Rapid Prototyping - a new way to play

A happy robot seems a fitting little image - especially when it was drawn by one of my kids. I'm letting them take the lead...

A happy robot seems a fitting little image - especially when it was drawn by one of my kids. I'm letting them take the lead...

Hello! This blog post is part of a blog tour about new things. You will find the next destination in the blog tour at the end.

I live two lives professionally - and in addition to textile design and art-making (and parenting) I facilitate the Postgraduate Certificate in Applied Practice (Digital and Collaborative Learning) for teachers for The Mind Lab by Unitec. In this role I foster discovery learning with digital tools and encourage maker spaces in schools (as a small part of the course) but yet I feel like, even with a wealthy of great digital tools, we can't forget the 'nuts and bolts' excitement that happens when you make 'real' things and allow kids to take the lead in 'budget making'- especially when they are small. 

In an era of technological advancement and digital entertainment, what use is there (still)  for cardboard and glue? Kids can design in tinkercad, build cities in minecraft and see their ideas come to life in animation software using a multitude of free apps and digital platforms. What use is there in encouraging 'real' making? Why do kids need to know how to use old-school tools? And, why should kids make when you can buy so much and so easily?

Let's dive in.

Rapid prototyping usually implies CAD design and advanced software and is aligned with 3D printing to make models of the desired object to scale. Printing in 3D in the commercial realm allows designers to make changes based on customer/consumer experience and tweak the design to be a better fit for purpose. This process of design, analysis, iteration and redesign is a fantastic model for kids and encouraging design thinking at home.

Let's embark on an upcycled low-tech Eco story where cardboard and scissors, masking tape and glue are used to refine ideas and clarify goals prior to 'real making'. In a home-based maker space, kids can engage in creating their own stories from 'the bottom up' and find the joys of rapid prototyping. With rapid prototyping, the final product needn't be perfect to do the job because it's simply a prototype. It's an idea-thing. But the idea thing gets close to doing the job of the real thing AND it gives kids the confidence that they can find their own solutions to jobs and real life problems. Home based rapid prototyping teaches them that testing an idea is a golden scientific process where learning can happen through discovery - and the materials they choose to use are arbitrary. 

Plus it's fun. 

Testing a Play Idea

Recently my son fell in love with an advertised toy set involving slime, a slide and some 'bacteria characters'. Hesitant to spend my money on such a toy (seemed expensive and stupid to me but who am I to judge?) I decided to test the play concept.

'What do we need to make our own version?' I asked. My son then had to deconstruct the set, refine it down to key elements and list the 'ingredients of play'.

We wrote a list of 'ingredients' and started to work out how to make our own.

This is critical thinking in a real world context and he delivered. (Analysing, simplifying, developing his own design - these are great skills to foster!) Slime, obviously, was a key ingredient as well as a slide. Some dish detergent, cornflour, food colouring and water later and we had ourselves a miniature slime bath! We made some cardboard cut outs of slime monsters (and wrapped them with tape for water-fastness) and we made a slide from half of a cardboard tube. Suddenly we were the proud designers and producers of a budget slime toy we made ourselves!

He played with it for an afternoon and then discarded it. The slime went manky (technical terminology of course) and the cardboard creatures were not as waterfast as we would have liked but I'm not certain that the disintegration of materials was the true cause for his waning interest. Would he have lost interest with the plastic purchased equivalent? Most likely. Would we have wasted $50? Categorically, yes. Would he have learned anything by buying it? Probably not.

Why make when you can buy?

Beyond the obvious money saving, and avoidance of instant-gratification (patience is a virtue after all...) the learning acquired through making can't be underestimated. How to make slime, how to design a play experience, how to improve on an existing design, how to upcycle, how to construct, how to use tools, how to communicate design ideas, how to make changes if the prototype doesn't perform... shall I go on? It's practical science, engineering and design thinking for preschoolers and, as an added bonus, it is a fun activity that you can do together as a joint discovery learning experience.

What's the down side?

The singular annoyance of raising your kids to be mini engineers and creative-capable kids is that they want to make everything.  'But mum, we can make one!' (After seeing a rocket on tv). Well, hell. But hang on, I think I saw a tutorial on youtube somewhere...

Discovery play

The digital age means that we need to encourage our kids to be technologically and digitally literate. Information is always at their finger tips and even rocket parts can be ordered online... It's a different world but there is room for discovering it together.

More recent low-tech discovery play at home involved play dough, drinking straws, Sellotape and large buttons set out on the table as tools and materials to discover. Before long someone (mister 4)  had made a chassis for a car idea and someone else (miss 3) had made a tree growing out of a hill. These ideas were born without my input. When one material meets another, imagination is fed and learning is nurtured. 

Minimal Instruction

Minimal input is key to discovery learning. I happily ask questions as prompts but I dare not do anything for them.  The results are often quite hotch-potch but the pride the kids feel because they made it themselves is priceless. Does it matter if the product lacks finesse if it still gets played with? Does it matter if the product is different to the initial intent if the materials led them down a different path of discovery? Why do we focus so much on the end destination when the pathway there can be so rewarding? 

As an educator I'm always mindful of the opportunities I present to my kids for learning and discovery.  Discovery learning simply means that they have agency in finding their own path towards a self-derived goal. I don't show. I allow them to figure it out to make their experiences with materials more meaningful. Failure is not an option when there is no set destination (things not working is just part of the process) and thus failure is actually a meaningful stepping stone on their path to discovery.

The big picture

I want my kids to be creators and curators and not passive consumers. This little 'making thing' we do is really a big thing because I'm teaching them that they can be creators, designers and engineers. They can design play experiences and they can even engineer their own education - whether they are aware of it yet or not.  

When easily bought toys present themselves to you, don't forget that cardboard and glue can be really cool too. 

Thank you for reading my blog post about rapid prototyping for kids - to continue the blog tour check out Mayhem Creations' blog here.


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