Published November 2, 2018
Published November 2, 2018
Three engaged 3- and 4-year-olds sit on the bright world-map rug in UB’s Fisher-Price-endowed Early Childhood Research Center (ECRC), cheerfully playing with “Rapunzel,” a friendly, movable, toy caterpillar the children named to welcome her into their classroom.
Stanley Diih, the ECRC teacher leading the guided-play group, gives each child a Rapunzel, also known as “Think & Learn Code-a-pillar,” or “Code-a-pillar” for short, a preschool toy developed by Fisher-Price.
“Attach your piece right to your Rapunzel,” Diih says. One piece tells the caterpillar to turn to the left, another to the right, and another makes it crawl forward.
“Line up your Rapunzels,” Diih says. But before they say go, he tells the children they’re all going to “make a prediction” as to which direction each of the toys will go.
“Where do you think your Rapunzel will end up with your category pieces or codes?” he asks.
The three children eagerly make their predictions. Griffin, a curly haired boy who has all three left-turn pieces, moves his body left across the starting line, then left and left again, and proudly says “here,” while pointing to the spot behind his starting spot.
“Oh, you think it will go around and end up behind our starting line!” says Diih approvingly. “Let’s test!”
“Ready, set, go,” Diih calls out, and the three Code-a-pillars set off in their pre-programmed directions — to the delight of the three children.
This guided-play session was part of a new research project being conducted at the ECRC in collaboration with Fisher-Price, implementing a curriculum starring Code-a-pillar, the educational toy designed to teach coding concepts and skills, and foster computational thinking among preschoolers.
Code-a-pillar has found a home with the ECRC children, with students going so far as to name the toy “Rapunzel” and decorate a bright box as her home, where she can sleep after all the children have left.
Each week, ECRC teachers such as Diih lead students’ ages 3 to 5 through small-group activities. Guided by a specially designed Teacher Guide, students learn basic principles of computer coding, sequencing and other cause-and-effect programming illustrated in a simple and colorful way by the Code-a-pillar toy.
Like those in the ECRC classroom, young children attach certain pieces or segments to the Code-a-pillar heads. The separate segments program Code-a-pillar (or Rapunzel in the ECRC classrooms) to go a certain direction — right, left, forward, in a circle and many more. Children learn that how they arrange the segments will program their particular Code-a-pillar to move in an expected way. So the way they connect their version of the toy determines its movement.
“Code-a-pillar teaches computational thinking,” says X. Christine Wang, associate professor in the Graduate School of Education and director of the ECRC. “It’s about thinking like a computer scientist and developing the ability to analyze real-life problems and design systems or approaches to solve the problems.”
This kind of thinking is important in learning computer programming, engineering solutions and scientific concepts, according to the ECRC teachers and researchers.
“Each piece has a different function to reach a particular goal; e.g., left, right and straight, or repeat” says Lauren Celenza, a senior child testing researcher at the Fisher-Price Play Lab, a GSE alumna (EdM ’11, early childhood/childhood education) and a doctoral student in early childhood education. “Kids can learn about sequencing, looping and cause-effect by attaching different pieces in different orders.”
Even at this young age, Wang says, the children are learning cause-effect relationship as shown in the interaction between Stanley and the children.
“It’s really exciting to see kids learning coding concepts and skills in a very developmentally appropriate and playful way,” Wang says. “Stanley is a very talented teacher guiding children’s learning.” Diih is a GSE alumnus (EdM ’16, early childhood/childhood education) and a doctoral student in school administration and leadership.
Don Stucke, the principal designer of Code-a-pillar for Fisher-Price, explains the toy plants the notion in children’s heads that “they can be makers and creators.”
“Normally, you push a button and the toy does whatever the people who work at the toy company want it to do,” Stucke says. “In this case, you have a toy where the kids are the ones who are in charge.
“Instead of being a user of technology, (the children get the idea) ‘I can conceptualize about making something do what I want,’” says Stucke. “That’s a big shift from how kids normally interact with an electronic device when they are just users of it. So you are opening their thinking to basically the notion that they can be in control. They can make it do what they want.
“It literally can be their first touch of making something that follows their instructions, the child’s instructions,” Stucke says. “So if (the child says) ‘I want this toy to do this, I can make it do that.’ Which is pretty cool.”
The ECRC began its Code-a-pillar curriculum at the beginning of this school year, says Keely Benson, curriculum coordinator at ECRC, which enrolls about 50 students from ages 2 to 5 — about 50 percent from UB and the rest from the community. The ECRC also maintains a close relationship with Fisher-Price through an endowment and collaborative projects between Fisher-Price’s Play Lab and ECRC.
About 14 families with children enrolled in ECRC joined the project and received their own Code-a-pillar and at-home guide so they can follow and extend the curriculum at home.
“We’re also looking at how teachers implement the curriculum,” says Benson. “How do they put their own spin on things? How do our teachers understand this curriculum and use this toy in the classroom? So it’s both about how students understand it, and how teachers are implementing it and fostering it for the children.”
Since the ECRC is part of the Graduate School of Education, the team is exploring a collaboration with other researchers in the school; for example, assessing children’s learning and thinking process while interacting with Code-a-pillar through collecting psycho-physical data, such as brain waves and an EEG.
But enough adult talk. Back on the big oval world rug in the ECRC classroom, the three children are ending their latest Rapunzel/Code-a-pillar small group-guided play session. Diih discusses the idea of categories, and how if they arrange their categories — identified by functions — accordingly, Rapunzel will go to different parts of the rug. They all put their imaginary binoculars on to better see where their individual Rapunzel pieces will go.
“Where did our Rapunzels go?” Diih asks, his hands in binocular-mode over his eyes.
But all activities must come to an end.
“Rapunzel needs a rest,” Diih says. “She’s been doing a lot of racing.”
“Hey, can I give her some food?” one of the preschoolers asks.
“Yes, we’ll give Code-a-pillar some food,” Diih says. “She must be super hungry.”
So the three children walk to a box and bring back pretend green peppers and an apple, another gesture of her integral identity in the students’ classroom.
“And we will say night, night, Rapunzel,” Diih says, as Rapunzel lies next to her custom-made box. “See you later. She has to take a nap.”