Wednesday, January 27, 2016

What Makes it "Princess" Engineering?

My daughter turns four soon. Over the last year she has opened my eyes to the world of princesses, art, and music in a new way. I have written about what I recognize as valuable pre-STEM education but she has necessarily put the A in STEAM. As we approach her birthday (that she has requested to be a princess party) I have been making note of activities that are mechanically interesting but also echo the life of princesses. As I have shared activities and decoration ideas on the Preschool Engineer Facebook page, I have pondered "Why do I tag these things as Princess Engineering?"

Without getting into a discussion of gender equity and gender roles, I want to offer some answers to the question "What makes something "princess" engineering?" My short answer is: it is something that interests my daughter. But that isn't really fair, nor is it complete. The long answer includes discussion of context, topic, and seeing pre-STEAM learning in toys and/or experiences that are not at first recognized or valued for everything they offer.

Princess Engineering is finding pre-STEM learning in a new context. There are opportunities for children to learn pre-academic skills in just about anything that they find interesting. It is just a matter of adults taking the time and energy to see, however fleeting it may be, something valuable in the play. Just because my daughter in playing with dolls and sparkly things does not make her pre-academic learning any less valuable. Here are some examples of pre-STEM learning that I think I see:

- The process of sorting princesses is simple but, to me, looks like pre-Science. My daughter classifies her books - Disney princesses, Tiara Club Princesses, other Princesses like Fancy Nancy and Pinkalicious, and so on.
- Pre-math is evident when we count princess dolls and their things or when we discuss their sizes (large dolls, small dolls).
- When my daughter cuts the hair off her My Little Ponies or Barbies she is learning so much about length (pre-math) but also about technology - how we use tools (scissors) in our everyday lives.
- Sewing, needlepoint, crochet, and knitting are typically considered a princess-y things, perhaps reserved for the old-fashioned housewife. But the spatial relations required to do that kind of work will blow someone's mind. Not to mention learning a new technology or process to make something - sewing machines, needles and thread, hooks and yarn... (And, yes, my four year old is experimenting with needles and thread.)
- Princess Engineering is learning about materials and processes in the context of fashion. Not only is there something to be learned about how fabric and shapes can change someone's appearance from everyday to fancy, but science is also infiltrating design.
- Making snowflakes is one of those classic winter activities with preschoolers and other young children. It is a lovely pre-math activity to study multiplication and shape. By turning the snowflakes into skirts for "Snowflake Ballerinas" turns this preschool engineering craft into a princess engineering craft.

- My favorite way princess play supports pre-STEM learning is when my daughter uses her dolls to take it to the next level. She has the princesses build things from everything from houses to boats and trains. They have used magnifying glasses and telescopes. They have ridden with the Octonauts on an underwater adventure and explored Narnia with Aslan. The adventure of learning is the best and most wonderful thing I see in my daughter's princess life.

Princess Engineering is exploring topics that are relevant to engineering but not necessarily considered pre-academic. School-based learning is becoming more and more narrow with acute focus on academic skills. Over the last decade, early learning has become measurably and markedly different. There is now a hyper-focus on math and reading/writing over any other learning. That is where I see a HUGE win for princess engineering topics. Self-discovery, teamwork, and self-expression are all things that come up in princess life.

While it is commonly understood that scientific knowledge is based on observation and experimentation of the natural world, the fact that Science is a Human Endeavor is often overlooked. So when my daughter is learning about topics related to humanity through princesshood I consider it princess engineering. Here are some examples:

- Self-discovery is a huge theme in many books and videos about princesses. Disney princesses, Fancy Nancy, and Pinkalicious all have some personal journey they endure. Each princess has doubts, evaluates her place in the world, and develops self-confidence - all of which are healthy practices for our next generation of scientists and engineers.
- Teamwork is a huge theme in the Tiara Club Princess books and in the Rescue Princess books. In each book a team of princesses is confronted with a problem and then work together to solve the problem.
- Problem-solving is a theme in almost every princess story. books including one of our favorites The Apple Pip Princess.

If we let our children pursue their interests deeply and to the fullest extent then anything and everything they invest their playtime in is valuable. By seeing both pre-academic learning as well as non-academic skills in my daughter's princess play, I have been able to scaffold her learning in a way that suits her as a learner and me as a teacher. So I invite you to look at princess play - really look at it - and tell me what you think.

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