All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking)
I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten*
MIT Media Lab
Presented at Creativity & Cognition conference, June 2007
This paper argues that the “kindergarten approach to
learning” – characterized by a spiraling cycle of Imagine,
Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine – is
ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century, helping
learners develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical
to success and satisfaction in today’s society. The paper
discusses strategies for designing new technologies that
encourage and support kindergarten-style learning,
building on the success of traditional kindergarten
materials and activities, but extending to learners of all
ages, helping them continue to develop as creative thinkers.
Kindergarten is undergoing a dramatic change. For nearly
200 years, since the first kindergarten opened in 1837,
kindergarten has been a time for telling stories, building
castles, drawing pictures, and learning to share. But that is
starting to change. Today, more and more kindergarten
children are spending time filling out phonics worksheets
and memorizing math flashcards . In short, kindergarten
is becoming more like the rest of school.
In my mind, exactly the opposite is needed: Instead of
making kindergarten like the rest of school, we need to
make the rest of school (indeed, the rest of life) more like
As I see it, the traditional kindergarten approach to learning
is ideally suited to the needs of the 21st century. In a society
characterized by uncertainty and rapid change, the ability
to think creatively is becoming the key to success and
satisfaction, both professionally and personally . For
today’s children, nothing is more important than learning to
think creatively – learning to come up with innovative
solutions to the unexpected situations that will continually
arise in their lives .
Unfortunately, most schools are out-of-step with today’s
needs: they were not designed to help students develop as
creative thinkers. Kindergartens (at least those that remain
true to the kindergarten tradition) are an exception. The
traditional kindergarten approach to learning is well-
matched to the needs of the current society, and should be
extended to learners of all ages.
What do I mean by the kindergarten approach to learning?
In traditional kindergartens, children are constantly
designing, creating, experimenting, and exploring. Two
children might start playing with wooden blocks; over
time, they build a collection of towers. A classmate sees the
towers and starts pushing his toy car between them. But the
towers are too close together, so the children start moving
the towers further apart to make room for the cars. In the
process, one of the towers falls down. After a brief
argument over who was at fault, they start talking about
how to build a taller and stronger tower. The teacher shows
them pictures of real-world skyscrapers, and they notice
that the bottoms of the buildings are wider than the tops. So
they decide to rebuild their block tower with a wider base
This type of process is repeated over and over in
kindergarten. The materials vary (finger paint, crayons,
bells) and the creations vary (pictures, stories, songs), but
the core process is the same. I think of it as a spiraling
process in which children imagine what they want to do,
create a project based on their ideas, play with their
creations, share their ideas and creations with others,
reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to
imagine new ideas and new projects (see Figure 1).
In going through this process, kindergarten students
develop and refine their abilities as creative thinkers. They
learn to develop their own ideas, try them out, test the
boundaries, experiment with alternatives, get input from
others – and, perhaps most significantly, generate new
ideas based on their experiences. In reality, the steps in the
process are not as distinct or sequential as indicated in the
diagram. Imagining, creating, playing, sharing, and
reflecting are mixed together in many different ways. But
the key elements are always there, in one form or another.
* Apologies to Robert Fulghum (1986). Fulghum’s best-
selling book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in
Kindergarten focused on what children learn in
kindergarten, and why those lessons remain important for
the rest of their lives. This paper focuses on how children
learn in kindergarten, and why kindergarten-style
learning serves as a useful model for learners of all ages.
Some of the most creative artists and inventors of the 20th
century credit their kindergarten experiences with laying
the foundation for their later success .
If this learning approach has been so successful in
kindergarten, why hasn’t it been applied in other parts of
the educational system? One reason, I believe, is a lack of
appreciation for the importance of helping young people
develop as creative thinkers. Another reason has to do with
the availability of appropriate media and technologies.
Wooden blocks and finger paint are great for students
working on kindergarten projects and learning kindergarten
concepts (like number, shape, size, and color). But as
students get older, they want and need to work on more
advanced projects and learn more advanced concepts.
Wooden blocks and finger paint won’t suffice. If older
students are going to learn through the kindergarten
approach, they need different types of tools, media, and
Figure 1: The kindergarten approach to learning
This is where, in my opinion, digital technologies can play
a transformational role in education. I believe that digital
technologies, if properly designed and supported, can
extend the kindergarten approach, so that learners of all
ages can continue to learn in the kindergarten style – and,
in the process, continue to develop as creative thinkers.
My focus here is on what researchers have called “little c”
creativity – that is, creativity within one’s personal life –
not “big C” Creativity that transforms the boundaries of an
entire discipline or domain. The goal is not to nurture the
next Mozart or Einstein, but to help everyone become more
creative in the ways they deal with everyday problems.
The rest of this paper is organized around the different
aspects of the kindergarten learning approach: Imagine,
Create, Play, Share, Reflect, and back to Imagine. Each
section discusses strategies for designing new technologies
that encourage and support kindergarten-style learning,
building on the success of traditional kindergarten
materials and activities, but extending to older learners, in
hopes of helping them continue to develop as creative
Consider the most popular kindergarten materials: blocks
for building, crayons for drawing, dolls for role-playing,
tiles for making geometric patterns. All of these materials
are designed to encourage a child’s imagination. The
materials do not over-constrain or over-determine. Children
with different interests and different learning styles can all
use the same materials, but each in his or her own personal
In developing technologies for older learners, we try to
achieve a similar effect. Our guiding principle is “many
paths, many styles” – that is, to develop technologies that
can be used along many different paths, by children with
many different styles. Too often, educational technologies
are overly constrained, such as tutoring software for
teaching algebra, or simulation software for modeling
planetary motion in the solar system. Our goal is to provide
tools that can be used in multiple ways, leaving more room
for children’s imaginations.
When my research group developed Cricket technology,
for example, we explicitly tried to broaden the range of
projects that children could create . Crickets are small
programmable devices, small enough to fit in the palm of a
child’s hand. Children can plug motors, lights, sensors, and
other electronic blocks into a Cricket, then program their
creations to spin, light up, and play music. Children have
used Crickets to make a wide range of imaginative
creations. For example, a group of girls at an after-school
center in Boston used Crickets and craft materials to create
an interactive garden, with flowers that danced and
changed colors when you clapped your hands. At a
workshop in Hong Kong, a 12-year-old boy created a
wearable jukebox that played different songs when you
inserted different coins, and an 11-year-old girl added
lights to her boots and programmed them to turn different
colors based on the pace of her walk, as measured by
sensors that she attached to her boots (see Figure 2).
Cricket kits are similar, in many ways, to the Mindstorms
robotics kits developed by the LEGO toy company, in
collaboration with my research group. But there are
important differences. While Mindstorms kits are designed
especially for making robots, Cricket kits are designed to
support a diverse range of projects combining art and
technology. Cricket kits include not only LEGO bricks and
motors but also a collection of arts-and-craft materials,
colored lights, and a sound-box for playing sound effects
and music. By providing a broader range of materials, we
hoped to encourage a broader range of projects – and spark
the imaginations of a broader range of children. In
particular, we aimed to encourage broader participation
among girls. Even with strong efforts to increase female
participation, only 30% of the participants in LEGO
robotics competitions are girls . In Cricket activities at
museums and after-school centers, participation has been
much more balanced among boys and girls .
As we develop new technologies for children, our hope is
that children will continually surprise themselves (and
surprise us too) as they explore the space of possibilities.
When we created Crickets, we didn’t imagine that children
would use them to measure their speed on rollerblades, or
to create a machine for polishing and buffing their
fingernails. To support and encourage this diversity, we
explicitly include elements and features that can be used in
many different ways. The design challenge is to develop
features specific enough so that children can quickly learn
how to use them, but general enough so that children can
continue to imagine new ways to use them .
Figure 2: Projects from a Cricket workshop
Create is at the root of creative thinking. If we want
children to develop as creative thinkers, we need to provide
them with more opportunities to create.
Friedrich Froebel understood this idea when he opened the
world’s first kindergarten in 1837. Froebel filled his
kindergarten with physical objects (such as blocks, beads,
and tiles) that children could use for building, designing,
and creating. These objects became known as Froebel’s
Gifts. Froebel carefully designed his Gifts so that children,
as they played and constructed with the Gifts, would learn
about common patterns and forms in nature.
In effect, Froebel was designing for designers – he
designed objects that enabled children in his kindergarten
to do their own designing. Froebel’s work can be viewed as
an early example of Seymour Papert’s constructionist
approach to education , which aims to engage learners
in personally-meaningful design experiences.
In creating his Gifts, Froebel was limited by the materials
available in the early 19th century. With today’s electronic
and digital materials, we can create new types of
construction kits, expanding Froebel’s kindergarten
approach to older students working on more advanced
projects and learning more advanced ideas. With
Mindstorms and Crickets, for example, children can create
dynamic, interactive constructions – and, in the process,
learn concepts related to sensing, feedback, and control.
I view Mindstorms and Crickets as Froebel’s Gifts for the
21st century, using new technologies to extend the
kindergarten approach to learners of all ages.
Unfortunately, they are the exception rather than the rule in
today’s toy stores. Most electronic toys are not in the spirit
of Froebel’s Gifts, since they do not provide children with
opportunities to design or create. Most of today’s electronic
toys are pre-programmed by the toy company. Children
cannot design or create with these toys, they can only
interact with them; for example: hold the doll’s hand and
its mouth turns to a smile, sing to the doll and it starts
dancing. I am sure that designers and engineers at the toy
companies learn a great deal while creating these toys, but I
doubt that children learn very much while interacting with
Piaget famously proclaimed that “Play is the work of
children.” Certainly, play has been an integral part of the
traditional kindergarten approach to learning, and most
adults recognize the importance of providing young
children with opportunity to play. But as children grow
older, educators and parents often talk about play
dismissively, referring to activities as “just play,” as if play
is separate and even in opposition to learning.
In my mind, play and learning can and should be intimately
linked. Each, at its best, involves a process of
experimentation, exploration, and testing the boundaries
. Unfortunately, many recent attempts to link play and
learning are at odds with the kindergarten approach to play
and learning. Consider the recent focus on “edutainment”
products. Creators of edutainment products tend to view
education as a bitter medicine that needs the sugar-coating
of entertainment to become palatable. They provide
entertainment as a reward if you are willing to suffer
through a little education. Or they boast that you will have
so much fun using their products that you won’t even
realize that you are learning – as if learning were the most
unpleasant experience in the world.
I also have a problem with the word “edutainment” itself.
When people think about “education” and “entertainment,”
they tend to think of them as services that someone else
provides for you. Studios, directors, and actors provide you
with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with
education. Now, edutainment companies try to provide you
with both. In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive
recipient. If we are trying to help children develop as
creative thinkers, it is more productive to focus on “play”
and “learning” (things you do) rather than “entertainment”
and “education” (things that others provide for you).
Spurred by the extraordinary popularity of video games in
youth culture, a growing number of researchers have begun
examining how and what children learn as they play video
games . There is no doubt that children learn many
things when they play video games, and children exhibit a
deep sense of engagement that is all too rare in school
classrooms. But, with a few notable exceptions, such as the
Sim series games and Shaffer’s “epistemic games” ,
currently-available video games do not support
kindergarten-style learning. Even games that engage
children in strategic thinking and problem solving provide
few opportunities for children to design and create, a key
ingredient in the kindergarten approach to learning.
How can we use new technologies to integrate play, design,
and learning? One way is to provide children with the
opportunity to design their own games. In her book Minds
in Play, Yasmin Kafai  documents how elementary-
school students become more creative thinkers as they
design their own games. More recently, my research group
teamed up with Kafai to develop a new programming
language, called Scratch (http://scratch.mit.edu), that
enables children to create not only games but also
interactive stories, animations, music, and art . In
designing Scratch, one of our key goals was “tinkerability”
– that is, we wanted to make it easy for children to
playfully put together fragments of computer programs, try
them out, take them apart, and recombine them. To create
programs in Scratch, you simply snap together graphical
blocks, much like LEGO bricks or puzzle pieces (see
Figure 3). You don’t need to worry about where to put
semi-colons or square brackets: the blocks are designed to
fit together only in ways that make sense, so there are no
“syntax errors” as in traditional programming languages.
You can even add new blocks as the program is running, so
it is easy to “play with your code,” testing out new ideas
incrementally and iteratively.
Figure 3: Scratch programming blocks
At an educational-technology workshop a few years ago,
participants were asked which of the following learning
experiences had been most difficult for them:
o Learning to ride a bicycle
o Learning to write a computer program
o Learning to share
An overwhelming majority selected “learning to share.”
Sharing has always been an important part of the creative
process in kindergarten, but the ability to share and
collaborate has generally received less emphasis in later
years of schooling. That has started to change recently, as a
result of several independent but converging trends, all of
which are pushing schools to pay more attention to sharing
• Business leaders and policy makers, noting that
teamwork is more important in today’s workplace
than ever before, have encouraged schools to put
more emphasis on collaboration to help prepare
students for their future jobs
• Educational researchers, building on foundational
work of Vygotsky, have focused more attention on
the social nature of learning and strategies for
supporting communities of learners 
• The proliferation of interactive technologies and
widespread access to the Internet has led to a
flourishing of what Henry Jenkins  calls a
“participatory culture” – in which people actively
create and share ideas and media with one another
on blogs and collaborative websites like Flickr
(for photographs) and YouTube (for videos).
Our Scratch programming language aims to build on these
trends, making sharing an integral part of the programming
process. Even in today’s participatory culture, very few
people are creating and sharing programmable media (such
interactive characters and interactive games). While online
worlds like Second Life make it relatively easy to create
and share graphical objects, making those objects dynamic
and interactive requires some form of programming, and
traditional programming languages have had a steep
learning curve. The difficulty in sharing programmable
media has been one of the critical limiting factors in
previous efforts to engage children in programming. In a
critique of the Logo programming language, for example,
Marvin Minsky  noted that Logo has a great grammar
but not much literature. Whereas young writers are often
inspired by the great works of literature that they read,
there is no analogous library of great Logo projects to
inspire young programmers – and no outlets where young
programmers can share their Logo projects with others.
To overcome these limitations, the Scratch programming
language is interwoven into a website that provides both
inspiration and audience. Children can try out projects
created by others, re-use and modify code from those
projects, and post their own projects for others to try. The
goal is a collaborative community in which children are
constantly building on and extending one another’s work
with programmable media. We have found that
construction and community go hand-in-hand in the
creative process: children become more engaged in the
construction process when they are able to share their
constructions with others in a community, and children
become more engaged with communities when they are
able to share constructions (not just chat) with others
within those communities.
The kindergartens in Reggio Emilia, Italy, are a mecca for
researchers and educators interested in kindergarten.
People making the pilgrimage to the Reggio schools
invariably come away impressed with the organization of
the space, the availability of diverse materials for
experimentation and creative expression, the support of
collaborative activities. But for me, the most impressive
part of the Reggio kindergartens is the way they encourage
children to reflect on what they are doing. Children in
Reggio are constantly producing drawings and diagrams as
they work on projects. Teachers use these artifacts to
engage the children in discussing and reflecting on their
design process and thinking process. The classroom walls
are filled with children’s drawings, with teachers’
annotations, providing children a way to look back at
earlier stages of their work.
Such reflection is a critical part of the creative process, but
all too often overlooked in the classroom. In recent years,
schools have adopted more “hands-on” design activities,
but the focus is usually on the creation of an artifact rather
than critical reflection on the ideas that guided the design,
or strategies for refining and improving the design, or
connections to underlying scientific concepts and related
As we introduce new technological tools like Crickets and
Scratch, we make a special effort to engage children in
reflecting on the process of design. We explicitly talk about
the spiral of imagine-create-play-share-reflect-imagine, and
look for ways for children to use and communicate these
ideas. At the end of a two-day workshop using our Cricket
technology, for example, my colleague Bakhtiar Mikhak
asked the 12-year-old participants to write down “tips” for
children who would be starting a similar workshop the next
day. The children provided the following tips:
Work on things that you like
If you have no clue what to do, fiddle around
Don't be afraid to experiment
Find a friend to work with, share ideas!
It’s OK to copy stuff (to give you an idea)
Keep your ideas in a sketch book
Build, take apart, rebuild
Lots of things can go wrong, stick with it
These tips capture some of the core elements of the
kindergarten approach to learning. We see it as an
important indicator of success when participants in our
workshops not only practice a kindergarten approach to
learning but also understand and articulate the core ideas
underlying the approach.
Iteration is at the heart of the creative process. The process
of Imagine, Create, Play, Share, and Reflect inevitably
leads to new ideas – leading back to Imagine and the
beginning of a new cycle..
We try to apply these ideas to ourselves, in my research
group, as we develop new technologies like Crickets and
Scratch. We never expect to get things right on the first try.
We are constantly critiquing, adjusting, modifying,
revising. The ability to develop rapid prototypes is
critically important in this process. We find that
storyboards are not enough; we want functioning
prototypes. Initial prototypes don’t need to work perfectly,
just well enough for us (and our users) to play with, to
experiment with, to talk about. We’ll build a prototype,
play with it ourselves, watch some children play with it,
talk with them about it, talk among ourselves about it – and
then quickly build a new prototype.
When children use our technologies, we encourage them to
go through the same process. It doesn’t matter whether they
are creating an animated story or building an interactive
sculpture. In all cases, our message is the same: iterate,
iterate, and iterate again. Time, of course, is essential in
this process. If children have enough time to go through the
cycle only once, they’ll miss out on the most important part
of the creative process.
The process of becoming a creative thinker is itself an
iterative process. Historically, kindergarten has provided a
good foundation for creative thinking. Think of
kindergarten as the first time through the creative-thinking
cycle. Unfortunately, after leaving kindergarten, children
have not had the opportunity to iterate on what they learned
in kindergarten, to continue to develop as creative thinkers.
By extending the kindergarten approach, we hope to
provide opportunities for learners of all ages to build on
their kindergarten experiences, iteratively refining their
abilities as creative thinkers throughout their lives.
I would like to thank members of the Lifelong
Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab for
collaborating on the technologies and ideas discussed in
this paper. This research has received financial support
from the LEGO Company, the Intel Foundation, the
National Science Foundation (ITR-0325828), and the MIT
Media Laboratory’s research consortia.
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