buttons and elephants

Participants: 2 children (2.5-5 years old)

Duration: 120 minutes

During an open afternoon at scintillae,  children and adults were offered the chance to explore, play and experience some characteristic contexts.

The protagonists that day were Edoardo, 5 years old and Xue, 2.5 years old, who met each other for the first time. Xue, of Chinese origin, lives and goes to an infant-toddler center in Reggio Emilia, while Edoardo, Italo-American, lives in San Diego and was in Reggio Emilia on vacation.

The space that welcomed them offered different possibilities, materials and contexts to explore: a table with various non-structured materials, including buttons, marbles and LEGO pieces; a space on the floor covered by a white paper surface for projections or to build and/or draw on. These two contexts immediately attracted their attention. 

Edoardo began his exploration by drawing a mostruoso gentile (a kind monster) that he invented.

He decided to add some golden buttons, chosen from among the unstructured materials, to complete the image.

Xue, in the meantime, was sitting on the paper playing with various materials: she was especially interested in the same golden buttons.

The atelierista, noticing her interest, decided to photograph and isolate one of the buttons using the Photoshop Mix app on the iPad, in order to offer multiple possibilities for interaction. The ipad, connected to the projector, reproduced the image of the button on the white surface.

Xue could interact with the button on three different levels: the physical button, the digitalized image on the iPad screen and the image projected on the paper.

Xue began to play and experiment with the physical button and the digitalized one, moving it, resizing it and hiding it, creating light plays and movement on the white surface.

Edoardo observed Xue carefully: although he was focused on his own investigation, he recognized the interesting “novelty” (provocation) in the game created by Xue and, intrigued, he moved near her to examine these new possibilities more closely.

After observing for a moment, Edoardo attempted to interact with the button, trying to move it like Xue was doing. The little girl accepted this interference, but trying to move the button on the screen simultaneously was more complicated than expected.

Edoardo led their game. After exploring different possible dimensions of the button on the screen (using mathematical and geometric thought), moving between the physical and the digital, he decided to draw the button.

Xue carefully watched him and “participated” by observing. Children recognize each other’s skills and also learn by observing one another.

Edoardo’s attention turned once again to the digital button, and thanks to the iPad, he could explore a multitude of possible transformations:

…the button is really really big, then small, smaller, and it can move…

This is a proximal zone in his learning process – small, large, very small – “measuring” with his eyes.

…and it hides, then it comes out again… it’s running away!

The button doesn’t want to get caught!


Edoardo, 5 

Edoardo sought the presence and solidarity of the adult and involved her in playing catch me with the button. The game was transformed when Edoardo made the button run away and disappear from the screen … creating an opportunity to play hide-and-seek.

There was another important step: Edoardo decided to add a group of LEGO elephants to the button that “wanted to play” and hide.

Thanks to the Photoshop Mix app and with the help of the adult, the elephants also entered the iPad and were projected onto the white paper.

Xue, attracted by Edoardo’s laughter and having understood the “meaning of the game”, began to play with him, trying to catch the elephants but they kept running away. Edoardo, amused, didn’t keep them still for a second. 

Edoardo  wanted to try and catch them, so he asked the atelierista to take his place. Xue soon approached and moved the elephants using the iPad, making them run away from Edoardo. For Xue, 2.5 years old, the appearance and disappearance of objects was a concept she was still acquiring. The game with Edoardo offered her a good opportunity to experience this.

What emerged from this experience were: Edoardo’s initiative in carrying out explorations based on his interests regarding different concepts like size, transformation, movement and permanence of objects between different modes of representation and languages. Xue and Edoardo gradually recognized each other’s ability to play and they were able to collaborate on play together. Finally, they had the opportunity to familiarize with the tablet and they began to develop an initial awareness of digital materials through peer-to-peer learning.

Do these investigations support play, or does play support their research?

Finally, we believe it is important to underline the interesting possibility that a natural and fluid exchange between analogical and digital dimensions can offer in playful contexts that are characterized by learning linked to communicative and socio-emotional dimensions.  It was satisfying and exciting for both Edoardo and Xue to create a game and determine the rules.