Getting to experience moments of insight alongside a learner always feels a little bit like magic.* While working with preschoolers as the Tinkering Studio adapts tinkering activities to younger age groups, I've glimpsed these moments of delighted learning early and often. During their investigations of natural phenomena through versions of Lightplay and Marble Machines, I'm always on the lookout for the questions and concepts that naturally surface – and thinking about how our facilitation, materials, and environments could better support learners in exploring the problem spaces they build for themselves.
Lightplay, for example, prompted many preschoolers to investigate the relationships between the number of light sources and the number of shadows. After collecting multiple lights and counting the projected shadows, they noticed that the more lights they had, the more shadows of the same object appeared (left). They figured out that one light would make one shadow, and two lights would make two shadows. For one three-year-old, this discovery became a deliberate part of construction:
Me: "How many shadows do you want?"
Me: "How will we make three shadows?"
Learner: "We use three lights!"
To support these kinds of explorations of counting, we added a drawer to a long hollow block to transform it into a light source with three lights and three switches (left). The form factor was heavily inspired by the block light sources that Sebastian has been developing for our early childhood work, which introduce a new function (shining light) to a familiar material (building blocks). The exploration of shadows through switching a series of lights on and off derives from the Sophisticated Shadows exhibit at the Exploratorium, created by artist Bob Miller. We developed white light (center) and RGB (right) versions of the light sources:
Kids can easily turn on and off the lights and watch what happens without conflating variables (like varying distance from the screen, or how a light is oriented). The block itself is a typical classroom material — I specifically used a type of block that is often part of a preschool class set. The battery drawer insert contains light sources and a spot to switch out the two AA batteries.
Hopefully, a familiar material with a new function will support learners in observing the phenomenon. The next step is to test these out on the museum floor and at preschool sites!
This project is supported through a generous grant from the Early Learning and Care Division at the California Department of Education.