’t that many, protagonist or otherwise, in the action series I was fond of.

I was so aware of how few girls there were that by middle school, I was calling characters like Gloria Baker and R.C. “token girls”, a term I still apply to the girl character in a group of guys. I was keenly aware of the token girl in every cartoon I watched or book I read. I resented when Gloria was knocked unconscious and one of the men had to rescue her. When Artemis Entreri took Catti-Brie hostage, I was nearly ready to walk out on IceWind Dale.

Playing with my boy cousins, I was invariably the person who got kidnapped by the “bad guy”. (I was always fairly well-treated by my captor, too.) When I grew up and fell in with a LARP crowd, I often found myself the only girl around and therefore the damsel in distress during games. Sometimes, both as a child an an adult, I didn’t really care because it made sense with the storyline of the game. But then there were times where it was clear that the caveman thinking went: She’s a girl. Girls always get kidnapped by the bad guyLet’s go to great lengths to kidnap her in favor of a more easily snagged guy. And I protested.

There are plenty of examples where the token girl is allowed to just be part of the team, but there aren’t enough of them to have a strong impact on children, their games, and the stories they create.

The Gender of Children’s Play

I was an unusual kid. I played dress-up, often using safety pins and a collection of old jewelry and scarves to help change to form of the clothes to match whatever game I was playing. That led to a brief period of designing my own fashions and trying to learn to sew. I had a few Barbies that I liked to style. I had a pretty nice play kitchen and I held tea parties.

But I also had boxes I’d turned into sailing ships, race cars, and computers. I had action figures from Star WarsG.I. Joe, and M.A.S.K. I would run around with my cousins, water gun in hand, and play Transformers. After school, I’d spread my books out on my parents’ bed and worked on my homework while I watched Silverhawks and Thundercats.

I graduated from my play kitchen to a weather station, a planetarium projector, and a telescope.

I was lucky. My parents didn’t worry about whether or not certain toys were appropriate for their daughter. They let me explore and play with those things I enjoyed. If that meant I wanted Victorian Barbie to lead an army of Joes, so be it! I was a child having fun.

It’s bizarre, but twenty years after I stopped playing with my Barbies and action figures, I routinely have to defend my cartoon choices to some of my girl students because they’re just mortified that I watch cartoons their brothers enjoy. (They aren’t bothered by the fact that I’m a thirtysomething who still loves to watch cartoons.) The boys I teach feel they have to apologize for liking anything on the Disney Channel.

This shouldn’t be. Somehow, it feels like we’re still caught in this time warp where little girls play house with their dollies and boys raze everything in sight with their toy trucks. As I said earlier, it’s not as bad as it was when I first started teaching, but it’s still there and it does still shape how my teenagers and the young adults in my life think.

Girls should be able to choose what kinds of games they want to play without having stereotypes forced on them.

Boys should be able to choose what kinds of games they want to play without having stereotypes forced on them.

Walking Through a Video Game

I can’t believe I forgot to share this one.

Last week, I met up with a former student for lunch, and we walked around the mall to find a birthday present for one of my coworkers while we chatted.

Near the children’s play area, we noticed a couple of little ones running around on a pad that looked like a koi pond. They would walk toward a koi, and the fish would swim away from them. They’d laugh and run after another fish.

At first, I really didn’t pay much attention to it, but when we walked past it again, I decided to try it out myself. The children were all back in the play area, so there didn’t seem to be any harm in it. Jessica and I chased koi for a couple of minutes, and then the pad changed. By the time we stopped, we’d played soccer, herded chicks into a nest, and wiped out an intergalactic fleet by stomping on them.

The pad was controlled by a projector above the pad. It was far enough up to be completely unobtrusive, but if you bent over to look at what was going on under your feet, the sensor controlling objects’ movement stopped reacting. Small problem for something meant to be controlled by your feet. Despite that, though, we had a great time running around and playing on the pad.

Naturally, I’ve already started thinking about ways the pad could be used in both education and writing.

Playing as a Teaching Moment

I was once advised to consider pursuing a Montessori teaching certificate because of my fascination with informal education. Montessori believes that children can learn effectively through play, which can be carefully crafted into an informal learning experience without ever being transparent.

Case in point, last Friday I accompanied a friend to his department’s picnic. We spent the afternoon at a beach in Ballard walking and playing and eating and chatting. It was a very relaxing afternoon.

At one point, I grabbed an ice cream treat and went to sit on the swings. A mother and her little girl (who couldn’t have been any older than four) came up and took over the swing beside me. The little girl plopped down on the swing while her mother asked her how many pushes she wanted. The girl thought for a moment before asking first for fifteen, and then settling for thirteen. Her mother pushed her, counting each push out loud.

I couldn’t help but smile as I watched them. Without being obvious, the mother was instilling number sense in her daughter. They had somewhere to practice counting that didn’t feel stale or rote, and the little girl was having a great time.

If you have the opportunity to play with little ones, look for ways to incorporate a little bit of learning or practice into your play time! They’ll benefit from it!

A Disturbing Find in the Lego Store

Over the weekend, I introduced a new friend to Bellevue Square. I introduced him to a number of things, actually. Perhaps the most disheartening was the Lego store. It used to be such a nice store…now it’s all kits and open space.

I was looking through the big kid sets when I made the rather joyous discovery of some Avatar sets! That was pretty cool…right up until I looked at one of them closely.

The box showed the characters that came in the box. As expected, Aang was there, his little arrow wrapped around his little peg head. Sokka and his pet Momo were included, too.

Conspicuously missing was Katara, Aang’s friend and water bending teacher, Sokka’s logical sister. She travels with the guys. She’s always helping to solve their problems. She’s an all-around cool kid. She deserved to not be left out! I was quite unhappy.

Somehow, Lego and Nickelodeon missed the memo that it is actually unacceptable to leave out the token girl, especially from a fairly gender-neutral cartoon. (Avatar has enough of a blend of action and touchy-feely that I think it’s fairly safe to not assume it’s a boy cartoon. In fact, it was my girl students who made me watch it to begin with.)

Naturally, this happened not long after posting on the token girl and then discovering that post was picked up by a feminist carnival. I was simultaneously trying to claim I’m not a feminist while screaming about the fact that the girl was left out of the Avatar set.

It really does bother me that Lego and Nickelodeon thought it was acceptable to leave Katara out. That’s the kind of precedent the token girl doesn’t need! (It’s also so very, very eighties…those two need to do some serious catching up with the times!)