The Origins of Kindergarten, Blocks, and Sandboxes

Images via Inventing Kindergarten and Architecture in Play

The latest 99% Invisible is a marvelous exploration of the origin of Kindergarten. It is well worth a listen, particularly for all my friends in education. The first Kindergarten was founded in 1837 by Freidrich Froebel . He centered much of his program around a set of manipulatives, starting with blocks and spheres, and progressing to much more complex shapes and combinations. The podcast traces the influence of Kindergarten to the works of modern artists and architects, and even to the modern toy market. I will definitely be looking into his ideas further.

In some ways, all modern toy building systems reflect the influence of Froebel. Tinker Toys, Lego, Kinex — they’re all about understanding shape and form and making connections. Yet they also represent a departure from Froebel’s highly-organized and linear approach. These days, building toys are viewed more broadly as tools of the imagination — objects kids can use to assemble houses and castles and cities together, learning collaboration and creativity through construction.


I do love spreadsheets! There’s nothing like the feeling crunching a ton of data in a well-made spreadsheet. Sometimes it’s almost like magic. Today I got to do a very fun lesson with 6th graders. On spreadsheets! While I can’t say they were as excited about them as I, I did manage to convey some of the magic feeling to them. When they saw me instantly get the average of 350 data points, they definitely saw the usefulness! Especially since they already knew they were going to have to find averages, medians, and modes of their own data. I could talk about spreadsheets all day, but they can’t listen quite that long. So I broke up the spreadsheets with an excellent little challenge by Kern Kelley. I’ll end with a section I call “How to make graphs lie,” which always sparks discussion and gets a laugh.

My office

One of the things I’ve tried to do is make my office an inspirational learning environment for the kids (and for me as well!). When I first moved into the office, it was a pretty standard wiring closet. About a quarter of the wall space was taken up by wiring, and the rest was covered by disorganized boxes and shelves. It was exactly what you would expect from a utility closet with no regular visitors. I almost immediately began redecorating. I discarded boxes and boxes of obsolete and unused equipment, got rid of old shelving units, took everything out that could be moved, and cleaned. Then I had the walls and floor painted. I swiped the color scheme from our front lobby, so it looked pretty nice. The only part I couldn’t get to was the plywood mounting board on the walls. I couldn’t paint the wires or equipment, of course, so they remained a sickly yellow. I brought in a faux leather chair to encourage visitors, and some Ikea storage units. I found some interesting wall coverings (like a beautiful map of submarine internet cables). Later, I built a custom desk with a beautiful copper epoxy top. The idea is to make the office interesting enough to get the kids asking questions. It seems to work, as most days I have a steady stream of kids in to see if anything new has been added.

Still working on getting a 360 shot to work with the Gutenberg interface. Stay tuned.

Today’s field trip

I’m finishing up a basic skills unit in 3rd grade, and thought a field trip would be a fun way to bring it to a close! The kids picked some really unique trips to make. We only had a half hour, but I htought we made pretty good use of our time. Tools used: Google search, Google Drawings, and Special thanks to for anonymizing the kids.

On Screen Time

How Schools Are Bringing Common Sense, Mindfulness to Screen Time

I’m really pretty tired of the term “screen time.” Implicit in the phrase is the idea that all time spent with technology is equivalent, when nothing could be further from the truth. It is no more useful than being concerned about “eat time,” when what is consumed could be broccoli or vodka. The nature, context, and amount of anything has to be taken into account when deciding how much concern should be applied. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make for good, scary headlines. I absolutely agree that students (and everyone else) should be mindful of how long they spend on certain activities. But it makes a difference whether a student is clicking through the latest dank memes for an hour well past midnight, or spending three hours struggling with a tricky computer animation or audio production after school. The amount of time in front a screen is only one factor, and definitely not the most important. Maybe a better article would be How Schools Are Bringing Common Sense and Mindfulness to Teens. That’s an article I could really get behind!

New proposal for multiple-choice tests

From DataGenetics, a description of typical problems with multiple-choice tests, and a proposal to fix them. The idea is to add an option for each question to provide an answer BEFORE the multiple choices are displayed. This would give double credit or a double penalty if selected. It’s a fascinating idea. I hope someone will code this so I can try it out!

Walter Anderson and seeing things differently

Pine tree with tabby cat, Walter Inglis Anderson (American, 1903–1965)

There is a picture that has stayed with me for decades now. This isn’t that painting – the one I saw is in a private collection – but a very similar work by the same artist. And it’s an illustration of how enlightening a simple change of view can be. When I first saw the work up close, it looked very strange to me. It’s just a close-up water color of a pine tree. The same trees I saw hundreds of times a day. Except that it was painted in yellows and purples and greens. Sure, there was plenty of brown. But all of these other colors, what kind of artistic license was that? Except it wasn’t. It took me exactly until the next time I walked outside to realize that Anderson saw what I had not. The trees are not brown! They are an explosion of colors. The first pine tree I saw after clearly had yellows and purples and greens. And so did every other after it. It is impossible for me to see the trees otherwise now. What was just brown is now a collage of bright and interesting colors. It was an epiphany for me that just a few moments could seemingly change my very eyesight so dramatically!

Walter Anderson himself was the subject of a similar realization for me. I was familiar with a handful of his watercolors. They were mostly of the wildlife he saw around him. Lots of birds and fish, the occasional rabbit or octopus. I thought of him as a folk artist – interesting, but not too different from what I might find at a local arts fair. Then I went to the Walter Anderson Museum. Entering the lobby, I saw three huge works that I recognized immediately drew from ancient Egyptian styles. Then works drawing from the impressionists. As I progressed through the museum, I realized this was a man who had thoroughly studied his craft, who had traveled the world to do so. And knowing that, I started to see a lot more in the same paintings I had seen as just “folk art” before. Just as with the pine tree, the information allowed me, forced me even, to see things differently.

There are few things I love more than these types of realizations. Those things that change me irrevocably. Sometimes they take years to happen. I can study something for ages before I get that eureka moment. But sometimes, it just takes a glimpse.

Learn Morse Code with Google

Learn Morse Code with Google!

This is my latest addiction. I’ve wanted to learn Morse for years. Now Google has made a wonderfully addicting tool for just that. I’ve been working on it for a week, and have more of my letters and all numbers down pat. I just need an occasional reminder. I’m currently working on punctuation. Once I pull the site up, it’s hard to stop. I always want to do just one more word. I find it every bit as fun as any iphone game, but at the end, I’ve learned something new. I really want this to be the future of education!