Putting the ‘Fun’ in Fundamental Concepts

Two educators share how augmented reality and robots help them make lessons playful.

GUEST COLUMN | as told by Mary Amoson and Amanda Puerto Thorne

Every teacher wants her students to be happy at school and excited to learn, but sometimes, the pleasure of discovery can get pushed aside when educators are forced to balance the demands of curricula and state standards. Here, two educators share their perspective on the techniques and technology they’ve used to keep the joy of learning alive in every lesson they teach.

CREDIT Mary Amoson teacher.pngMary Amoson: How Augmented Reality Made My Kindergarteners Want to Skip Recess

I went to school to earn a special degree in instructional technology. That is, the study of how to use technology “the right way” when engaging students and helping them extend their minds and ways of thinking. Using classroom tech in this way has been a specific passion of mine from the start, and it’s partially why I got involved with Augmented Reality (AR) when planning learning activities for my kindergartners.

These lessons go beyond just seeing a letter and hearing a sound. They allow the students to hear, see, touch, and learn.

Using AR-centered lessons to introduce early concepts to young kids allows me to present essential skills, like letter recognition and sounds, through a fun, full-body experience. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, five-year-olds are not meant to sit still. AR-based lessons provide a way to combine their excitement and imagination with their understanding and critical thinking.

I have created my own AR activities with apps and iPads, and have also used supplemental AR learning kits from Alive Studios. Both approaches take something from the real world that my students can interact with and manipulate, and connect it to a 3D or digital response that comes to life on screen.

I introduced Letters alive Plus to my class by just playing around with the AR kit in front of them. We used letter, word, and zoo-animal cards that, when viewed through the provided document camera, activated a series of changeable 3D animations. My kids lost their minds the first time they saw bears and peacocks coming to life on screen. No matter how frequently we use these tools, their reactions never get old. I love seeing the little twinkle in their eyes and the grins on their faces. These lessons go beyond just seeing a letter and hearing a sound. They allow the students to hear, see, touch, and learn.

It was especially fun to see them experiment with the card combinations to see what might happen. The joy my kids had putting words and sounds and sentences together was astonishing. Since we used Letters alive Plus later in the year, a lot of them knew these skills already, but it forced them to think creatively. They explored all the different layers of the program, structuring and restructuring the sentences as they broke down the words.

We use our AR technology with our daily lessons, but I also leave it available for my kids to interact with during our pen choice “center time.” The game-changer, however, was when a group of girls from my class one day asked me if they could play with the AR reading kit instead of going out to recess! Reading, spelling, and building sentences was more appealing than playing outside because the tool to do so was so fun and engaging.

CREDIT Amanda Puerto Thorne.pngAmanda​ ​Puerto​ ​​Thorne​: ​Early​ ​Engineering​ ​with​ ​Programmable​ ​Robots

Kids are naturally very curious, and I believe “joy of learning” is actually their default state. It’s only after they’ve been integrated with certain classroom expectations to sit quietly and follow instructions that some of that wonder starts to go away.

I try to make everything I teach fun by making sure there is always room for kids to experiment and make a project their own. That’s why the decision to teach robotics to our kindergartners was such an easy one.

We open the door for their exploration and let the children’s creativity and critical thinking lead the way.

At KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland, we use robot kits and “coding blocks” specifically
designed for children ages four to seven to provide a fun and engaging introduction to basic coding concepts for young learners. The robots we use are called KIBO, and are customizable, allowing our kids the hands-on experience of building their own robots. When they put their robots together using building blocks where they build their code, scan it in, and experiment with their construction, they’re able to take control of their learning experience and can understand from the start exactly how their robot will work.

I feel the most successful when a child uses the tools or skills that I have provided to them to create something I never would have thought to make myself. That’s also when I see the most joy in the kids: when they feel that they’ve figured out something for themselves. Research shows that robots provide kids positive ways to express identity, communicate with peers, and engage in civic activities, so our role is to give them the initial instruction they need: put your coding blocks in a certain order, scan them, and watch the robot carry out your instructions in that order. After that, we open the door for their exploration and let the children’s creativity and critical thinking lead the way. Each block comes with a bar code for the robot to scan. Once they understand that, along with the cause and effect reaction of their commands, the rest is up to them.

I had one student who was so excited about “if/then” statements that he decided he wanted to make a robot that he could control in real time to navigate the miniature city we had created for the class. On his own, he created a program that had the robot move forward continuously but could be triggered by two different sensors (light and distance) to turn right or left. He spent the rest of that session joyfully chasing his robot around, pointing a flashlight at the light sensor or waving his hand at the distance sensor when he wanted it to turn right or left. I couldn’t believe how creative and complex the program was, and the child was in first grade!

Young people learn best by experiencing new concepts with their own minds and bodies and “figuring it out” when they encounter something they don’t yet understand. By allowing our kids to experiment, design, test, and even play with a tool that brings these lessons to life, we’re making their learning experience not only meaningful, but joyful as well.

Mary Amoson teaches kindergarten at Brooks Elementary in Coweta County Georgia. She can be reached at maryamoson@gmail.com.

Amanda Puerto Thorne is a Maker Educator at KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. She can be reached at amanda@kid-museum.org.

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