Digital Landscapes: “We’re Building a World”
by Stephen Karmol
Of the many things I deeply admire about the philosophy and practice of educators in Reggio Emilia, I have always been inspired by their fearlessness. This is a fearlessness born of many things; at its heart, it rests on an incredibly strong image of the child, of their competencies and capabilities, and the trust that educators joyfully extend to children to navigate and make meaning of their world together. The educators’ experimentation is bold, and purposeful—a responsibility they cherish and hold with great care and intention. After all, these are the children’s rights.
One area where this is clear is the many roles that digital technology has in early childhood education. Whether it’s teachers’ use of digital technology to document children’s learning or the presence of computers in preschool classrooms, there are many possibilities at play. Rather than inevitably leading to social isolation, educators in Reggio Emilia see and seize upon the socially connective potential of digital technology. After visiting Italy several years ago and seeing this intention brought to life in many ways, I’ve become increasingly interested in experimenting with digital technology at our program and wondering how it fits in our context.
Last year, we embarked on a large-scale collaborative art/construction project: imagining-through-building a tall, densely layered cityscape inspired by actual places like Favela Santa Marta in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
For the initial invitation, I offered a large, sturdy base of particle board to build on along with a vast quantity of pre-cut corrugated cardboard shapes – on the first day, just squares and rectangles. Children worked with hot glue to “build up” the layers of the city. The invitation was offered multiple times to children in both mixed-age preschool classrooms.
My intention was to foster cross-classroom collaboration in a large-scale, ongoing art/building context that might spark interesting conversation and storytelling about the imagined city and our own city of Portland. Through building and working together, my hope was that children would reflect on their relationships with the city of Portland as their own relationships grow through a collaborative process of artistic interpretation and expression.
Over the next several weeks, we visited the art studio a number of times in small groups. Each visit there were digital slides of cities projected on and near the children’s group construction. They marveled at the scale of the images, interacting with the digital landscapes with their whole bodies, excitedly pointing out details to their friends. They laughed as they saw their faces, hair, and clothing bathed in colorful light. They found connections of all kinds: for example, similarities in the geometry of their city and the projected cities.
We kept revisiting, building, discussing. New photos, projected, of the Portland skyline and bridges inspired conversations about geography – where cities are, what cities have, who is allowed in cities. Then, zooming in: what are the parts of houses? And: seeing themselves and their families in the story of the city. Where do we work? Where do we play?
Experienced early childhood educators may read about this inquiry and wonder: was the digital element necessary? Did it really add anything to the children’s exploration, expand their understanding, or deepen their connections? These are wonderful questions to ask! I invite you to embrace fearlessness, experiment with intention, and offer digital landscapes in your early childhood setting.
Let’s work together to offer children, and society more broadly, the potential of digital technology to build and strengthen relationships—that it can be something that supports hands-on, experiential learning, and isn’t necessarily something that detracts from it.