Tuesday, June 18, 2024

If It's Something Worth Knowing, It Will Go Viral

I don't know where the pogo sticks came from, but two appeared on day on the playground. I imagine that we had benefited from someone's garage or cellar purge. When I first spied them, I tried one out, something I've done a handful of times in my life. I didn't succeed in achieving a single bounce, although there have been times in my life when I've managed as many as a half dozen. 

I wondered if the children would even know what they were, but one of the cardinal rules of young children in groups is that if one child knows something, they all know it. So all it took was for one child to say, "It's a pogo stick," then explain how they had seen one work and the knowledge went viral.

The One Laptop Per Child organization demonstrated this phenomenon back in 2012 when they left boxes of tablet computers in remote Ethopian villages. Within four minutes, illiterate children had figured out, together, how to power them up. Within days, they were customizing their desktops. Within weeks, they were using the installed apps and singing along to videos. Within five months, they were hacking the Android software. All without instructions or teachers. This is how learning through play works and why few things impede learning more than the "keep your eyes on your own work" mentality the pervades standard schools: it makes children dependent upon the adults rather than one another, which is the most natural way for humans to learn new things.

Pogo sticks may or may not be more complex things to learn than those tablets, or maybe there are just more distractions on our playground in Seattle than in an Ethiopian village, but for several days, the kids, despite understanding the concept, still had not succeeded in even a single bounce. Then one day, a couple girls determined that they were going to figure it out. They knew they couldn't get started bouncing on their own, so they tried working together, with one holding the pogo stick upright for the other, but the weight was too much. They tried leaning the pogo stick against the wall of the playhouse to keep it upright as they climbed on, but this too failed. They tried rallying more children to help hold it upright, but then it was too crowded for anyone to climb on. They considered the mental experiment of digging a hole into which the pogo stick could be "planted," but recognized that it would be impossible to bounce properly in a hole.

"Maybe you could use this," suggested a boy, offering a length of rope. After considering it, the girls decided it was worth a try. I couldn't imagine how they would manage it, but that's not my job, so I moved along to loiter with intent elsewhere. When I later returned to the pogo stick experiments, they had tied one end of the rope to the top of the playhouse and another around the trunk of a lilac at the top of our concrete slide, with the pogo stick dangling, upright, in the middle. As one girl steadied the rope, another climbed onto the pogo stick and, Holy cow! She bounced four or five times before toppling over. 

By the end of the day, several of the children had discovered pogo stick success, using this training device invented by children for children. It's incredible hubris when adults to assume that children need us to teach them things. What they need most from us is freedom, time, and other children with whom to collaborate while the adults loiter with intent. And if it's something worth knowing, it will go viral.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

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