In the early years children use toys to think with and to support their learning. Toys actually provide the support (or ‘props’) that children need to think with as they play. While this may be obvious in the case of wooden blocks or construction kits that children improvise structures with at home, or the ‘pretend’ pots and pans in the home corner of the nursery, this principle applies just as much to the interactive ‘virtual’ toys that children play with on screen.
To be creative is to associate or combine different things that have not been combined before for a particular end. It is often about recognising that there are choices, and then being playful enough to try them out.† All learning is always an essentially creative act.‡
When a child is first born they are able to move their arms and legs and their eyes but it takes time for them to learn the mental functions to control them. When they first apply these basic functions for particular purposes they are already expressing their creativity. For the individual child, this newly discovered (or learnt) action may be considered ‘original’ in the sense that they have never achieved it before. Some people refer to this sort of creativity as creativity with a small ‘c’ to differentiate it from the ‘Creativity’ applied by professional artists and designers whose creative acts are often ‘original’ in a wider cultural context, rather than in terms of the individual’s experience. In the same way, children gain the capability of making sounds and then using words and whole sentences before they develop the capability of using them effectively to achieve particular ends.
It seems quite miraculous to us when we observe a child of around 18 months create their first sentence…and this really is creative invention, because right from the start, they don’t just repeat the phrases that they recall others having spoken, they already invent their own. From the beginning they use language to express their wishes, needs and desires, and for their own purposes of problem solving. Research has shown that in the home, and in pre-schools, children’s playful interactions with adults significantly support their development. The kind of interaction that has been identified as most effective in this respect is referred to as ‘sustained shared thinking’ where the adult engages with the child’s interests and understandings and the adult and children communicate meaningfully together to develop a shared outcome, idea, skill or understanding.
The best early childhood software provides lots of opportunities for the child to make choices and for the adult to engage with them in discussing these along with the resulting consequences of those choices. In the The Land of Me for example, adults are provided with prompts to guide the discussion in fruitful directions and functions that may be controlled through the adults use of the mouse, while the child is engaged in applying their own control through the space bar and return key.
Children continually develop and express their creativity in language skills through their playful interactions with adults and the more capable children around them. They also use dolls and other toys as ‘props’ to improvise playful dialogues when they are alone or engaged in solitary play.
The child demonstrates their use of creative imagination when they substitute a toy for a person in their play, but even more significantly perhaps, we should recognise that they do so at every other time they substitute one ‘pretend’ object for another.
Substituting and Representing
As Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky explained, when the child pretends a stick is an aeroplane, or a wooden block is a truck, the child has developed a significant intellectual skill. The stick that represents the aeroplane becomes a pivot for detaching the meaning and behaviour of an aeroplane from an actual aeroplane. It is in this way that the child first develops the skill to play with the idea of aeroplanes (and other real objects) in their mind. At first children tend to substitute things that resemble (or clearly symbolise) the object of their play. Later the child’s skill and capability in terms of ‘object substitution’ or ‘symbolic manipulation’ develops as they begin to include more abstract symbolisations and this further supports their capability in terms of manipulating ideas in their ‘mind’s eye’. Very significantly in terms of the child’s subsequent educational success, they later begin to manipulate the formal symbol systems afforded by letters, textual language and number conventions. It is also in these interactive contexts that children learn to ‘think about thinking’ and realise that other people sometimes think differently to themselves. In other words they develop (create) their own ‘theories of mind’.
To help support these processes of language development and manipulating symbols, our applications provide an iconic vocabulary of images for the children to play with in their imagination. The products of the children’s creations are also presented in text that can be changed by the adult at the request of the child. As these words are edited, animations are directly changed on the screen to provide the adult with a means of demonstrating the power and value of textual language, and to encourage the child’s motivation to develop these skills and their emergent literacy in the future. In an effort to support the development of children’s ‘theory of mind’ we have provided adult prompts that draw attention to the potential moods and ‘feeling states’ of the characters portrayed in the animations.
† This insight that was first popularised by Samuel Papert thirty years ago in his book ‘Mindstorms’.
‡ An insight provided by Lev Vygotsky In the early years children use toys to think with and to support their learning.