For all the educational potential of tablets and low-cost laptops, there’s still a strong case for giving youngsters actual, physical stuff to play with. Give a child an iPad app and you educate him for an hour; give a child some wooden blocks and you educate him for a lifetime—that’s the way the old Chinese proverb goes, right?
For his final project at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, Ishac Bertran devised a system that combined the best of both worlds. His Pas a Pas teaches concepts like geometry by giving kids a set of colorful blocks to paw, while a camera above captures the action and offers visual feedback on a tabletop display.
Traditionally, stop-motion requires several tools—a camera, a computer, and complex editing software. Bertran put all the necessary tools in one compact machine, housing a display in a retro wood-paneled case and suspending a camera overhead to track kids’ progress; the software has three different modes for a variety of stop-motion lessons. In "assistant" mode, the display shows students where and how to position blocks. In addition to slowly introducing the concepts of stop-motion animation, this guided experience is well-suited for teaching youngsters basic geometry—how two triangles can make a square, how two squares can make a rectangle, and so on. Bertran envisions different sets of objects and customized lesson plans tailored to a variety of subjects and age groups. The Pas a Pas’s next mode is "director," where kids can create their own stop-motion animations. The third is "collection," allowing students to access animations recorded by their peers—or even recorded remotely on Pas a Pas machines at other schools.
Bertran was inspired by devices like the Turtle, a robot used in classrooms to give kids a tangible entry point to fields like logic and programming. "I think that was really effective," he says, "and tried to find ways to teach abstract concepts with something physical." Bertran based his interactive lesson plans in part on the work of Wendy Jackson Hall, an artist and educator who did significant work to praise stop-motion animation’s educational value and bring it into the classrom. The medium inherently teaches young kids lessons about storytelling and team building, and helps develop an understanding of various concepts by "breaking reality down into small bits of time," Bertran explains. And after all that learning, there’s a built-in reward—a completed animation that can be viewed again and again.
In his in-classroom tests with the Pas a Pas, Bertran says, you could immediately perceive progress in students aged four to six. By guiding them through the construction of complex shapes with their blocks in one mode, the students had an easier time building the forms they had in mind when they were allowed to direct their own animations.
As far as other areas that might benefit from the Pas a Pas, Bertran sees potential for subjects like basic color theory and physics. The latter seems especially well-suited for the interactive system—even for teaching older students. I’m not sure if teenagers are too cool for stop-motion animation, but anything’s better than staring drowsily at equations on a dry-erase board.