decompression: giving kids the room to do nothing

07Sep08

Last year at camp, we had a 7-year old boy named Ben come for nine weeks of the summer — pretty much the whole thing. For the first three or four weeks of camp, he pretty steadily played with LEGOs, made a few close friends, and did very few, if any of our activities. He had come to our building night series of events at MIT earlier — and was fully eager and aware of our style of doing science projects and taking machines apart. He seemed quite happy with the offerings, like he full well would have enjoyed them, but was perfectly content to make LEGO houses and spaceships with his new best friend and do his own thing.

Every now and then, two counselors would have a conversation about him. We’d note that he wasn’t doing any of our projects, think about it a bit together, and determine that he seemed happy playing with LEGOs and that somehow, this seemed right for him. Occasionally one of these conversations might have led to a dedicated effort on an adult’s part to draw him into an activity, which sometimes would cause him to do the activity and sometimes not. The default mode of doing his own thing and playing with LEGOs would quickly return in either case.

Around the 5th week, he had this sudden spike of interest in a programming language we use, called Scratch. I’ve mentioned Scratch here before, but I’ll talk about it a little more in-depth. It’s a very kid, adult, and people friendly way to learn how to program. To code, you snap together puzzle-shaped blocks and these create scripts for characters on a stage to follow. You can easily create commands for characters respond to pressing a certain key on the keyboard, instructions for what happens when one character touches another character, and so on. It’s got the basic logic of programming — control structures (if-then blocks and forver blocks) and variables.

I took a class with the Lifelong Kindergarden group” at MIT’s Media Lab my last semester at MIT. It was a class billed to be about technology and education, and focused on Scratch, which they were developing at the time. I had always assumed that computer use in education simply dressed up traditional teaching methods — an automation of the typical drill-and-practice routines of learning numerical computation or spelling. Scratch (and Seymour Papert’s book Mindstorms) transformed the role I saw computers playing in technology. With Scratch kids could both wrap their head around the basics of programming, but more importantly, test out their ideas for a program and see if it worked. They could build something — a program via Scratch — and go through their own design process by seeing if their program did what they wanted to, and if not, figuring out why.

I could write a lot here, to explore why I think Scratch is great. The simplest sentence I use to sum all this up is that Scratch lets kids look at computers as a tool. (I often place this in opposition to television, as it’s more often viewed by families as an intense media source. That’s a thread for another time!)

Scratch was a huge inspiration for me in starting camp. I thought it would be amazing if children were exposed to tools like Scratch, but didn’t have the traditional classroom constraints of 50-minute classes and bells. I wanted a child to be able to dive in to Scratch (or circuits or art materials, or whatever. I want children to dive in.) and work until they feel their project or done or that they need a break — I wanted it to be their call when they were done working on something, not an arbitrary time schedule’s.

Ben really took to this exact scenario. In his 5th week at camp he got into Scratch, and he pretty much never stopped until the end. He happily made program after program with it most of his days at camp from there on out. I remember one game he made — you had a cat (the default character in Scratch) who was armed with a yo-yo. The cat could move around the screen, where they were coins flying back and forth across the screen. Some coins had positive numbers, and some negative numbers. You used the yo-yo to hit the coins, and hat the number on the coin added to your score — and so you only wanted to hit the positive numbers. When you hit all the positive coins, you got a “congratulations!” style-screen.

There’s a lot going on there, especially for a 7-year old. The game makes fluent use of positive and negative numbers and variables. The game holds some notion of state — once all the positive coins are gone, the level ends, and so somehow the game is keeping track of what’s happened to all the positive coins. This isn’t to say the value here is these academic skills acquired along the way — they’re side effects of a child figuring how he wants to make a game with a cat and a yo-yo.

The academic skills have served as an interesting benchmark of Ben’s capabilities. Variables are a concept that I’ve seen easily trip-up children at 10, 11, or 12 — and here Ben was using them comfortably. A friend of mine who works at the Lifelong Kindergarten group was personally stunned that a boy at 7 could create games as complex as the one’s he was making. When using these benchmarks as a guide, Ben’s work with Scratch seemed like it had to be that of a prodigy. To us at camp, it mostly looked like a boy who had found something he loved doing and was working on it 4 – 6 hours a day.

I now think that what was happening in Ben’s first half of camp was a decompression from school. His mom mentioned that he’d a difficult year at school — academically solid but socially tough. A period of simple play — unstructured, goal-less play with LEGOs and new friends was his own personal antidote to that difficult year. I think that had Scratch been offered to him in this stage, he would have responded to it the same way he responded to other activities intentionally offered to him: maybe polite acceptance, maybe a bit of curiousity for an hour, or maybe no interest. I don’t think that had he been offered Scratch while decompressing that he would have taken off with it as he did later in the summer.

The choice of “decompression” here begs the question — decompressing from what? I think that in a poor educational situation, a child’s personal interests and curiosity can slowly get ground down. Being asked to do something repeatedly that has no personal sense or meaning to it — instead of purusing it in a way that is meaningful, or perhaps pursuing something else simply because it’s exciting — can slowly close one’s instincts to explore and investigate what one wants to. These instincts and impulses of “I want to know why this happens!” aren’t compatible with a rigid, pre-determined educational plan.

Of course, the curiosity doesn’t get extinguished, but I think lies dormant. As an environment shows itself to be open to, supportive of, and fully compatible with curiousity, that trait can slowly reappear and express itself again. This is what I think is happening in a time of decompression. Its hallmarks are a child’s complete contentedness to do nothing that seems novel, stimulating, or engaging, and a content, perhaps polite refusal to do anything offered that would normally engage the child. In an environment that does not halt when the child feels the need to decompress, but rather carries on with it’s own business of making things and doing things (as camp does), there are ample opportunities to re-engage (at least at a level visible to adults) when the child feels eager to.

I think the option to decompress as needed is an extremely important one, and makes me reflect personally on myself and other adults that I know. What is the role of play in an adult’s life? Why do we take vacations? Why do we take vacations even when enjoying our work, or finding it meaningful? When I talk about decompressing as an adult, I mean an active departure from the things I normally think about and find important to think about, and time to let those thoughts sit while I do something else. It seems that decompression for me personally is a way to cultivate open-mindedness: that until I let whatever it is I’m working on settle and leave it be for a few days, particularly when I’m feeling stuck, I’ll be unable to see a new insight or perspective into what I’m working on, and moreover be completely unwilling to tackle any new questions or challenges.

Distinguishing decompression from more uncomfortable states of mind:

This discussion isn’t to say that a child idling around is always what the child wants or needs at a given time. This distinction is perhaps why I raise the idea of decompression — it is on first sight hard to tell apart from a child being shy in a new environment, overwhelmed in a new environment, or perhaps situationally distraught (to use camp as an example: a small boy wants to work on electronics, but feels like he can’t be in the room all the electronics are in because it’s full of really loud kids twice his age and size.)

I think that each of these cases is quite straightforward to tease out by simply talking to a child and seeing what’s going on. Children are often shy in a new environment — particularly one with a foreign set of rules (and in camp’s case, an absence of traditional rules and structure) and people and things — and this is a thing to look out for when children are new in an environment. With most children, their body language and voice will clearly signal a feeling of shyness to a place. The simplest antidote is a patient adult who will happily show them around — show them what’s where, what kind of materials and activites are happening about the site, and introduce them to other people, both children and adults.

Being overwhelmed has the same indications of being shy, but is often a specific response to the size and intensity of things. (Not only is everything new, but there’s so much of it and it’s so loud!) The best approach I’ve found is similar to personally orienting a shy child, but often with an aim to find a quiet activity or place to spend some time getting to know the child. Sometimes this means finding a peaceful project, and sometimes it means really walking through the ideas that you can really do or make anything at camp provided that you can figure out how to make it, and step through simple questions along the lines of “Is there anything you’d really like to make?” and see if you can personally start a project with them. I view this as narrowing the focus down — rather than observing the masses of unbounded energy, working in a smaller mental space of what would you, you specifically, love to do here? What have you been dying to try for weeks but haven’t had a chance to?

A distraught child should be able to be discerned through direct questioning. Just by asking what’s going on and what they’ve been upto today, and inviting them to tell you how their day has gone, usually anything important or unresolved will come up. Often this sort of behavior sticks out in a child who is normally quite comfortable but for whatever reason is wandering about from room to room or hall to hall in search of something to do, given that what he really wants to do feels frustratingly inaccessible.

All of these states are ways to distinguish the contentedness of decompression for more disoriented states. All of them look like idle activity, but decompression tends to be characterized by play and relaxing, and the ones described just now tend to carry some sort of unresolved tension (“I don’t know what to do here!” “I can’t make sense of how much there is to do here!” “I can’t do what I want to!”)

Broader environmental efforts can play into this dynamic of idle time being healthy rather than tense. Adults themselves not being full of projects to run and conflicts to sort out gives them a chance to have idle conversations with children, which in turn can lead to an adult becoming aware of whether or not child really is happy playing with LEGOs all day. I think that the Internet — particularly YouTube and addictive point-and-click style web games — can work as a way for a child to delay this process of wandering about and opening up to their environment and halt the process of figuring out what to do with oneself. This is still just an intuition for me — and not a tried-and-true fact that I trust completely — but it seems that as a child’s curiousity can be delayed from fully opening when the extremely sensory option of computers-as-games or computers-as-YouTube exists to divert their physical and mental attention.

All of this leads up to, at camp, tell parents that while it’s ok with us if their kids do nothing, we will happily check in with a child to see if they’re enjoying themselves at camp, and offer activities that connect to their interests (information often supplied by the parents, children themselves, or the child’s friends.) We’re happy to make sure that a child is comfortable, is engaged, and spend time with them dreaming up new activities and possibilities for what to do with their day. But we won’t push it — if a child is truly content to play with their friend in the park all day, then that’s where they should be.

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