As human beings, we learn in many different ways: we observe, we make associations, we test, we question, we tell stories. Lessons taught in these simple ways can have a major impact on our future. Crawling, walking, speaking and writing, throwing a ball, cooking an egg, being a team player, solving complex arithmetic, crafting compelling strategies; all of these are learned skills. They are practiced consciously and subconsciously, building on one another, creating new connections in the brain.
Brain research tells us that environment and nurturing are crucial to the learning process. Everyday matters like positive social interaction, nutrition, physical exercise and sleep are obvious but critical. As a part of this environment, the things that surround us play a significant role in learning and development. They ask us to touch them, pick them up and play with them. They give us something to react to. In theories of learning, from cognitive theory to social learning, objects and environments are fundamental participants, showing us models of behavior to help us identify relationships between things and surface motivations.
While e-readers, robotics and hand-held gaming all promote rich educational platforms, there is something to be said for educational gadgets that are a little more lo-fi. Here are six simple gadgets that facilitate learning and help children to shape their future selves:
1/ Globes and maps
Visualizing countries, cities, oceans and forests inspires and facilitates storytelling and helps us to more richly imagine the sights and sounds, smells and feeling of unknown places. Building contiguous scenarios where maps and globes are introduced during storytelling, helps children picture where stories are being told, creating lasting associations that can be drawn upon when creating their own stories
Getting into character, pretending and role-playing are important learned skills. They allow children to imagine and dream. They teach them to tell stories and put themselves in others’ shoes. Discovery Learning requires some basic guidance, scaffolding, or materials with well- crafted affordances. For younger children, start the imagination process with some basic characters to spark imagination. For older children, have them craft stories and act them out.
3/ Blocks and Lego
For small children, these games are an important part of basic development, they encourage shape recognition, color recognition and hand-eye coordination. For children of all ages, blocks and LEGO help us bring 2D visualizations to life. They teach us about structure and physics, they help us solve problems and facilitate further analysis. Gene- ration learning principles tell us that producing responses is a critical part of cognitive under- standing. Giving children models to build from teaches not only the ability to understand complex forms, but affords opportunities for critical thinking. Learning how to work with materials, children can move onto creating their own models and structures.
Running, throwing, targeting, elimination. Dodgeball has life lessons beyond the physicality of the game. Team sports typically produce something known as desirable difficulties and challenges that require effort and learning can have positive effects in the long-term. Playing games like dodgeball gives children the opportunity to learn how to work with others, understand cause and effect, and learn how to work within rules and guidelines.
5/ Paper and Pencil
After speaking, writing and drawing are the oldest forms of communication. Paper and pencil allows us to create anything – sketches, pictures, scenarios, stories and letters – they afford children the freest form of expression without constraint. The freedom of pencil and paper makes them universal learning tools. They are the most basic tools of Multimedia Learning – often paired with other formats of verbal and visual forms to provide rich description.
This is an entire category of learning in itself, but we would be remiss to exclude it from our list. With over 700,000 apps in the iOS and Android marketplace as of Q4 2012, there are apps for any kinds of learning. Spelling, drawing, counting, arithmetic, cooking, story- telling, photography, biology; you name it, there’s an app that can teach it. The unexpected and underlying skill set we are subconsciously learning through apps are entirely new paradigms of behaviors and interactions from communication to gestures, augmented realities to simulations. This new frontier of learning holds amazing opportunities. From a developmental perspective, apps inherently follow the Goldilocks principle of learning, problems that are not too hard or too easy, but at the right level of difficulty will be self regulated.
Learning happens at the intersection of people and things; it’s the outcome of interplay between features and functionality, things and motivation and movement of people. In our increasing reliance on technology – we couldn’t make it through a lo-fi gadget article without including apps – the use of every day things as instruments of learning continue to touch different parts of our cognitive selves that the digital world, with all of it’s advancements, simply can’t do, connecting ideas to action and creating new spaces for imagination.
This article originally appeared in MISC Spring 2013, The Gadget Issue.