Robots and 3D printing connect kids to playful, inquiry-based learning while also acting as a therapeutic outlet

How age-appropriate tech inspires preschoolers (and their teachers)


Robots and 3D printing connect kids to playful, inquiry-based learning while also acting as a therapeutic outlet

At Brooklyn Preschool of Science, I’ve been using robots to make computational learning fun in my 4-year-old rooms for years.

When I decided to add computational learning to the 3-year-old group, I didn’t want teachers to always be the ones handling the robots. I wanted the kids to have the ability to control the robots on their own, even though 3-year-olds don’t have the same fine motor capabilities that my older students do.

Here’s how I use robots and other kid-friendly technology to give all my students an outlet for free exploration.

Robots for 3- and 4-Year-Olds

For my 3-year-old rooms, I chose the Sphero robot. It’s small enough that kids can pick it up, and it’s simple to program. There are different-colored mats that kids lay down on the floor, and when the robot goes over the mats, it picks up an action like “go straight,” “stop,” “turn left,” or “turn right.”

Our 4-year-olds use the KIBO Robot Kit to connect with our thematic units of study. For example, when they were studying bird migration, the kids programmed the robots to create a V formation and “fly” across the classroom.

Our students love to do shows for their parents to illustrate what they’ve learned about a theme, and robots make that learning visible. For example, when we were doing a unit about colors, the kids wanted to teach their parents about the colors of the rainbow. The children worked in collaborative groups of three or four. Each student chose a color of the spectrum (ROY G. BIV). After choosing their color, they engineered their KIBO in a way to have the robot’s arm hold a piece of paper in their chosen color. The groups then programmed their robots to move together so that all seven robots, showing all seven colors of the rainbow, put on a show for the families. 

Some preschool teachers might be intimidated at the idea of doing robotics, but they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Robots like KIBO come with an in-depth curriculum focusing on the mechanism of coding that robot. Once they’ve figured that out, they get to do the fun part: connecting that robot to whatever subject they’re teaching,

It helps that kids naturally gravitate towards robots. They want to touch and hold them; they want to build sequences to see cause and effect. When parents see how excited their kids get, they often want to buy their own robot. I say, “You don’t need to. You can take this one home for the weekend.” Many of them end up buying one anyway, because parents can’t believe the excitement and the enjoyment that their children are having.

3D Printing for Preschoolers

Another technology that all of our students are excited about is 3D printing. What makes it really, really powerful is its ability to connect to curriculum. When we did a unit on simple machines, one of my teachers 3D printed pulleys. So instead of holding up a picture, she could actually teach the kids about pulleys that they could hold in their hands.

When they were learning about the parts of a flower, kids 3D printed the petals, the stamen, the pistil, the filament, all the different parts, in individual pieces.

3D printing connects to art and creativity, too. If they’re designing a structure, they can draw a picture of their structure and have a teacher 3D print their creation. The kids are just so fascinated with the process, and they have something to take home with them.

Tech as Redirection

One way we make use of kids’ fascination is to use technology for redirection. For example, we sometimes have a student who doesn’t want to nap. We don’t force children to nap, but it’s mandated that they rest. But if a child absolutely refuses to, we can say to that 3-year-old, “How about we 3D print something?” While everybody else is napping, that child will just sit there, and they’re creating.

Tech can be very therapeutic. If a student is “having a moment,” working with a robot or a 3D printer completely stops the child from thinking about the moment they’re having or what caused it. Their attention is completely shifted to playful, inquiry-based learning.

Inspiring Teachers

Students aren’t the only ones who love our technology. When I did my professional development on the 3D printers, my teachers played with them for hours. Honestly, I have never seen my teachers as motivated, and it’s amazing how creative they have been in finding holistic connections to their units of study.

One of my proudest moments was seeing my teachers, even the ones who have been teaching the same curriculum for a few years and might have been hesitant about adding to it, get so excited about using this new technology in their classrooms. When that happened, their energy became contagious, and the children they were teaching got just as excited. Everybody just wanted more.

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