Stay in Kindergarten, For Your Whole Life

This is a review, of sorts, of Mitchel Resnick’s Lifelong Kindergarten. It’s about creative learning, through projects, passion, peers, and play.

The picture of Lego is there for a reason. Two boys are beside me, one building a little colour set “green”, and one building a Nexo Knights set. They spend hours a week in a state of deep flow, building Lego creations. We spent all summer building a giant city that is already in the advanced stages of ruin- walls repurposed, bricks being reused, the whole thing being remixed and redone constantly.

Here is an earlier stage in their apprenticeship as play-learners. We used to call this game “good guy bad guy”. Ultron was the ultimate villain. We didn’t care that we mashed together Marvel and DC and Power Rangers and stuffed animals and Happy Meal toys.

Children from birth serve a long apprenticeship as play-learners, and they continue on through Kindergarten. Grade 1 to 12 is oh so serious, though, and play diminishes. This is a problem: I didn’t call my latest TEDx talk “Math is Play” for no good reason.

I will use Resnick’s words when I say that following an instruction book to build a set is “playpen” style learning, and building creatively with no parameters is “playground” style learning. Both are necessary, he posits, and I agree. My kids spent a long apprenticeship at Lego building learning how to build small sets, then bigger sets. They learned hard lessons from dropping finished products on the floor, and having to start again. They put finished creations on shelves, only to take them down and break them down, and start again.

Minecraft is a very modern playground. Think of the possibilities, when you open a brand new flat creative world. You are constrained only by the blocks you can use. The world is open to you.

This is a great picture of a kid putting Minecraft to use to do a math textbook problem. You can “do” math in the great big open world. You can take a constrained thing like a math textbook question and start to turn it into something else.

A novice to expert trajectory through Lego building might look like this, from birth:

  • stack large wooden blocks
  • play with large snap together blocks like MegaBlocks
  • get a Lego Duplo set, and build that
  • we skipped Lego Juniors, but they are the next level on the scaffold
  • build small sets
  • build larger sets
  • realize that sets are made to be remade and rebuilt, and not to sit on shelves
  • independent creation of “houses”, “forts”, and vehicles
  • building of larger, more sophisticated creations

My children are born makers, as are yours. There is still a developmental path through playpen to playground activities. As an adult learner, would you feel mortal fear if someone put a big pile of Lego in front of you, and said, “build”? You might. You skipped all the steps along the way.

Look at this tweet from Jamie Mitchell:

Show examples to spark ideas.

That’s some good advice from the book. I used to write poems, and I studied many poems along the way. How do they work? How do they create images in the mind? How do words fit together, to make poems? Read widely, to write well, is general advice.

Look at lots of Scratch projects to see how they work. Look under the hood at the code. Take the code, and remix the code. Build lots of Lego sets to figure out how Lego works. Take apart the Lego, and rebuild it in a new way. How is your creation new and different from the old one?

Resnick, in his book, acknowledges I think, the need for comfort along the way to becoming creative makers. He tells of building constraints and reducing complexity in Mindstorm bricks, for example, and purposefully keeping Scratch tools simple. There is a time to follow prototypes, examples, and existing models, and a time to build on your own.

With our students, there is a time and place to put a big pile of things in front of them, and say “make”. There is a time and a place for constraints as well.

What’s the best structure you can make with only 10 bricks? That could be one example.

What could you build with just this pile:

Resnick speaks of “low floor, high ceiling, and wide walls” tasks. Entry points must be open to all, and the ceiling should be as high as kids can take it.

Different children have different interests, different backgrounds, different learning styles: How can we design technologies that attract and engage them all? By designing wide walls that allow for many different pathways from the low floors to the high ceilings.

I picture a large room, with potential pathways all over the floor, which then lead upward toward the very high ceiling. I picture them all intertwined, like multicoloured water slides. Then again, I can’t picture this at all, as the possibilities for Scratch, and for Lego, are truly infinite.

I still consider Ezra Pound’s century old imperative, “make it new” as a call to action for creative minds. Make something new today. Creative learning is for life. Stay in kindergarten for your whole life. Make something. #Make.



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Matthew Oldridge

Matthew Oldridge

Writing about creativity, books, productivity, education, particularly mathematics, music, and whatever else “catches my mind”. ~Thinking about things~