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Digital Landscapes in the Early Years: An Exploration of Spaces

Transdisciplinary Theme

Where We Are in Place and Time

An inquiry into orientation in place and time; personal histories; homes and journeys; the discoveries, explorations and migrations of humankind; the relationships between and the interconnectedness of individuals and civilizations, from local and global perspectives.

Central Idea: Spaces can be used in creative ways

Lines of Inquiry

Function: Physical spaces have characteristics and arrangements that can be used in different ways

Change: Spaces can be transformed

Perspective: People respond to spaces in different ways

 

INITIAL PROVOCATION:

A Digital Space

An installation at the MuDA (Museum for Digital Art) called ‘Kids’ is described on MuDA’s website as “an exhibition about human group behaviour, with animations drawn by Michael Frei and programmed by Mario von Rickenbach. The MuDA project started with the idea to describe human traits and behaviours not through visual features or words, but by the movement of animated characters in relationship to each other.” Building on team discussions about the importance of increasing the children’s visibility and connections with our local community,  we have actively chosen provocations in the city of Zurich, in particular places children might not ordinarily visit with their families but that we felt would be compelling for them.

We liked the idea that the building where MuDA is housed is a space that has gone through many significant transformations. MuDA’s interesting history as a significant industrial space in our city classified now as a monument already seemed like a strong match for an inquiry into ways that spaces can be used in creative ways.

Our intention was to invite the children to interact with the exhibit space, the city and one another. As a team we were focused on the line of inquiry connected to ways that people respond to spaces in different ways. In this case, the teachers’ role was to document the children’s responses. The installation was very much about social interaction and we were curious to observe the children in a social context in this new digital space.

Engaging with the Installation 

The exhibit featured over-sized, weighted fabric dolls which the children immediately engaged with in a playful and caring way. We observed the children giving the dolls care, comfort as well as identities by naming them as characters and engaging in role play. They spontaneously carried around and arranged the dolls in new ways. A ‘black hole’ was a featured component of the installation and this became important for the children in their interactions. As the dolls were weighted, the children often needed to work together to transport them which we identified as an aspect of the space requiring collaboration. Specifically, as individual or groups of children had ideas for play narratives, they needed to have a level of social ‘buy in’ from others to make an idea work as moving the dolls required a group effort. In other words, there was investment in making individual play narratives interesting for others to join in.

Some children shared:

“I liked the dolls. The dolls were going inside the hole, and I was watching. On the wall I was copying them. I felt great. We could make a movie on the wall.” 

I liked the doll cushions and that we could pick them up. I thought that we could just look at them and not play with them and move them around.

“I liked the dolls and I liked that they were so heavy and we could carry them on our shoulders.

Sound and Light

Other aspects of the installation which we identified as compelling for the children included the sound and light. We observed the children’s physical responses to the different types of music as well as their imitations of the clapping and running sounds they heard from the speakers. The children were intrigued by the changing effects of the lighting from a video projection and they quickly began to predict and respond kinesthetically (through dance, movement, jumping, body language, etc.).

Reflections from the children:

“There was like a person running and a slower beat of music and a slow voice and a sad voice. An upper beat and a happy voice.”

“I noticed the songs were changing. Like sometimes it was scary. Some sounded sad and a little bit scary. Maybe it’s dark in the hole because that’s where they think of their ideas?” 

“I like the big hole because it was super dark and scary. It’s fun to be scary!”

Group Dynamic and Opportunity for Social Encounters and Interactions

Perhaps most interesting to observe was the way that a relatively open space without a  lot of ‘stuff’ was so compelling for the children. One child observed, “they wanted to make space for us to run around” and another built on that idea, adding “If there are so many things you don’t know where to go.” We felt the possibilities of the digital technology led to rich social interactions and we wondered how we could build on that back in the classroom.

“I was playing with Olivia and Rares and these two were babies and we were playing family people. We can lift the people up because we are grown ups.” 

Upon our return, we met with the children, shared photographs, videos and engaged in a dialogue about their time at the museum. The children and teachers shared observations, ideas, thoughts and feelings. We wondered together with the children how we might take inspiration from the installation and transform a space at our school for others to experience.

CREATING AN INSTALLATION FOR THE SCHOOL COMMUNITY

The children were excited at the proposal to take some of the characteristics of the installation and create a space (or “museum“) for our school community to visit. Throughout the process we tried to support what was important to the children and build on their interests in an original way.

Opportunities for Play: Sewing over-sized dolls

It was not a surprise that the playful element of the installation was something the children wanted to recreate. The oversized dolls made a big impression on both groups. It struck us that the appeal of the dolls might be connected to the possibilities offered by their inherent simplicity including the potential for inventive play narratives, social interaction and collaboration. Although as teachers we felt initially hesitant about ‘reproducing’ aspects of what we had seen, it was clear that for the children, the dolls were important. The idea that we should ‘make dolls’ was a recurring thread in our group meetings and ultimately we learned, not for the first time, we should listen to the children.

“Maybe we can put some people in our museum.”

“Yeah, our own people that we make.”

“We can make something the same as the dolls!”

“We use some hard fluff and buy some white (fabric) like of the people. I’m doing a girl one. It has hair.”

We were intrigued by the integration of hand sewing for a space we thought might be exclusively digital. In preparation for creating ‘pillow dolls’, the children began by developing their sewing skills. They demonstrated perseverance, resilience and commitment as they carefully threaded needles and practiced making small stitches. As their interest and commitment grew, a group of children decided that we needed to create a special space for sewing within our classroom. One child explained, We need needles, scissors and a place to sit and maybe some cushions.”

I know how to sew now! I am making stuff! I am going to keep sewing now. I like sewing shall I show you? Sewing is the best game.”  (Offering feedback to a friend) “Amazing Dani, really nice!

“It’s nice to use a real needle because then you can really fix things.”

“Sewing is very fun! It’s just like playing!” 

“Sewing is more fun, people think it is hard but it is easy. If you are sewing, you touch the end part (of the needle) to know if it’s sharp or not.”

While reflecting on the creation of their cushion dolls the children acknowledged the challenges they encountered. This was a project with a huge buy-in from all the children. As teachers, we reflected on the impact that the children’s commitment had in helping them to overcome initial struggles and persevere when they still needed to sew another leg and attach one more arm.

“I like that the arms and legs are wiggly and then I can make them move like the robot dance! I know now why it’s hard to sew it because of the stuffing inside.”

“It’s really tricky to me. Be careful with your finger!”

“I start with a needle and put it here with a thread. I sewed, sewed, sewed. It was tiring but I did the arms and the body. Look! Almost I could dance with it. I need to sew with a needle and finish the legs.”

Explorations of Sound in Spaces

Building on responses to the sound component at the museum, we began to experiment with creating our own sounds through vocalizations. The children recorded one another clapping, running and verbalizing which led to a shared desire to make ‘robotic music’. We began with the children’s own interpretations using their voices and then used features of ‘Garage Band’ to mash up robotic sounds. One child suggested we look for “robot music on the computer” and together we did a search and indeed found many options to integrate into our robotic soundtrack playlist.

A Dance Video

The children were highly aware that their reaction to sound at the installation was movement- dancing, running, interacting. One child proposed we could make our own video for others to watch. It was proposed to the children that they could create choreography to accompany the robot soundtrack.

“Can we make a video like theirs? We could put the camera far away so it looks like we are tiny people!”


As the children’s dance ideas developed, there was excitement about projecting our own video for others. One child shared that he wasn’t sure if his father would be able to come in on the day of our installation but knew it was alright because his mother could “make a movie of our movie with her phone.” His words were a reminder of the way twenty-first century children view the possibilities of technology to share and connect.

Light

In our initial explorations in the classroom, the ability of light to transform a space was very interesting to the children. Some children were eager to create a “dark” and “scary” space and experimented with using black fabric, UV lights and torches to transform our classroom. These playful experiences supported the children in making decisions about both what they wanted and what was possible for them to create.

As we blocked time on our class calendars for filming, we wondered together about the backdrop for the video. The children noted that the ‘Kids’ exhibit at MuDA featured black and white moving images and a shared understanding emerged that our group wished for a colorful lens instead. We met with a lighting expert at school and he shared the range of color filters we might film through.

Sharing a Digital Space with our School Community

The entire EY2 learning community was buzzing with anticipation and excitement as the children prepared to share their hard work and creative vision.  A windowless dark room in a separate part of school was chosen purposefully as a venue to support the lines of inquiry related to the characteristics of physical spaces and transformation. The children carefully followed their design plans in the placement of the dolls they had sewn. The robot dance videos were set up as projections of different scales and set to play at different starting points with a running soundtrack.

“We need to move these black sacks. Maybe we can put them on the ground for the moms and dads to sit on and watch our video.”

“We need the glowing lights in the whole room – one there, and one there and one there.”

“We need white paper on the walls so we can watch the dance video.”

A Webcam as Tool for our Observations

In contrast to our initial provocation trip to MuDA where the teachers assumed the role of documenting the children’s responses, it was now the children’s turn. When we shared this idea with the children they were eager to “trick” their visitors.

We need to hide behind that door and watch the people in our museum.”

“The curtains could be closed a little and we could hide behind it and have a video camera.”

“Then they don’t think we are here but we are! And we can make some signs to trick them!”

“Yeah like, “black hole box, just follow the red line”. And a “yes” sign and a “nope, no one’s here” sign.”

The children experimented with hiding behind the curtains but discovered that there was only room for a few children to observe from there. Building on the idea of videoing the installation, we set up a Webcam in the space with a live feed back to the classrooms where all the children could excitedly observe and record the responses. The children embraced this responsibility seriously and experienced joy and reward at seeing the community playfully interact with their creative work. As they were not going to be present to explain their installation, some children also made posters to let visitors know that they were encouraged to interact, carefully, with their dolls.

Before the parents, teachers and children came to visit the installation, the children in EY2 made predictions about how people would respond to their transformed space.

“They’ll be happy because the dark is only fake and they’ll be happy when they are dancing and doing the poses.”

“My mom will notice the lights and the black walls. She’ll say ‘How did every kid in EY2 do this?'”

“They will catch the cushion dolls in their arms and go like they are sleeping, like they do to me.” (pretending to cradle the doll like a baby)

“My mom will freak out all day! She’ll say, ‘Oh this is wonderful!'”

Teacher Reflections:

The children’s sense of agency in the creation of a space to share with the school community beyond the Early Years Center was empowering. We often speak about ways children might be more involved with the planning of learning spaces and this inquiry was an affirmation of the capabilities of children to advocate for their creativity and ideas.

As a team, we often discuss, debate and dialogue about the best use of technology, ‘beyond apps’,  in the early years. This project supported our belief that the potential of digital landscapes as part of teaching and learning environments.

Resource:  MuDa Installation Exhibit

A Collaborative Project:
The children of EY2, Karen Levingstone (Classroom Teacher), Rebecca Smith (Classroom Teacher), Andrea Mills (Atelierista), Victoria Newman (Early Years Coordinator), Claire Febrey (PYP Coordinator)

2 Comments

  1. Judeth Christensen

    I love it… we are seriously considering changing out unit to this one. Just curious. What are the ages of the students in EY2?
    Judeth Christensen
    CIS

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