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Learning by making

This is why your children need to know about Kelvin Bokai Doe (also known as DJ Focus):  He makes the things that he needs. Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, resources are scarce and shiny, new things are limited, and so, he granted his own heart’s desires through invention. 


So who is Kelvin Doe?

Today, Kelvin is one of the most respected young African inventors hailing from humble beginnings in Freetown, Sierra Leone.  At age 10, he taught himself how to build a battery out of spare parts and household supplies because he wanted to have the lights on for longer.  Next, he moved up to hand-powered generators, transmitters, and a multi-channel audio mixer - devices that he needed to create his own radio station because he wanted to share news and play music with his community under the moniker DJ Focus.

Kelvin may be an engineering prodigy but there is something special about his success that we should all pay more attention to:

Kelvin made things out of necessity and desire but he also had … no pressure to succeed.

Nobody expected Kelvin to solve all the problems that he did.  He was left to his own devices with no particular deadline to tinker away with the metal scraps and spare parts that he found lying around.  

There’s something magical about taking things apart out of pure curiosity.  
There’s something joyful and empowering about inventing to solve a problem.
It’s also very comforting when there aren’t any expectations about the project you’re working on.


So what does this mean?

In our super competitive, fast-paced, ultra-connected world, it’s easy to lose sight of the significance of free play during childhood.  In many ways, free play is what lifelong learning is all about - learning and growing at your own pace for the simple joy of progress that’s not measured against anything other than yourself.   So, make sure to give your child some extra free playtime - with no particular guidance or instructions (unless it’s to keep them safe - safety first!).  

To encourage free play, here are some ideas to help them along: 

  1. Embrace boredom!  Kids are naturally creative and won’t stay bored for long.  It’s just a matter of time before they’ll find something to fiddle with.  What kids can gain from being bored is that they’ll get into a practice of inventing whenever there is a shortage of stimulation.  
  2. Solo free play.  Nothing quite stimulates curiosity quite like being placed in a brand new environment or being presented with a new and unusual object.  So long as the new thing isn’t scary,  confronting new things alone can encourage independence and also offer space for exploration outside of the judgement of other people.
  3. Free play with others.  Kids, in particular, are more sensitive to the amplifying powers of having a friend in the room.  Everything is more fun, more exciting, and sometimes… more dramatic.
  4. Open-ended toys, odd parts, and tools!  Open-ended toys are invitations for interpretation.  Alone, they encourage kids to think differently about the use and purpose of an object.  However, tools such as pens and markers, glue, scissors, and sticky tape, stimulate ideas about design and construction since kids will be inclined to redesign or customise objects to their liking, or put them together to create something more sophisticated! 
  5. Get outdoors. The benefits of getting outdoors are endless.  From the fresh air to observing the season change, or noticing what creatures come out after the rain - the outdoors is an endless source of fascination not to be missed! 
  6. Lead by example! Get creative and have a little fun yourself!  Spend a day where you need to use the spoon for everything but eating or play a simple improv game with your child to let them know that adults can be playful, silly (but safe) and exploratory too!

Without a question, the outcomes of learning from free play are amazing, but the best part is… when your child succeeds, other children are inspired to succeed too!  David Sengeh, a PhD student at the MIT media lab and Kelvin's mentor, said: "In Sierra Leone, other young people suddenly feel they can be like Kelvin."

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