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A good kindergarten fosters the spirit of learning by giving children materials, time and control over what they make. Some educators and media researchers are working to replicate this spirit of curiosity-driven tinkering in all classrooms, allowing students of diverse ages to explore and invent. The notion is that technological contraptions should be the material objects that replace finger paints and modeling clay in a logical but playful progression from kindergarten to university. This notion was on display at “Mindfest,” a recent conference on learning technologies held at MIT’s Media Laboratory.

Take Mindstorms, the programmable Lego bricks and sensors that allow kids to concoct mechanized and automated inventions.The hope is that children will combine these programmable blocks (called “crickets”) with ordinary Lego blocks and other materials to compose playful, creative multimedia projects. At Mindfest, grade school student Kayty Himelstein attached a programmable cricket with a touch sensor to her bird feeder to create a program that counted birds landing on the feeder. She put up flags to see if birds were attracted to particular colors and compiled all of her data-for fun.

The conference showcased another technology that might help kids tinker: a small, hand-held computer called a visual memory unit (VMU) that comes with Sega’s new Dreamcast videogame console.These include a small screen, control buttons, connector pins, and gobs of memory. Kids can save information from video games and copy and trade files with friends and playmates. But put the VMU in a different context, and its ability to store opens up possibilities to create interactive computer fun.

New learning styles will require not just clever gadgets but new pedagogical philosophies.The “Beyond Black Boxes” initiative, for instance, under Media Lab researcher Mitchel Resnick, starts from the concern that much advanced science and technology is becoming so abstract that children (and many adults, for that matter) find it increasingly difficult to see any connection to the physical world.The goal of this program is to develop a kit of computational tools with which kids can build their own simple scientific instruments, helping them to conceptually understand the inner-workings of technological inventions.The kit itself is still under
construction.

Resnick believes kids stumble on new ideas when building their own material objects, but that, to be effective, the process must be pleasurable.”We need to think about computers not just as access to information,” he says, but also as tools that can “support the emergence of a playful society.”

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