Children learn about the world much as scientists do -- smashing things to smithereens, staring in wonder at the results and then breaking out in giggles. --Michael Jacob (Scientific American, letter to the editor)
Judging from the questions, what was of most interest to my fellow International UnConference delegates and the other early childhood and creativity types I met during my week in England was our cooperative preschool model (I'll write more about this in coming days as photos roll in). One of the characteristics of said model being our monthly mandatory parent meetings during which we handle school business as a community. The more engaging and educational parts of these evenings, however, are when our parent educators lead us in an investigation of some aspect of being the parents and teachers of young children.
Last night Mary Margaret Brown stepped in as a last minute substitute when our usual Pre-3 educator Dawn Carlson was called away for a family emergency. Mary Margaret's topic: play.
As we more or less Q&A-ed our way through the century of solid, unequivocal research that proves time and again that young children learn best through a play-based curriculum, Mary Margaret made a statement I'd never heard before. Apparently, NASA long ago discovered that when it came to problem solving, their engineers with the best track record in finding solutions weren't necessarily those with shingles from MIT or Stanford, they weren't the ones who had finished tops in their classes or performed well on standardized tests. No, NASA knows that when it comes to thinking through complicated problems, the engineers best suited for success are the ones who have a background of tinkering; the guys who spent their youths puttering around with old cars, building their own computers, and generally poking and prodding every new thing that came their way to figure out how it worked or why it wasn't working. Tinkerers put a man on the moon.
Yesterday, as we broke out our new The Den Experiment for the first time I knew that successfully learning to use bamboo canes, cable ties, burlap, and clothes pins to build "forts" wasn't going to be something that 3-5 year olds were likely to master all at once. I'd seen a 9 and 6-year-old manage it after some basic instruction, but in all honesty it was the older, more experienced child who had taken to it most readily, leading the project through its framework stage, with his younger sister really coming into play during the finishing stages.
This in mind, we introduced the materials with the idea of tinkering as our core principle, our assumption being that the first thing to do was to monkey around until we'd mastered the concept of those "zip ties." So without ever talking about "dens," "cubbies," or "forts," Connor's mom Laura allowed the children a chance to engage with these simple items for about an hour, giving them some assistance where needed, demonstrating how to use the the cable ties, but otherwise giving them room to struggle, fail, horse around and generally find their way to their own "ah-ha" moments. Only a handful of children fully engaged in the project (there were, after all, a half dozen other fun things going on at the same time), but the ones who came to tinker began taking those first steps, making several of these basic teepee like shapes. A magnificent start.
In the meantime, we've augmented our original supply of canes, ties and pins and will be introducing them to our Pre-K class (our oldest students) today.
It's a challenging thing, I think, for teachers, like Laura did, to keep the concept of "tinkering" front and center in our minds as we work with young children, knowing as we unfortunately do that there is a goal to ultimately send rockets into outer space, but it isn't our job to figure out how to get there. Our job is to nurture tinkering -- the stars belong to those who know how.
But we all get to giggle.