Tag Archives: play

The family that plays together…

It was as we were walking home from school that I heard Helen giving Nadia tips about how to play their new iPad game. “Don’t always give them what they want. They’re asking for things that are going to cost real money.”

playingtogetherThe conversation continued on the way home and then they both took out Helen’s iPad and started playing together. It was classic mother-daughter interaction: mom giving advice to the child, child listening and obeying dutifully. But there were no arguments, no defiance, just willing compliance.

From a parenting point of view, it was clear to see why this worked. The adult had information that would help the child in something the child was trying to do. The adult demonstrated experience and knowledge, and the child wanted to have the same. It was a classic case of teaching from experience. Often, our teens rebel against us because of their perception that the adult doesn’t know or understand what the child is going through. It also comes across as preaching rather than saying, “Let me help you accomplish what you want to do.”

From a technology and Digital Citizenship perspective, this was a great example of learning and exploring together. Helen wasn’t just teaching Nadia how to play the game and win, she was teaching her how to avoid costly in-app purchases. These are a hot topic in technology stories about kids and tablets. There have been cases of huge class-action suits against app makers when parents find that their children have spent thousands of real dollars in buying magic potions and level-ups and so forth in video games.

In this case, the child was being taught how to avoid those costly purchases – and in the language of the game. “You don’t need those right now.” “You can get those a different way.” “All you have to do is wait a bit – put the iPad down and go do something else for a bit and when you get back you’ll have it for free.”

Now, Nadia is old enough to understand the difference between real money and in-app currencies. (Part of that is because we’ve been teaching her over the years with allowances, shopping lessons, etc.) But even younger children can understand that if they are taught.

If parents want their children to be responsible with money and in-app purchases, they should join in the gaming and learn how the programs work and how to avoid unnecessary costs. But, more than that: parents should join in the gaming so they share an experience with their children. By being a part of the experience, by showing an interest, even by having more knowledge, parents earn the respect of their children and what might become a source of resentment or disagreement becomes a shared experience that can be enjoyed together and managed better.

The family that plays together stays together.


Cross-posted from my school blog.

A sweet start to the year

The first day of classes is a problem for a computer-based course such as Developing Computer Applications. The temptation is to try to dive into working with computers, but the students haven’t received their laptops yet. (I’ve yet to figure out a system where we could just hand them over on Day 1!)

But even if they had the laptops, it might not be the right thing to just dive right in to programming and creating apps. Even in High School, it’s important to try to build community in a class and establish relationships. For me the first thing that’s important in a class is letting the students know that computer programming is a challenge (and sometimes very frustrating), but also fun and rewarding.

So I thought I’d do a fun group-based “unplugged” lesson – teaching a computer science concept without using computers. One of the building blocks of programming is the idea of an algorithm: a step-by-step procedure for accomplishing something. In order to give instructions to the computer, you need to break a task down into tiny steps and give those commands in clear, precise language. I’ve done this before with making a sandwich, but I looked for more inspiration and found a great plan by Phil Bagge that I adapted.

After the concept of algorithm was introduced by having them explain the process of long division, the students were given the following instructions:


And I explained: they were to give the SandwichBot 3000 robot (me!) step-by-step instructions to make a jam sandwich. If they did it wrong, they’d have to fix it. If they did it right, they’d get a snack for a reward. (It helped having the class just before lunch – they were hungry!) They got into teams of 4 and started working.

When two teams had finished, they came to give the “robot” their instructions. The whole class watched to see how quickly their friends would get a yummy snack.

They quickly found out that their hard work was often a failure. The brainless robot did what they told him to do, even if it didn’t make sense. He also would stop if they didn’t give instructions in clear language. “Put it down” was met with “I don’t know what ‘it’ is.” If they told the robot to pick something up and forgot to tell it to put it down, his hands got full and he couldn’t do a step. Sometimes their instructions resulted in surprising results: “press the bread down onto the plate” got a squished slice!

The best laugh was when one team instructed the robot to “scoop out jam with right hand.” Without a knife, the robot dug into the jar and held up a handful of jam! (The robot had washed his hands well with soap before the lesson!)

Each time their algorithm “crashed,” they had to go back and try it again. Eventually, their instructions were covered in cross-outs, additions, etc. The great thing about it was that eventually, every team got a plate of jam sandwiches. They all laughed, both at the robot and at their own mistakes. They gave each other encouragement and suggestions. From a social point of view, a success.

Also successful academically in a great way: they didn’t give up. They didn’t get a low score on their algorithm. They “failed” but went back to fix their work and improve it. (A buzzphrase in education: “FAIL = First Attempt In Learning.”) Eventually, they all succeeded.

When I asked the students afterwards what they’d learned, one of them said, “algorithms are hard!!” But, I asked, did they succeed? Yes, they agreed. And that’s the frustrating and wonderful part about programming. Computers are dumb machines. It’s hard to figure out the right sequence of instructions and the right language to get them to do what you want, but eventually you can and do. I’ve never had a student not be successful in building an application. Some build huge, fancy programs, while others create more simple ones …but they all succeed.

And that’s a sweet lesson to start the year!

credit: photo of bread & jam by Yemisi Ogbe from Wikimedia Commons licensed CC-BY-SA

Finding the Technology Balance during Holidays


Many parents (and teachers) fear the “summer slump.” Classes are over, kids are at home, and parents still need to work. It’s easy for children to spend their days glued to the TV or playing games on a tablet or just goofing off on a computer. They worry about children keeping their learning going during the summer, so they assign books to read, find educational apps, have their children do keyboarding practice, do lessons on educational websites, etc.

children-playing-329234_1280This can exacerbate the sedentary life of children during the holidays. Kids might wind up sitting and doing screen-based activities …when they also need to get outside and run around, dig in the dirt or a sandbox, play games with other children, etc.

What’s a parent to do? How can we keep our children learning and creating, while also being active and enjoying themselves?

For me, the key word is balance. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to slob out in front of the TV for a while. It’s OK for kids (or adults!) to spend hours playing games on a tablet or game machine. It’s OK for kids to do any activity that doesn’t actually hurt them. It really only becomes problematical when that’s all that they do.

So let me add my comments to the numerous articles (here’s a very good one) about how to manage your children’s use of technology during the summer time, and offer two basic rules:

Use limits to keep a balance

Talk with your child(ren) about the need for balance. (It’s part of the ICS Learner Profile!) Don’t judge activities, but emphasize that everything needs to be balanced out. Broccoli is good for you, but if that’s all you eat then you won’t get complete nutrition. Reading books is a good activity, but if your children spend their entire summer doing nothing but read books, they would lack physical exercise, social interactions, etc.

Don’t set arbitrary limits, but let your child(ren) help establish how they will keep a balance. Maybe you can set some times as “videogame time.” Maybe they will vary activities by day (Monday=Minecraft. Tuesday=table tennis. Wednesday=water play…). Maybe they can balance hours (“I’ll spend three hours playing on my iPad and then go outside for three hours.”) Let your child(ren) establish the rules and they’ll be more willing to follow them!

Note that if you are traveling, setting such limits when you’re out of your normal routines can be more difficult. Take a look at this article for some tips on how to keep some balance on technology use while traveling. Again, the main idea is balance.

the-young-713333_640Embrace technology

Technology is not evil. Videogames are not bad for children. Playing on iPads is not a waste of time. Smartphones are not causing people to become stupid. In and of themselves, any technology tool is neither good nor bad. (The history of technology-bashing has a long history. Socrates railed against the horrible new technology of writing, saying it would ruin people’s memories!)

Parents who embrace technology help their children use tech well, share in the excitement and enjoyment, and participate in the various activities. Some parents embrace it wholeheartedly, while others merely allow it and enable it.

What can you do? You can use technology to extend your child(ren)’s learning. There are various good guides to apps and learning tools – CommonSenseMedia is a great site for parents that has a lot of great information, including a summer learning guide. (My advice: go for the tools that allow for creativity, not “drill & kill” skill-building apps that function like electronic worksheets.)

You can creatively use the technology itself. I’ve given my daughter the challenge of building an electronic book about our summer travels. She’ll use our iPad to take photos and videos, write descriptions, etc. and put them together into an e-book she can share with family. (It’ll also give her something to do and focus on while visiting castles & museums and help her get focused on what’s around her.)

And you can participate in the technology. Kids on Facebook? Ask them what they’re posting. Show interest and excitement. If they’ve found a funny video, laugh and enjoy the joke. Being part of their lives is a big part of parenting …it also helps when the inevitable conflicts come up. They’ll know that you’re not just about telling them what not to do, but you also appreciate things they do.

blow-bubbles-668950_640Remember: part of the reason that children need a break from school is so that they can play. Play is important for children’s healthy development – whether they are 3 years old or 13 years old!

Playing outside by kicking a ball or digging in the dirt or playing tag with friends is healthy, fun and a valuable learning experience. So is building structures in Minecraft, making movies on a tablet, or even organizing armies in World of Warcraft.

Enjoy your summer break!

The play’s the thing

screenshot from video CC-BY: MIT, P2PU, Mitch Resnick

There he is: an eager student & national robotics champion. He’s showing off to a visiting university professor, a big shot in Lego & robotics & creativity. And the visitor is impressed by the robotics team and all that they have created and their ability to program and problem-solve.

So he asks the teacher how this integrates with what the students do in class. And the teacher looks at the visitor, perplexed. “There is no way we do this in the classroom. This is only for afterschool. During the classroom they must be drilled on their math activities.”

Too often, that reaction and that attitude are wildly prevalent in schools all around the world. We may talk about 21st Century Learning and creativity and flexible thinking, but far too often only lip service is paid. At the end of the day, the students have to pass their end of year tests, get good grades on their IB exams, do well on their SATs so they can get on to university. Etcetera, etcetera.

Sure, most good teachers do try to foster creativity and individual expression  …but they are also caught up in the systems we have that were established in an older, slower age. The best teacher can foster creativity while preparing the student to sit her exams, but it’s not an easy job.

So I’ve signed up for the new MOOC, Learning Creative Learning, offered in partnership between MIT’s Media Lab and P2PU. Taught by Mitch Resnick, the course is not only open for students but really open: they’re licensing videos and all materials freely (CC), so that educators and other interested people can reuse them in their own work.

It’s been a somewhat daunting task: I’ve had to sign up for Google+, create a community for my group, etc. I’m also finding myself cheerleader and group leader for a group of about 10 of my colleagues – all the people who’ve been put in my group are from my school! While I’ve got used to MOOC’s and Twitter and so forth, many of them are reasonably new. (Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with the many grumblings I’ve heard from other groups that some people didn’t get emails or couldn’t find their groups. We’re all set!)

To get us started, we’ve been asked to read a paper by Mitch Resnick, All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. We also had a one-hour orientation lecture by him, which summed up much of the article and went over the semester’s activities and expectations.

His main point is that we should use more of traditional aspects of kindergarten throughout schooling: creative play, inventing, trialling and revising, etc. He includes a schematic of a kind of kindergarten design or engineering cycle:

screenshot CC-BY Mitch Resnick/MIT

Resnick makes the point that this cycle (more fuzzy in real life – the stages get all mixed up) is the key to invention and inventiveness. He argues that the more people play and create and share and imagine, the more they will learn and the more they will be successful and productive. He argues that if we use this method in later grades, school will be more engaging, more fun, more meaningful and more successful.

Many educators – myself included – will say that this is nothing revolutionary or new, that it reflects good teaching practices everywhere. However, my own experiences and my gut tells me that Resnick is bang on when he says that too much schooling is antithetical to this type of learning – and that there are trends away from this type of education. I’ve seen Kindergarten classes where kids have to sit in desks and complete phonics worksheets. I’ve seen teachers give busywork and drill facts. I’ve seen far too many classes with teachers standing in front of the class, while students (supposedly) listen. It happens too much.

It really seems to me that if we’re serious about creating lifelong learners and educating our students to be valuable contributors to society – real and virtual – in these dynamic times (the buzzword I’m trying to avoid is “21st century learning”), then taking a cue from Kindergarten and Mitch Resnick seems to be the obvious way to go. Don’t take my word for it: read his piece.

I’m off to start reading up for next week.