The July 18, 2007, Christian Science Monitor article “Why children need to learn to play” resonated deeply with me. The author includes several quotations from David Elkind, author of “Power of Play” and “The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon.” According to the article:

“Over the past two decades, children have lost 12 hours of free time a week,” Elkind writes in “The Power of Play.” This includes “eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities.” This time has been supplanted by organized and more sedentary activities. “The time children spend in organized sports has doubled, and the number of minutes children devote to a passive spectator activity … not including television … has gone from 30 minutes to more than three hours a week,” Elkind continues. Even schools contribute to this scarcity of playtime: Some have eliminated recess in favor of more time in the classroom.

I wrote last week about the value of unstructured play (and yes, perhaps DID contradict myself a bit in a later post about SecondLife.) My thinking about creativity, our need to intentionally cultivate the use of our imaginations in formal as well as informal learning contexts, and educational reform keeps coming back to this need for more autonomy on the part of all learners: experts as well as novices. (Teachers as well as students.) What is being discussed here is not just “fluff” that can be discarded as unnecessary “extras” in the learning environment, we’re talking about essential elements of creative and high achieving learning cultures. Do you have administrators, school board members, and community members in your local area “concerned” about raising levels of student achievement in math and science? Elkind offers the following related insights in this article:

Fantasy, curiosity, and imagination are the mental tools required for success in higher-level math and science… The failure to develop these tools [through play] is, in part at least, one of the reasons America is falling behind other countries in attracting young people into these fields.

So, what are digital innovators and early adopters to do? I’m planning to start a twice-monthly club at our school next year, which I want to call something like “Invent the Future” or “We Invent the Future,” borrowing from Alan Kay’s wonderful quotation including those words. What sorts of activities might we do in our “club?” Certainly play with Scratch. Probably make fun podcasts. And likely create digital music together. That sounds like a great set of activities to start with… and that may be all we need.

I understand Elkind is critical of the passive use of technologies when they take away time from more unstructured and interactive things kids of all ages can do. I think we need to make sure we (and our own children as well as students) are living “balanced” lives when it comes to digital media, but I think interactive media can play a positive role in developing the sort of skill set for which he advocates in his books. I ran across this image on Flickr today, searching for “playground” in the Creative Commons search area:

Playground of dreams

What would constitute a “digital playground of dreams” for your students or your own children? In addition to tools like Scratch and Audacity or Garageband for podcasting, I’m thinking TuxPaint should also be included in the palette of free applications in a “digital playground of dreams.” To be included on this list, I’m thinking programs should be FREE, so students who have a computer can install the program at home without any financial barriers (licensing costs) impeding their creativity. I wish M-Audio’s Session software was free on Windows PCs, since it is very “Garageband-like.” What other software (that is FREE and encourages student creative expression) would you include on this list? As free software, you and I both could create CDs which we could GIVE to students at school so they could install and use these programs at home on their family’s computer.

I realize EduBuntu is free and includes a lot of great educational applications, but I’m thinking it is not very realistic for most of the families at our school who have computers to install a new OS in lieu of their current Windows version or Macintosh version OS. (That would require a bigger decision to be made on the part of the parent(s) than just adding one or two new “free” applications.) If our school was using EduBuntu, that would be a powerful encourager for such a dramatic move, but ours is not currently…. at least not yet! 😉

Thanks to the free EduTopia newsletter writers for alerting me to this article, which I incidentally read first on my iPhone! 😉

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14 Responses to A digital playground of dreams?

  1. Wes,

    My students would be very disappointed in me if I didn’t have you consider some of the other Tux titles like TuxRacer and SuperTux. With SuperTux (Super Mario Bros Clone) kids can program new levels of play. Sketchup is a nice tool for kids to create in 3D. Stellarium looks kids look at the sky line no matter the time of day or weather in real time (they can even adjust the time). All of these programs don’t require the Internet and they are both PC and Mac compatible.

  2. Doug says:

    I have a different audience/purpose, but similar end goals. Teaching undergrad education students about how to create things on the computer (video editing, etc.).

    You can actually just run edubuntu/ubuntu off a cd-rom without installing it I believe. I was also looking at Ubuntu Studio, but it doesn’t run off a cd, and it has more professional authoring tools than educational tools (like tuxpaint, scratch, etc.).

    Concerning play, a couple of interesting items I ran across recently, a guy at my university (utah state) recently suggested that play is bad: http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2007/07/15/leave_those_kids_alone/

    and Angeline Lillard, a developmental psychologist, recently released a book I just received entitled Montessori: The Science behind the Genius: http://www.montessori-science.org/

    I haven’t read it yet, but apparently there is research to support most of Montessori’s hands-on play ideas, except for one: Montessori didn’t like kids doing pretend play, and Lillard notes, research shows that pretend play is very good for kids.

  3. Wesley Fryer says:

    Michael and Doug: Thanks to you both for sharing those additional resources and ideas. I forgot about EduBuntu being able to run as a LIVE CD. I went ahead and created a wiki site for this club idea, I’ll work on that in the days ahead and add the apps and links you mentioned. 🙂

  4. http://paulwilkinson1.googlepages.com/softwarelinks

    This is my small collection of freebies. All of these are great. Pivot is a must. It is just great (only PC though sorry). Alice is another goodie, a bit like Scratch. Artrage is also brilliant. I agree with you that the software ought to be free. If anyone knows of a free PC alternative to garageband I’d be interested.

    Cheers

  5. Gary Stager says:

    Why is software so devalued that a growing number of people believe it should be free?

    Balls and playground equipment are not free. Hardware is not free. Spelling books and standardized tests are not free.

    Why not have free teachers? You could all work voluntarily.

    Is the quest for free software rooted in the low self-image of educators? Why should teachers depend on charity?

    It all seems sad and symptomatic of powerlessness to me.

  6. Point taken Gary. Made me think and I actually can’t argue with you on this one. I guess part of the problem is that some software is free and so that has created an expectation. You are right in saying this is unreasonable. It is an education issue for sure. For example in NZ we pay millions of dollars to Microsoft for software licensing for schools. Is it worth it? Open office is available!. Photoshop is great, Paint.net is free. AutoCad does everything, Google Sketchup is free. Inspiration is brilliant mindmapping software, freemind is free. No I don’t think it is rooted in low self-image I think it is a perception that there are free products available that will do much of what schools need. With all the pressure on the education dollar this seems to be an area where schools don’t spend money unless absolutely necessary. You are right! This is the wrong reason to make decisions about the appropriate tools for teaching. Thanks for the telling off.

  7. BTW the answer to free garageband for PC could be

    http://www.splicemusic.com/

    🙂 Sorry Gary.

  8. Gary Stager says:

    Paul,

    I can’t believe that I’m in the position of defending free market capitalism, but OK, I’ll have a go…

    You make some good points. It is the educational technology community that embraced Microsoft Office as what kids should do with computers. I’ve been on-the-record against children playing Donald Trump dress-up in computer labs for decades.

    In many cases not only could you live with fewer features, but such a design would make the software more usable and appropriate for children. This is one of the major weaknesses of the open-source movement. There is no good mechanism for leaving features out. (Linux may be an exception)

    I love inexpensive software, but I’m weary of digital handouts. The fact that your government is surrendering too much public treasure to Microsoft is not an argument against hardworking software designers and programmers earning a living. Commonwealth countries (more so in the USA) also subsidize the development of software and materials for schools that compete directly with the open market. You’d be hard pressed to identify three such products that were worth what the government invested.

    It’s also worth remembering that LCSI, a 100% educational software company, invented the site license with the release of LogoWriter in 1986. While such brilliant software which grew with the learner and could be used creatively for years cost very little, its developers deserved to feed their families and invest in the development of future software like LEGO TC Logo and MicroWorlds.

    -=Gary

    PS: I look forward to my next trip to NZ! I haven’t been in a while.

  9. Gary Stager says:

    I meant to say “more than in the US” in my previous post. Sorry!

  10. Wesley Fryer says:

    This is a good conversation. I’ll add just a couple points. I think the availability of free, high quality software (I put Audacity in that category for instance, I’ve made around 150 podcasts in the last 2 years using it and consider it GREAT software, not just “ok”) places a positive pressure on software developers to innovate further and create real value for consumers which is differentiated in important ways from the functionality available in free software tools.

    Let’s take OpenOffice as an example. What are the reasons school districts are generally continuing to pay thousands of dollars to Microsoft for licensing fees? Like much of what we see done in classrooms around the world, I think the biggest answer is “tradition.” That’s what we did in the past, the “business world” out there is apparently doing it, so we should stick to this old habit in schools too. I think that is poor basis for a software purchasing decision today, and any CIO who defends her/his decision with the argument “it’s tradition, we’ve always done it that way” should be called on the carpet for making an ill-founded fiscal choice.

    I really don’t see the open source software movement and the availability of free software programs (and yes, I do realize all “free” software is not FOSS, Tom Hoffman and others have helped me with that clarification in the past) as a race to computational mediocrity in classrooms. Quite the opposite! Let’s keep the budgets (meager tho they generally are) for educational software and instead of investing in tools (like productivity software) which can now be obtained free, let’s invest in truly innovative and powerful software tools and digital curriculum resources. I’m thinking here of tools like MyAccess Writing, ExploreLearning Gizmos, NetTrekker, and yes Gary, MicroWorlds! FOSS and other free software options should enable us to use educational software and curriculum dollars to purchase both standalone as well as network licensed software tools which offer more opportunities for engaged, interactive learning. In most school districts I work with now in the midwestern United States, this is not happening. Districts are wasting (my opinion) money on software which they could now obtain for free, and depriving learners of huge benefits that would be available in high quality educational software if they made different purchasing choices.

    I titled this post “digital playground of dreams” because one of the things I believe is that all students should have access to powerful digital tools, to each other, and to other learners around the globe connected via the web. In the digital playground of dreams, there are not excuses like, “we can’t afford to license that software program for all our students.” FOSS and other free software programs eliminate that excuse, and that is why I think it is good to focus on them when the programs are high quality and genuinely encourage both creative expression and discovery. That list isn’t too long at this point, but it is growing.

    A last way to phrase this is to harken back to those posters in school computer labs during the 1990s which said, “don’t copy that floppy.” For licensed, commercial software, that was a good encouragement. Gary is absolutely correct, that commercial software developers deserve to be paid for the fruit of their labors, and I am not suggesting we suspend our collective respect for and adherence to intellectual property laws. I am suggesting, however, that in learning environments it is wonderful if ALL learners can have access to the tools. In traditional school, that meant paper, pencil, and a textbook. Today, those tools should include a computer, powerful software tools, and robust access to the Internet.

  11. Great post! I think the idea of giving kids the opportunity to explore a digital playground is absolutely great. I feel it is the best way to learn. I am very comfortable with computers because my father wasn’t very good with money. He pretty much bought what I really wanted, which happened to be a computer. I learned by playing video games, tweaking the operating system, and just plain messing around. It was the biggest blessing of my life because it got me a high paying tech consulting job, and it enables me to be a entrepreneur without huge financial barriers.

    On the topic of free software, I will admit that I was able to get my hand on great software through “alternative” methods. I wasn’t running a business, so I don’t think it was too bad, but I learned a lot. Now with open source, the flood gates just opened up to me of the possibilities to use them to create something useful on the internet. I just recently setup WordPress on my site, and it was amazingly easy. It’s a very powerful tool.

    Most open source projects are done on people’s spare time and really doesn’t require much physical capital. This is why free software even exists in the first place, because it’s actually possible for people to do so fairly easily (relatively). I say keep it coming! Hardware really is the real expensive in this information age, so use the money for that. Just plop a computer with an internet connection in front a child, and the child will do wonders (not a fan of censorship).

    Anyway, I don’t want to go on a rant. I’m new to this field, and I am trying to learn how experienced educators think. I think the links provided in the post and discussion are wonderful.

  12. You rightly point out three of the essential tools, Computer, software and internet access. Programmes like the One Laptop Per Child initiative are addressing the computer access issues (although I don’t see this happening anytime soon in New Zealand I do think an effect of this might be to drive prices down to a level where OLPC becomes possible).

    Software is largely taken care of in my opinion. I have access to more free software than I can possibly use in my classroom. We can thank the open source community for this. Thank you. Yes you do deserve to eat. I spoke a few months ago to the head of an internet startup who described to me the business model his company was adopting. He said they were using skype as a model. They would offer their service free of charge with add on functionality that some users might choose to pay for. I don’t know the current figures but at the time he quoted skype as having 3 million customers who were willing to pay for extra benefits. Any business with 3 million customers is a pretty substantial business. What this means for education is schools now have access to a whole raft of software and online services that at a basic level cost them nothing. Good show I say!

    Access to the internet is another issue. Should we be starting to expect this as a right? Is internet access becoming a public good rather than a private one? I think it is. In the same way we fund roads and water reticulation I think we ought to be publicly funding internet access. In many places free wifi is becoming available. Why not extend this coverage city/country wide and make high speed internet publicly available. I haven’t seen it in NZ yet but I understand there are cities in the States that are starting to do this.

    We had a very interesting piece of news this week. Telecom our largest phone/internet company in New Zealand has this week pulled the plug on a sponsorship programme that over the last 14 years has delivered 140 million dollars worth of technology equipment or services to NZ schools. They stated that the programme had been a success and met all the objectives and they were now looking to move on to other things. I’d say! In that time schools have acquired thousands of computers, hooked up to broadband, bought video conference equipment and been involved in a multi million dollar professional development programme for teachers to effectively use IT tools for learning. No school is going to unhook broadband or give back computers they are now using. By supporting schools into IT use Telecom have developed a customer base who will now continue paying for broadband because they truly cannot go back. Smart move on their part I’d say.

    There are at least two other factors required for learning environments to make effective use of technology. Teachers need professional development not just in technical skills but in making learning happen. The other thing is we need to schools to examine why they do what they do. I think this encompasses a whole raft of things including, architecture, timetabling, staffing, student grouping …. This list could go on and on but I sense I am starting to drift of the topic here.

    So, for us in NZ the current state of affairs as I see it is. We have some computer access but not remotely enough. We have all the software we need to be successful. We have internet access although bandwidth is limited and the price is fairly high. We have invested quite a bit into professional development and that has been somewhat successful. If I was advising the budget holders in NZ I’d say our next step ought to be getting hardware into kids hands.

    Hey Thanks Gary and Wesley for this discussion. I’ve enjoyed myself blathering on like this.

  13. I read back through your comment Wesley and realised I didn’t contribute to the idea behind your original blog posting. Software I would pay for for school (because I haven’t seen a free alternative that is as good) includes… Inspiration, Super Duper Music Looper, Lego control…. There will be others but my mind has gone temporarily blank.

    I agree when you say we make these decisions based on tradition. But this is not only limited to technology decisions. We do this for so much of schooling. It is time to start questioning all sorts of things. We live in exciting times.

  14. JST Books says:

    Nice.

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