If you’re familiar with FabLearn, you’ve probably read Seymour Papert’s canonical essay “The Gears of my Childhood” where he describes his formative experiences with gears, cobbling together interlocking systems from an erector set and finding pleasure in their rudimentary functions. Gears became a schema through which Papert could access and understand the world around him and provided a comfort that informed his life-long passion for mathematics and computation. For me, the key excerpt from this essay arrives at the end, where Papert highlights the role of the hands and the heart in learning:
A modern-day Montessori might propose, if convinced by my story, to create a gear set for children. Thus every child might have the experience I had. But to hope for this would be to miss the essence of the story. I fell in love with the gears. This is something that cannot be reduced to purely “cognitive” terms. Something very personal happened, and one cannot assume that it would be repeated for other children in exactly the same form.
As Papert warns, it is important that educators don’t misread his experience to fuel a search for standardized solutions (i.e. one-gear-set-per-child initiatives). Instead, we need to create diverse learning environments to help children find their gears, the tools and objects that might offer intellectual and emotional footholds as they move forward in their lives.
I was introduced to Papert through MIT’s Learning Creative Learning MOOC, which asked us to write about “evocative objects” from our childhood that have informed the way we live and work as adults. Jaymes Dec, a 2014 FabLearn Fellow, wrote one of my favorite reflections to this prompt, recalling the workshop in his family’s basement where he built bicycles, took apart television sets, and explored and thrived in ways he couldn’t in school. My first makerspace was much smaller, a carpet square in my bedroom where I would gather my stuffed animals together and dump out items from my tchotchke bag and use them all to build physical and narrative worlds, priming my interests in theatre, cinema, and storycraft that persist in my head and heart twenty years later. It is an ongoing privilege to have grown up in an environment where I could safely exert my imagination and fall in love through play; not everyone is born into something so lucky.
Tactile play is paramount in my after-school program, where we give our middle-school students free reign to opt-in to activities and mess around with materials. Most of our kids like to touch things that we have out on display before they engage in a process or formulate a project. Kids love sculpting with ThermoMorph (pictured above) because it’s squishy and they get to work with hot temperatures in the microwave. They like to dip their hands into vats of Perler beads and use tweezers to sort out the individual beads by color. One student invented a new process of her own by sketching with a glue gun on a silicone mat and then peeling off her doodles (pictured left). About once per week we have someone ask me if they can make “slime” and I tend to re-route them to another activity that’s “way cooler than slime.”
There’s nothing especially rigorous about these types of engagement — and sometimes it can look like a waste of time and material: when the Thermomorph gets clumped into balls and blobs, the Perler beads spill everywhere and have to get swept up by this hysterically tiny hand-held vacuum, and we run out of glue sticks for design projects that require adhesive. On the one hand, my team and I try to create structures that push students to engage more thoughtfully and in more project-oriented ways. But on the other hand, I think there’s real value to the “petting zoo” approach and exposing students to new tools and a broad set of tactile sensations. It allows students to form an emotional connections which can embolden their future engagement and lead to the beginning stages of meaning-making.