The Importance of Touch
“A tool is but the extension of a man’s hand, and a machine is but a complex tool. And he that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the wellbeing of mankind.” – Henry Ward Beecher
If you’ve had a look at our homepage and are already familiar with Cubetto, you’ll no doubt have noticed that we’re very proud of the fact that he’s made of wood. You might also have encountered the word “Montessori” and you probably asked yourself “Why are wooden toys so important in Montessori schooling… and can a wooden toy teach kids to program a computer… and just what IS Montessori, anyway?”
Cubetto and the Interface Board are designed to be touched and handled. It was vital to choose the right material and for us, that meant a natural material. We made observations in kindergartens and discovered that toddler toys and games made of wood are the most loved by children. Wooden blocks are timeless toys for kids. Parents are also reassured by the fact that wooden toys are tough enough to stand up to being handled by toddlers!
Our favourite reason of all, however, is that wood has a memory. It collects experiences and its personality only increases as the years go by. Think about your favourite toys you had as a child. If someone handed one of them to you today, no doubt you’d remember every bump and scratch. Your fingers would play over those distinguishing marks without any conscious effort on your part.
Now imagine someone tried to substitute one of your treasured objects for a counterfeit. You’d know it in an instant, wouldn’t you? It’d feel wrong in your hand. You’d instantly be able to tell that all history between you and the toy was somehow… missing. We want Cubetto to show signs of past love and usage. Each piece of wood is imbued with its own, individual grain pattern and that character only develops with age. Nothing ages more gracefully than wood. We want Cubetto to age gracefully.
What do wooden toys have to do with the Montessori Method?
“Whether made into a wooden pillow or table, wood with excellent grain is a guarantee of splendid poems, and the composition of perfect documents.” – Liu Sheng
The Montessori Method is an approach to education that encourages hands-on exploration and problem solving. It was popularised in U.S. classrooms by Italian doctor and teacher Maria Montessori, who favoured a sensory-rich learning environment. Her classrooms were equipped with a small set of educational tools that were honed and iterated upon throughout her career.
After many years of refinement, she found that wooden blocks provided the ideal learning tool: they were warm and pleasant to the touch, which encouraged children to handle them. They also allowed for a variety of mathematical and spatial ideas to be discovered without the need of explanation or lecture from an adult. When archaeologists discover toddler toys from ancient cultures, they are often small wooden replicas of tools used by adults. The Montessori method returns to these basic principles; the best way to help children learn about their world is to put them in contact with it. It is essential to provide rich experiences for the senses and that is something that wood is particularly good for.
How do children learn by playing with wooden blocks?
“Show us a man who never makes a mistake and we will show a man who never makes anything. The capacity for occasional blundering is inseparable from the capacity to bring things to pass.” Herman Lincoln Wayland
Montessori herself found that, for the children in her schools, the discovery of the ideal way of using educational objects was a bigger reward than a physical gift, which would soon be discarded in favour of another attempt to complete the task. The process of discovery, she found, is reward enough in itself.
The choice of wood as the material is important to the goal: learn by doing. Traditional learning methods such as recitation and memorisation don’t develop necessary life skills and individual abilities. Auto-education, on the other hand, equips a child to learn from her every experience. In a Montessori classroom, children are able to choose their task and be guided by the apparatus or toy itself.
That doesn’t mean the learning environment lacks structure; within the chosen activity, a system of rules exist. The same concept is true for Cubetto: no teacher is required to tell a child that he has given an ‘incorrect’ instruction. Instead, the child is encouraged to send a series of commands to Cubetto and watch Cubetto perform them. The child will immediately see whether or not the desired effect and has been achieved. Cubetto and the Interface Board are both wooden, making them inviting to touch. Children execute their programs with their hands and they’re able to physically reset Cubetto if they feel like they want to try again.
Over the years, Montessori found that children soon get tired of toys that only have one function. She found that they seek out and return to objects that allow them to see their errors and correct them, just like Cubetto does. These objects aid children’s discovery of the physical world and its rules.
Download our Cubetto teacher’s guide to find out more.
What can be learned from wooden toys?
“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.” – Mark Van Doren
One of Montessori’s most popular teaching tools is a block with holes carved into it. Children are given wooden cylinders which can be inserted into those holes. Each hole corresponds with just one cylinder. One of the aims of this tool is to develop the child’s sense of dimension. Children self-correct because they discover that there’s only one ideal way to complete the activity.
A child can insert all of the cylinders into the hole with the largest diameter, but she will eventually realise that the other holes serve no purpose and that there an equal number of cylinders and holes. Cubetto provides similar feedback: if he doesn’t make it home within the number of blocks provided, the child will understand that a better solution exists.
Each of Montessori’s materials had a pre-determined objective, just as Cubetto does. If the aim of the exercise is to guide Cubetto home by sending him left, a child is still able to send an instruction for him to turn right. Cubetto will perform the movement as requested, which creates a feeling of satisfaction in the child, but she will realise that Cubetto isn’t yet home and will be eager to try the exercise again with the allotted number of blocks. Children, Montessori found, persist in finding the best solution, and benefit the most from doing it by themselves. It’s no coincidence that the Cubetto story books involve travel to exotic and far-flung destinations; it’s about the journey, not just the destination.
Why is haptic feedback and touch so important?
Research suggests that activity promotes better learning. Giving children physical objects to hold engages them in the discovery process and provides feedback. For example, imagine asking a child to match drawings of cylinders with drawings of holes on a piece of paper, or on a tablet screen. There would be no physical feedback to teach the child that a fit is too loose, or too tight. She would rely on her teacher to tell her whether or not the answer was correct. When a child is holding the cylinder, she can feel whether or not the solution is the ideal one. The teacher or parent is only ever a guide as the child iterates on their methods.
Without physical feedback there would be no process of discovery, no physical play to reinforce the lesson learned and no desire to reset the exercise and search for a better way. Object-based discovery is active rather than passive.
Cubetto works along the same principles: physically handling blocks makes immediate sense to a child in a way that the abstract concept of computer code doesn’t. Children receive feedback on the adequacy of their decisions from Cubetto. Cubetto provides a key to discovering the world of coding for kids. Children themselves make sense of the world and its rules with Cubetto’s help. Like many programmers before them, kids learn to code by exploring what’s possible.
What are the other benefits of wooden toys?
Most of us are instinctively attracted to beautifully-crafted wooden objects and a growing body of research is attempting to ascertain why wooden toys and furniture are still so popular. A report produced by Planet Ark* looked the evidence and found a range of health benefits to living, working and learning environments containing wood. One study in Japan, for example, found that residents in elderly care facilities interacted more with one another when in rooms containing wooden furniture and fixtures.
A year-long study carried out in Austria examined 36 high-school students aged between 13 and 15. It found that those in a classroom with floors, ceilings, cupboards and wall panels made of solid wood had lower heart rates. They also felt less stress when interacting with teachers than students in rooms with linoleum floors, plasterboard walls and chipboard cupboards.
Studies have also found that wood has positive physiological and psychological benefits that mimic the effect of spending time outside in nature. American psychologist Roger Ulrich carried out a study that found looking at nature elicited feelings of natural warmth and comfort in hospital patients. This, in turn, lowered their blood pressure and heart rates, reducing stress and promoting faster recovery.** Wood products in homes have even been shown to improve indoor air quality by moderating humidity. All of this research suggests that as well as its tactile and hard-wearing qualities, there may be psychological and physiological reason that wooden toys are still in demand.
Can children really learn to code by playing coding games with wooden toys?
“What I love most about Cubetto is that it will give girls and boys all over the world the opportunity to learn the basic building blocks of coding, without being glued to a computer screen. As a mom, that’s my dream.” – Randi Zuckerberg
Most of us would love to introduce coding for kids early, but have no idea how to do it. Surely coding is complex and difficult for adults, let alone kids… right? Even if we wanted to play coding games with our kids, we wouldn’t know where to start. Well, the answer, believe it or not, takes us back to wooden toys. Archaeological finds suggest that throughout history, different civilizations have used physical objects to solve common maths problems. The ancient civilizations of the Middle East used wooden trays covered with a thin layer of sand. The user would draw in the sand to keep a tally or check inventory. The ancient Romans and Chinese developed this idea into the abacus.
Cubetto follows the same principle. Physical blocks represent algorithms, or sets of instructions. These are placed along a curved line. They are run in sequence when the child presses the big, blue go button. This introduces children to the idea of a queue. After executing the commands, children watch Cubetto’s actions and, if necessary, reset his position and replace blocks to alter his programming. This introduces children to the concept of debugging. Just as in ancient times, objects or tokens can be used to make complex concepts more manageable.
At first glance, it may appear that forward, left and right are the extent of the commands available. In fact, it goes deeper than that. In real coding it is crucial that programmers consider technological limitations; resources are never unlimited. Cubetto teaches this side of coding for kids too. At the bottom of the Interface Board is a Function Line. Children discover for themselves that a blue block on the Interface board will carry out all of the instructions in the Function Line.
For example, the following configuration would cause Cubetto to move forward twice.
But what if the child was asked to move Cubetto forward four spaces, but only given two forward blocks and two function blocks? The child would eventually reason that the function blocks act as multipliers, allowing the instructions packaged in the Function Line to be carried out twice, as in the following diagram.
By limiting the number of blocks available in coding games, we are able to introduce kids to the concept of finite system resources. Cubetto’s movements and the physical blocks provide all the necessary feedback for girls and boys to discover the logic of coding through touch.
So there you have it – wooden toys can teach kids to code! To get your little one started, visit our store and pick up your own Cubetto.