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Early Education and Child Care Center, VPA students collaborate on play-centric learning tools

May 03, 2010

Erica Blust
(315) 443-5891

Children enrolled at Syracuse University’s Early Education and Child Care Center now have access to a new set of learning tools thanks to a group of fourth-year industrial and interaction design students in SU’s College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA).

The tools were designed and built this semester by students in the “Environmental Practicum” class of Cas Holman, assistant professor of industrial and interaction design in VPA’s School of Art and Design, in collaboration with Joan Supiro, director of the center; Mary Cunningham, head teacher; and the “clients” themselves—the children.

Holman, whose professional practice is children’s toys, environments and playgrounds, had discussed opportunities for collaboration with Cunningham for several months. Because the center’s progressive curriculum requires tools for specific types of learning and play, Holman gave her students the assignment of forming teams and collaborating with the teachers and children to discover opportunities in the classroom for play-centric learning. In addition to the design and building of the tools, the collaboration aimed to expose the student designers to early childhood learning while exposing the children to the methodologies of design.

“The design students brought in ideation sketches and prototypes throughout the process and presented to the children,” says Holman. “This, in my book, was the biggest learning opportunity for the design students. Each time we went to the center they left having learned an enormous amount about their ‘client’ but also about how to visually communicate their ideas.”

Four projects were built for the center:

• Gear Box is an interactive way to learn about cause and effect. By plugging six-inch to 10-inch cardboard gears into a large wooden box, children create their own gear-driven sound chorus. Some gears are filled with beans, rocks and rubber bands, and create sounds as they spin; some gears are wooden and permanently plugged into the box. Others are modular, creating opportunities to reconfigure the chorus.

• BrightBlocks are meant to inspire shadow, light and color play. BrightBlocks provide a platform to project outlines and patterns of any object or cutout. Three cool-to-the-touch wooden cubes are configured in different ways to project light onto a screen, enabling shadow puppets. Children arrange and layer colored screens and cutouts that change the backdrop for shadows and play between the front and back of the vertical screen.

• Forts is four hollow wooden columns that become anchors for fort building and creating a space for pretend play. Fabric panels with buttons, windows, flaps and flags are plugged into the columns and can be configured in unpredictable ways.

• Waterplay is a series of troughs that run down a hillside, each creating a small waterfall into the next. Modular parts can be attached to make a spinning waterwheel, a somersaulting duck or a water-collecting bucket. Ping-pong balls can race down the track while children play with moving water.

“Each of the four designs has the potential to engage children in a myriad of ways,” says Supiro. “Cas and the students contributed a contagious energy to the process that engaged all of us in making connections between design, observation, design refinement and fabrication. We benefited from the synergy of this partnership, and we look forward to our continued work together.”

Holman, who began teaching at VPA last fall, is equally impressed with the center and its staff, whose goals mirror her own design ideologies.

“For the last five years I’ve been working with a coalition called NYCPlay, advocating for better opportunities for free play for children in New York City,” says Holman. “To come here and see the ideals of self-directed, intrinsically motivated play guiding the curriculum is really exciting, and I know not a simple model to execute.”

The center regularly collaborates with SU academic departments and community groups as part of the process of developing its program and curriculum.

“It is beneficial and enriching for all involved–the children, teachers and our partners–and it adds depth and value to the learning process on so many levels,” says Supiro.

The Early Education and Child Care Center provides a developmentally based program in an environment designed especially for young children. It is staffed by a highly qualified, experienced group of teachers dedicated to creating and fostering learning opportunities for young children. University students actively participate as part of their coursework and research. For more information, call (315) 443-4482.

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