Ann Gadzikowski is an award-winning author and educator. Ann is the Early Childhood Coordinator for Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development in Illinois. She oversees the Leapfrog Program which provides summer learning for children from age four to Grade 3.
Ann has more than 25 years of teaching experience and is a prolific author on the topic of education. Her publications include ‘Creating a Beautiful Mess: Ten Essential Play Experiences for a Joyous Childhood’, as well as textbooks and children’s fiction.
Ann has a passion for challenging children to think creatively and critically. She blogs at www. anngadzikowski.com.
In this article, Ann discusses what teachers and parents need to know about learning technology for preschool-aged children, and what they can do to aid learning.
How does tech for preschoolers compare now versus ten or even five years ago?
Ten years ago you rarely saw a computer in an early childhood classroom. Most young children don’t have the motor skills and dexterity to use a keyboard or a mouse, so the options for appropriate games and lessons were limited. Five years ago, around the time that iPads and touch screens became widely available, we began to see new opportunities for the use of tech devices in the classroom. In the last two years, in addition to tablets, there has been a huge surge in the development of programmable devices, such as robots, for young children. Though it’s hard for parents and teachers to sort through the many new options, there are some high-quality learning tools that are appropriate for young children. One of my favorite examples is Primo Toys’ Cubetto.
Recently there have been some very significant new developments in the world of early education related to technology. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a new position statement called ‘Media and Young Minds.’ The statement is a significant departure from their previous recommendations that directed parents to keep their young children away from tech devices. The AAP now recommends that parents and caregivers develop a family media plan that takes into account the health, education and entertainment needs of each child as well as the whole family. ‘What’s most important is that parents be their child’s “media mentor.” That means teaching them how to use it as a tool to create, connect and learn.’
Another new resource for parents and teachers was recently released, the Early Learning and Educational Technology Policy Brief from the US Department of Education. The brief acknowledges that technology, when used appropriately, can be a tool for teaching and can be used to strengthen relationships among families and children.
Additionally, a collaboration of educators, researchers and computer science organizations have recently released a K12 Computer Science Framework to guide educators and policy makers in the development of computer science standards and curricula. The overarching vision expressed in the framework is that all children should have the resources and opportunities to become not just consumers of technology but creators. The framework includes a section of guiding principles for technology in early childhood education. As part of the collaboration’s focus on equity, the framework emphasizes that we can Improve access to computer science learning for all children by making programming more accessible to young students and beginners.
How is Cubetto on the cutting edge?
Cubetto is both on the cutting edge of innovation and grounded in the traditions of best practice in early childhood education. Cubetto allows children to learn through hands-on, kinaesthetic and interactive play experiences. Programming Cubetto using the colorful command blocks engages children in learning the ‘powerful ideas’ for early learning described in the CS framework: patterns, problem-solving and sequencing.
Why is technology important for kids aged three to five years old? Shouldn’t they be running around outside? What other skills are most important for kids to learn in addition to tech awareness in order to champion their futures?
Yes, children should be running around outside! The foundational practices and curricula in a quality early childhood programme doesn’t have to change. Children need a balance of different kinds of play and learning experiences every day – quiet and active, indoors and outdoors. Children are naturally curious about how things work and they are eager to learn about the technology they see all around them every day. Tools like Cubetto help children develop an understanding of introductory computer science concepts as well as computational thinking and problem-solving skills. Tangible tech tools like Cubetto allow children to socialise and communicate with other children as they create stories and pathways for their little robot friend. When children are working together to program Cubetto they are learning to ask questions, express ideas, negotiate and collaborate. Playing with Cubetto takes place on the floor, with children moving around and navigating space in ways that are more active and engaging than sitting at a desk looking at a screen.
Inquiry-based Learning with Cubetto
The Center for Talent Development (CTD) at Northwestern University offers classes in computer science and robotics for children as young as four years old through our summer Leapfrog programme. Over the past two summers, hundreds of young children have enjoyed learning to code, create stories and solve problems using Primo Toys’ Cubetto. When I train, coach and mentor teachers on how to use Cubetto and other tangible tech tools, I encourage teachers, above all, to be patient, observe and ask good questions. We use an inquiry-based learning model which means that children explore and discover through hands-on experimentation. Teachers facilitate the learning process and allow children to make mistakes and learn through trial and error, as well as reflection and analysis.
For example, when children first meet Cubetto, they are usually very eager to touch, hold, and manipulate the robot, control board and blocks. Waiting and sitting through a teacher-directed lesson can be very difficult for young children who are eager to try out this new device. A brief demonstration of how to place the blocks in the control board queue is enough to get children started on the right track. In my experience, most children do not need any instruction regarding the purpose of each type of command block. They are able to learn that themselves as they experiment and play. This is constructivist learning at its best – children are literally constructing their knowledge of coding, algorithms and computational thinking as they manipulate the blocks and try out different commands and sequences.
In our Leapfrog classrooms we don’t initially use any grids or mats with our tangible tech devices. Again, we want the children to be challenged to discover on their own that a robot, such as Cubetto, will travel a predictable and consistent distance with each forward command, and will turn at a predictable and consistent angle with each turn command. As the children gain more experience, they will begin to make predictions about how many and what type of commands they will need to achieve certain distances and movement patterns.
Through an inquiry-based learning process based on the children’s own spontaneous ideas and narratives, they will begin to understand that the robot has been calibrated to move a specific way and distance with each command. Teachers ask questions that facilitate this process, such as: ‘How far do you want Cubetto to go? How many blocks do you think you will need to make that happen? How do you know?’ These conversations often lead to a measurement activity to figure out how far Cubetto will travel with each command. The teacher facilitates the activity using standard units of measurement, such as inches, or nonstandard units of measurement, such as the width of a child’s foot.
Once children have developed some understanding of how Cubetto travels and how far he can go, the grid mat can be introduced, or the children can be invited to create their own grid on big graph paper. When children make their own grid, they not only learn to draw and measure, they can also draw features related to the original stories they’ve imagined for the robot. When children are invited to create their own stories, often the settings they prefer are very similar to those included on the Cubetto World Maps, such as mountains and oceans, but sometimes they create completely unique settings from their own imagination. When they draw the landmarks on their own paper grid, they have the freedom to develop the settings and stories in a completely original and open-ended manner.
How we use grids and mats in a Leapfrog classroom varies depending on the interests and abilities of the children in each class. Time is also a factor. It can take several class sessions for children to imagine, measure, and draw their own grid. When time is short, a pre-printed grid is very helpful. Whenever possible, however, I encourage teachers to be patient, take the time to observe how children are using the robots and tools, listen to the conversations children are having with each other, ask open-ended questions that help children express their ideas, and facilitate active problem-solving and exploration. An inquiry-based learning process deepens and extends critical and creative thinking, helping children develop skills and strategies that will support higher level learning experiences as they grow older.