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  • Vignesh Prasad

A Framework for Evaluating and Improving Activities and Material

For the last few years we've been running learning spaces where learners can exercise their own agency and decide what it is that they want to do. While working with children we developed and tried out a lot of activities and material. Some of these worked well and some did not work at all. Over time we noticed some patterns and we were able to develop an intuition on what kind of activities might work better or what we might be able to do to make an activity successful.


As we've started to scale it's become important for us to communicate this intuition and to build a framework. This essay outlines key ideas that we've noticed and how we typically evaluate and improve activities.


A caveat before we begin our discussion - there's no substitute to Praxis and only experimentation can tell you what works and doesn't for sure. There may also be large amounts of cultural differences and personal preferences in children but notwithstanding these we've found a few helpful pointers.


The easiest way to understand this framework is to think in terms of constraints. Most activities constrain children in some way or the other. While there is one outcome that is worth consider (which I will describe towards the end) largely we will think of how learning material can create constraints in spaces and what kind of strategies we can employ to remove them.


Facilitator Constraint

This one is probably the most obvious one but is often overlooked. Some learning materials and activities requires a facilitator to be present and run the activity. This means that the participants will always require a moderator of some kind to enjoy this activity.


Let's try to understand this better with an example consider a quiz competition - typically this would require a quiz master to ask the questions and keep score among the children. Alternatively, consider Join the Dots - children can work on their own without a facilitator's help.


Workarounds:

There are couple of workarounds on an activity that might remove this constraint. This constraint is best removed by technology - in our earlier example, a child could easily use a laptop or phone to enjoy their own quizzes. Another option is for children to take turns to be the moderator. Children might take turns to play the role of a quiz master and ask others about things they know.


Space Constraint

In low resource settings and particularly in urban, densely populated areas the lack of space can be a huge constraint. In many urban slums, outdoor games are almost impossible with playgrounds not always accessible. When we think of space it's also important to consider storage space - a library for example may be tough to store in limited space.


The space constraint can also come in a different form. Some activities force everyone to participate in them simply because of the lack of space. Dancing for example in smaller spaces typically involves a few children dancing with everyone else watching them waiting for their turn. There is little to no space for uninterested children to explore or do something else.


Workarounds:

The best way to work around this constraint is to create designated times with visits to a nearby park or playground. Good spatial design can also aid us in storing our material or activities. Pratham's library in a classroom creates a mobile library that is extremely easy to store. Another example of this is turning Kho Kho which is played in a straight line to Circle Kho Kho which utilises significantly lesser space.


Repeat Constraint

There are quite a few activities that can only be done once. While they may add a lot of value the first time the lack of repeat value means that they don't keep the children occupied for too long. While almost everything becomes boring if done enough times, there are a few in particular that can only be repeated once or twice. A jigsaw puzzle is a good example of this - children might do a jigsaw puzzle a few times but they typically get bored of the same one after a few successful attempts.


Workarounds:

There are many possible workarounds to make an activity more repeatable. One approach we might take is to add a timer to the activity. Children might be excited to improve their timing and to complete the puzzle faster than they did last time. We have noticed that with a Rubick's cube this motivates children a lot.

While we prefer collaboration to competition sometimes a little healthy competition can create more repeat value. Allowing children to compete with each other on who finishes a jigsaw puzzle first can create fun situations.


Material Constraint

Many activities require prior material and can often be expensive in low resource settings. While Lego is an incredibly powerful activity with no other constraints, it is expensive to purchase particularly if there are many spaces to purchase it for. Some activities like painting also become challenging since it requires brushes for each child to use and can lead to fights if there is no clear fair system to take turns.


Workarounds:

Making an activity can be an activity itself. We can often turn this constraint into an opportunity. Rather than buying new jigsaw puzzles children might cut out photos from a newspaper and make their own jigsaw puzzles for their friends to solve. It's worth noting that many games have open source alternatives online that can be printed and cut to play for free.


Knowledge Constraint

Many activities require prior knowledge to enjoy and it's often something we take for granted. It's particularly damaging to a learner's confidence if we assume that they have the prerequisite knowledge and they end up struggling with the activity. Quizzes for example suffer from this a lot - if a child has no idea or exposure to a particular topic quizzes on it wouldn't be enjoyable at all.


It's important to note here that while we do want to minimise constraints the knowledge constraint is something that can also be leveraged. Many children find games like Monopoly aspirational and learn basic arithmetic simply to play the game.


Workarounds

Scaffolding can work brilliantly to solve this constraint. For example rather than asking a question in the form of a quiz "What is the animal with the strongest bite?" we can try and play Hangman with the sentence "The strongest bite of any animal is the Hippopotamus" The children can then guess letters and work their way to the answer.


Bonus: Exposure to New Topics

Exposure is the most valuable currency in self directed learning spaces. When you expose children to new ideas and topics you might find that they are increasingly curious. When we took our children on a field trip the number of activity ideas we got grew quite a lot and we learnt just how curious the children were. Exposure is a prerequisite for curiosity and activities that introduce new ideas and topics can lead to virtuous activity creation cycles.


One of our favourite activities has been an encyclopaedia exploration. Children are given some questions that they look up and find answers to in an encyclopaedia using the glossary. Just skimming through the pages and looking at images leads to so many new questions. It's easy to turn many activities to give exposure to new ideas. There is a Snakes and Ladders variation developed by the SOCHARA team for example that communicate ideas of personal hygiene.


Tying It All Together

When we are trying to create spaces where children truly have agency it's important to create activities and learning material with as few constraints as possible. This really allows children to have a say in what they'd like to do each day and it is only with the freedom of choice can we create accountability. You might find other constraints and this is by no means an exhaustive list but these we have found are useful.

It might be challenging to find activities that have no constraints at all but there are lots of good ones with only one constraint. Here are some examples that summarise the ideas mentioned above -

  1. Only Facilitator Constraint - Hangman

  2. Only Space Constraint - Kho Kho

  3. Only Repeat Constraint - Join the Dots

  4. Only Material Constraint - Jenga

  5. Only Knowledge Constraint - Word Building


One word of caution while using this framework this framework is not a be all and end all. Activities with less constraints don't automatically work and we must be careful to ensure we don't end up in a situation where the tail is wagging the dog. Our hope is that by thinking about these constraints we can truly get into the children's shoes and not take for granted the challenges they face. It is only with empathy and a child centric mindset that we can design activities and material for children.


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