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Gifts that Educate and Inspire

How gifts focused on making can spark learning — and a child's innovative spirit
Child's hands making a card out of construction paper

In the 21st century, creativity and critical thinking are often touted by schools and education professionals as qualities integral to children’s success in the rapidly changing job market. Teddy bears, Slinky, Lite-Brite, Beanie Babies — all some of the most wanted toys of the past century — arguably don’t require the same level of technical knowledge as some of today’s more popular toys such as drones. As the holidays approach, is it possible to give a gift that is educational and sparks a child’s innovative spirit?

Principal Investigator at Project Zero Edward Clapp has researched and explored creativity, innovation, and design, through the maker-centered learning initiative, Agency by Design. “When we think about making, we think about it broadly,” Clapp says. “Robots, drones, and [electronics platforms] Arduinos are part of making, but so is weaving, painting, and carpentry. The primary outcome is equipping young people with a ‘can-do’ spirit. It’s not necessarily about buying that new shiny thing in the world but understanding how those things are made and saying, ‘I can do that, I know how that’s made.’”

According to Clapp, agency is a key ingredient of maker-centered learning. Kids need to be able to design and evaluate the effectiveness of what they make. As a result, a box of loose LEGO bricks, blocks, or art supplies may have stronger potential than a kit of those same materials.

“Basic tools and materials support making in a way that some of the things that are marketed as making toys don’t because they don’t have prescriptive outcomes attached to how they are used,” Clapp says.

Think of Yourself as a Maker-Creator

Clapp and his team at Agency by Design have developed a framework to support maker-centered learning, whether it happens at home or in the classroom. “The popular mantra is, make something that does something. Make something with purpose and utility,” says Clapp.

Gifts that support maker-centered learning should provide children with opportunities to:

  • Look closely at objects and systems — notice, revisit, compare, and consider from different points of view
    • How do these objects and systems work and operate? Are there things that could be improved?
  • Explore complexity — deconstruct, rebuild, research
    • What do we still need to know or learn?
  • Find opportunities to effect change — envision, plan, test, rethink
    • What could we do to make things better?

Toss the Instructions

Before choosing, parents should consider the ways that children can interact with a toy. Is there only one right way of playing with it? Is there a set of directions that needs to be followed closely in order for it to work?

“It’s not about following instructions — that has its place — but it’s about engaging young people in looking closely at the things in their worlds, seeing how they’re complex, and seeing how they can be designed or redesigned,” says Clapp.

Similarly, when bringing crafts into classrooms to make learning more festive, teachers should avoid projects that follow a template and instead consider providing kids with a variety of materials to create and build with.

Combine Making and Giving

Parents and educators should consider working with children to make gifts for their families. An exercise in empathy, children can consider the perspectives and needs of others when they design or build something for another person.

Other times, making with children can be about being mindful about taking the time to do something for somebody else. “It can be about the gesture. It means more when you make it,” Clapp says.

Key Takeaways:

  • Look for gifts that require a child to use their agency to build or make it rather than ones that rely on a set of instructions to arrive at a finished product
  • Simple tools that tap into the intrinsic, human drive to create are gifts that have real staying power
  • Tools and toys should allow children to look closely at the world around them, explore their complexity, and inspire them to make something new.

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