Featured image by Mark Hakasson, taken from the Kidcrafters website.
On Sunday, I spent a very lovely day at Kidcrafters – a new mini-conference all about getting children making things. It’s a topic I’m particularly interested in at the moment – I’ve recently set up a Tinkering Club in my school, where boys play with electronics, hack toys and invent weird and wonderful things with technology and craft materials. This week, we’ll be sawing up our old stuffed toys and adding soft circuits and LittleBits modules to them.
The conference was pitched at parents, but was extremely interesting to me as a teacher. It was split into four sections – Education, Technology, Creativity and Skills. These are some notes on just some of the fabulous talks in the Technology and Creativity sections.
The main debate of the Technology section of the conference seemed to be centred on how much screen time we should be giving children. It’s a question that I’m always asked at parents’ evenings, and one that there’s no exact answer to. Like many things in life, a balance is key, and depends on their age, what they’re doing when they’re using screens, and what they’re doing the rest of the time! Kate Janga argued that children shouldn’t be exposed to screens at all before the age of 5. She thinks children should be playing outdoors instead, but of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Our Year 1 pupils spent a week last year filming in a local forest, where they made videos of trees moving, recorded sounds and wrote and recorded poetry about the setting. They did all of this using iPads, and their finished films were projected onto walls to create an immersive installation.
It was reassuring, then, to hear from 17 year-old Dan Tomlinson, who as well as writing for the Observer is a self-taught programmer who’s built all sorts of fantastic things. He argued that the online world is a place where you can make friends, be creative and learn to problem-solve, giving Minecraft as an example of a game that teaches these vital skills. He suggested that parents who ban children from using technology are ‘holding them back’. Even purely from a social perspective, older children and teenagers who aren’t allowed to go online are missing out on talking to friends. Boys in my school panic when they’re banned from going online – not because they’re ‘addicted to the internet’, as some might suggest, but because they can’t interact with their social group. It’s the equivalent of being grounded and missing out on going to a friend’s house.
There are a lot of games and apps around now that are trying to encourage physical interaction and teach real-life skills. Some friends of mine are working on If You Can, a new Social and Emotional Learning game which teaches skills like mindfulness and breathing techniques. As Omar Moghraby said, technology is increasingly being used to deliver CBT and other mental health programmes. Apps like Zombies, Run! (for adults) turns exercise into a game. It doesn’t have to be all about children sitting on the sofa playing games for hours – but it’s up to parents and teachers to show them how to use the technology effectively.
Steve Vranakis was up first, describing some of the wonderful projects he’s led as Executive Creative Director at Google Creative Lab – from the Chrome Web Lab, which blurred the lines between the virtual and the physical, to the DevArt project and the upcoming exhibition at the Barbican. I took a group of children to the V&A’s Digital Design Weekend last year, and they were amazed by some of the projects on show. Digital art is a fantastic way to show young people what can be achieved when the boundaries of technology are pushed, and it was a hugely inspiring experience for the boys.
Conference organiser Nick Corston gave an inspiring talk about the STEAM (and don’t forget the ‘A’!) projects he’s been running at his local primary school, which sounded amazing, and were made even better through the involvement of the whole community. He made the point that there are so many valuable people and contacts who can get involved with projects, and that many parents were able to help out and use their experience to inspire the children.
Amy Solder from NESTA gave a run-through of some of the fantastic tools available for getting children making, discussing the Make Things Do Stuff initiative and showing things like LittleBits, BareConductive electronic paint and Technology Will Save Us kits, all of which I’ve been using with the children in my school. They absolutely love them. The thing I like most about these resources is that many of them are relatively cheap, so not so precious that parents or teachers need to worry about them being damaged. I recently sent a boy home with the Technology Will Save Us DIY Synth Kit, expecting him to take a few weeks to finish it, or perhaps lose interest (it’s a tricky one to get exactly right, and he was only 9). He came back in two days later with it completely finished and working.
The overwhelming feeling from the conference was that of positivity and optimism for children’s futures. I love the idea, quoted by Steve Vranakis from Google, that 65% of children will end up doing jobs that haven’t been invented yet. We need to be teaching them transferable skills, like resilience, team work, managing their feelings and using their creativity. It’s amazing to see what children can do when they’re given freedom with resources and encouraged to just play and explore. There were a few comments made at the end of the Technology section about schools not offering children the opportunity to be creative in the ways that we’d seen demonstrated today. I’d argue that lots of schools are – teachers can be incredibly creative, and from September, all children in the UK state sector will be programming as part of the new National Curriculum for Computing.
Finally, I’ve had a few children say to me recently that they couldn’t possibly go into a technology-related job because they’re not good at maths or science. Steve Vranakis said that his parents wanted him to be a doctor or a lawyer, but he just wasn’t good at the core subjects – instead, he loved art and design – and in my opinion, he’s got one of the best jobs in the world. We need to (as Vincent Kamp said in the final part of the conference) show children that they can do and be whatever they want to be – it might require a lot of hard work and perseverance, but it’s up to us as educators or parents to inspire them.