Child's Play

Croquet leader Alan Kay has noticed that making technology work well for children is often a good way to make technology work for everyone. This concept has informed his recent work with VPRI, SqueakLand and the One Laptop Per Child project.

We’re starting a project in Croquet called KidsFirst, in which we push the limits of ease-of-use and collaboration to the extreme by focusing on the three legs of an early-education community of practice: very young children, busy teachers, and non-specialist parents.

Project sponsor Little City Kids is an award-winning pre-school/after-school built around having the children self-select centers at which to work alone and in small groups. These centers are like the activities in children’s museums. We want to create virtual learning activities that are easier and cheaper to construct than physical exhibits, and of course, are cheaper to distribute by being virtual. But unlike today’s Web and CD activities, these retain the museum quality of the simultaneously shared experience. When kids meet at a children’s museum, they open up and show each other different ways to interact with the exhibit. Even something as simple as a one-button interactive animation is more fun and the lesson internalized more deeply when the activity is shared.

Some activities might be virtual versions of physical toys, like the binomial cubes of an expensive Montessori block set, or simply an electronic drum pad that can be assembled by pasting pictures onto sound-pads and clicking on them with the mouse to play. Build-your-own-dinosaur could bring several science, art, and social-studies themes together in an open-ended critical-thinking context. The paintings forest might have a bunch of paintings for a less structured teacher-led activity: “Can you find the Picasso? What makes a picture look like a Picasso? Can we draw something together that looks like a Picasso?” Other virtual activity centers might be reusable for different contexts, such as a virtual news studio that can be used by kids to produce their own productions about different subjects. Building on some of our previous work on user-created environments we hope to be able to easily make ad-hoc activities as we need them.

Independently of its Croquet work with us, LittleCityKids is creating a timeline of history integrated studies curriculum that may be used by other schools and by parents. Rather than paper and text-heavy documents with links, the KidsFirst project will incorporate the activities directly within the context of the curriculum, presented as a virtual classroom. (We are inspired by this Croquet project in Japan.) Rather than download activities or operate them from a separate environment (which cannot work with either children, parents, or teachers), the activities are used directly where they appear in the space. 3D activities, traditional Web sites on a virtual computer panel, video and sound recordings, and text are all together. The community can use this at school and at home. The children’s teachers and friends can be in the space with them, doing the same activities collaboratively in real time. They can talk to each other by voice, and see each other by Web cam. Parents can join them even from their work, so that they can check in and play with their kids from the office. And when something sparks an idea for a change or addition, it can be done directly within the space for immediate use by everyone. Parents and teachers can add to it and modify it directly, as a 3D multimedia WYSIWYG wiki.

About Stearns

Howard Stearns works at High Fidelity, Inc., creating the metaverse. Mr. Stearns has a quarter century experience in systems engineering, applications consulting, and management of advanced software technologies. He was the technical lead of University of Wisconsin's Croquet project, an ambitious project convened by computing pioneer Alan Kay to transform collaboration through 3D graphics and real-time, persistent shared spaces. The CAD integration products Mr. Stearns created for expert system pioneer ICAD set the market standard through IPO and acquisition by Oracle. The embedded systems he wrote helped transform the industrial diamond market. In the early 2000s, Mr. Stearns was named Technology Strategist for Curl, the only startup founded by WWW pioneer Tim Berners-Lee. An expert on programming languages and operating systems, Mr. Stearns created the Eclipse commercial Common Lisp programming implementation. Mr. Stearns has two degrees from M.I.T., and has directed family businesses in early childhood education and publishing.

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