Learning by playing, tinkering and making

Last Thursday I snuck out of school and spent the day playing. I hope by boss finds out, he thinks I was just doing professional development. 

I was not alone either. Thanks to Bondi Beach Public School a large group of teachers gathered in the library and under the guidance of Dr. Gary Stager of "Invent To Learn" spent the day immersed in play. We played a computer game, played with blocks, had fun playing with some art and craft materials and finished the day making toy birds. The silent introspection so traditional of professional development days was replaced by noise and laughter as we shared ideas and explored the possibilities presented to us.

The play we were engaged in was the sort of richly purposeful play that requires mental engagement. We were finding and solving problems, learning new tools and developing skills we thought only brilliant technologists possessed. We made mistakes. We made more mistakes and many of our ideas failed and not only the first time. We persisted. We asked questions of each other and by doing so found possible answers. Our instructor knew when to leave us alone, knew when to let us struggle with our problem a little longer and knew when to offer just enough salvation to keep us moving in the right direction. 

We had the right tools to make learning possible. Nothing fancy for the most part. Some software that had us exploring coding and understanding how inputs would produce the desired output. We thought we were just drawing. Turtle Art provides the learner with a deceptively complex learning environment. A friendly turtle, a simple interface of blocks that are dragged onto a blank screen and locked together into a chain of commands. Learning the basics is easy, going further is alluring and before long you are asking meaningful questions about the code you are producing as you wonder how you can create a desired pattern on screen or how you can simplify the code. Turtle Art was our introduction and it played the foundation for what was to come later in the day.

We played with "Little Bits” a tool for prototyping advanced electrical circuits. A large supply of blocks was available for us to experiment with, each bringing a new option to the circuits we constructed. Speakers, lights, switches, motors, servos, coloured LEDs, and sliders were available in the basic kit. Each block connects to another with magnets and each block only fits one way ensuring the right connection is made. More advanced blocks allow coding and computational control to be introduced and advanced prototypes can be quickly assembled in a solder free way. 

Playing with copper tape and conductive thread allowed for and exploration of wearable technology. Clothes with lights and buzzers were tested and proudly displayed. Some members of the group explored the possibilities of Arduino boards while some played with Lego. By the afternoon we were gaining confidence and sharing ideas for how we would take our new learning back to our students. We understood what Gary meant when he told us that "Knowledge is a consequence of experience” and "There is no substitute for the experience”. 

In the afternoon, we tried at our hands at making cardboard robots with motors, lights and servos controlled by a small PC on a chip called a “Hummingbird”. This was our culminating performance of understanding and required us to use all of the skills we had developed throughout the day. The results were, to be honest, rather ordinary. 

Not our work, an example of what is possible from  HummingBird.Com

Not our work, an example of what is possible from HummingBird.Com

What we gained from the day was an understanding of the power of learning by doing and through play. There were no lectures. No text books, grades or tests. There were lots of opportunities to collaborate, to problem find and problem solve. We needed to be creative and the environment encouraged us to be so. We assessed the results of our thinking as we went, sought peer feedback and our tutor observed our efforts closely and knew where we were with our learning. We persisted with the challenges not because we had to but because we wanted to. We were engaged with our learning. 

Play is a vital tool for learning. It should be vital part of every child’s learning; the norm rather than the exception and we leave it behind as we become adults to our own peril. 

By Nigel Coutts with thanks to Bondi Beach Primary School @BondiBeachPS