It started simply enough, over a cup of coffee between two people at the William Penn Starbucks and an observation: There sure are a lot of bright people in Pittsburgh working on cool things for kids.
But who was keeping track of all this work in any coherent way? And who, if anyone, was connecting all the people involved?
Turns out nobody.
Yet the possibilities were enticing. What would happen if those brainy tech types at the Entertainment Technology Center linked up with the creative playsters at the Children’s Museum? Or if the Tech Council knew of people who could help with the latest mindblowing project at the Robotics Center?
Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation and Jess Trybus ofEtcetera Edutainment, who were at that first meeting, called for an informal meeting of the minds to test the waters which led to to another meeting that was standing room only.
In a quick evolution, a working group morphed into Kids + Creativity, a broad and impressive network of more than 300 Pittsburgh leaders advancing issues for kids, especially through technology and arts in advancing the way kids learn.
The question of creativity as something that could be taught was never even raised; instead, it was a premise from the start.
Won’t you be my collaborator?
Credit Gregg Behr, the gentle taskmaster, creative dot-connector, prolific emailer and meeting convener, with launching the Kids + Creativity group and equally important, keeping it all together. Hence, his nickname: the Master Scaffolder.
And once the group took hold, Behr got the idea –why not?—to rebrand the entire city. In case you haven’t heard, welcome to Kidsburgh. The best place to raise kids on the planet. Period.
Why not Pittsburgh? asks Jane Werner, executive director of the award-winning Children’s Museum, who names just a few of the powerhouses in town such as the Studio for Creative Inquiry at CMU and the University of Pittsburgh. Not to mention the one she works for. She has benefited from the K+C group in more ways than one.
“There are very few times you get a chance to talk to people in similar fields, to better connect and do more for kids,” she says.
Michele Figlar concurs. “Educators now have the same space sharing ideas with tech people and arts people and those things just don’t naturally happen because we live in silos,” says Figlar, head of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAYEC) . “As simple as that sounds, it’s really hard to make happen. And that’s the most powerful thing.”
For Figlar, the effect of the Kids + Creativity group is profound. “It has allowed PAYEC to really be at the table, ” she notes. “Our perspective of work and knowledge base is considered. When CREATE Lab is starting something new and innovative, now they’ll call us and say, hey what do you think?”
Likewise, Werner has met a lot of people through the Kids + Creativity group “and ended up in unique collaborations”, she says. One example: the MakeShop Project with ETC, a blending of the popular Make magazine, the DIY movement and the two Pittsburgh orgs in a new venture launching soon.
“It’s in answer to the 8, 9 and 10-year-olds, who make up 23% of the Children’s museum audience, and how do we capture and grow that?” says Werner.
On another note, she adds, “Technology is even more interesting – no one else is figuring out the new technology and how it’s impacting kids.”
They are now. Last year’s very forward-thinking Fred Forward conference, sponsored by the Fred Rogers Center, brought in national experts to the region to look at modern technology and digital media and its potential to change the landscape of children’s education.
Among this group, Fred Rogers is considered an early media pioneer and Behr refers to the diverse and highly creative members as “modern day Freds.”
Six Degrees of Connection
In a tracking who’s doing what for kids in Pittsburgh, Behr created a map with six categories (see illustration, left), from thought leadership, talent and design, to learning, teaching and blended networks. He is keenly aware of work being done on a day to day basis, and therefore better able to see the connections with potential for greatness.
Looking back on this, says Linda Krynski, who was with the group from the start, “It staked us in two broad efforts: to connect individuals and groups already on the scene and to create new linkages to connect across traditional and nontraditional lines.”
That second junction, as any design thinker will tell you, is where fresh ideas and innovation arise.
Already there is an impressive list. To name a few: The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh worked with roBlocks to enhance its exhibits with robotics technology (Werner will discuss this project at a June conference in Italy) and the Pittsburgh Zoo collaborated with Reefbotin their impressive and kid-cool aquarium (see photo left).
Carnegie Library and ETC launched My StoryMaker, an imaginative program which allows kids to create their own fun characters and stories to advance early literacy, while the Sprout Fund introduced Spark, funding small-scale initiatives for kids up to 8 through the creative use of technology and media. (Several of the photos at left were taken at a Spark event.)
“What distinguishes K+C is that the participants are there with the bigger vision of Kidsburgh as the common concept,” says Krynski. “This broader vision transcends and connects the missions of all those involved across all the sectors involved: old guard, new guard, individuals, organizations, intermediaries–everyone is invited to be there in service of kids.”
What’s more, writes Rita Catalano of the Fred Rogers Center in a recent blog, “The relationships among Kids+Creativity members from colleges and universities, K-12 schools, informal learning organizations, arts groups, and others ensure that everything created for and by kids is grounded in research and principles of learning and child development.”
Any other city out there doing anything like this? Not that this well-connected group knows of, but already word is out about what Pittsburgh is doing.
There’s a weekly K+C Digest for members through email and on Ning, a Kidsburgh focus in Pop City and a quarterly newsletter called Pittsburgh is Kidsburgh sent far and wide.
While the group’s work is very Pittsburgh-focused, they also closely monitor what other markets are doing. A dozen Pittsburghers have been on the West Coast this week attending “Learning from Hollywood,” while others are in Canada attending InPlay .
A few weeks ago, some traveled to Boston to attend the Sandbox Summit, and next month others will be in Philadelphia attending ISTE.
They carry the Kidsburgh theme with them while returning with an infusion of new ideas and thinking.
While the goal of these many collaborations is to nurture creativity to enhance learning in our children, one result is surely the creativity that is being nurtured in spades within the K + C community. In the end, it’s all about talent and collaboration. And there’s no better place to find it than Pittsburgh when it comes to people making a difference for kids, according to this group.
As Krynski points out, “It’s out of this effort that new leaders are emerging. How cool is that?”
Pretty cool, agreed. But then there’s this perspective. “Interesting, isn’t it?” notes one foundation person. All this work around children, all these amazing accomplishments for the K+C group and Pittsburgh. Having laid the foundation for this city as being the best place to raise a kid, what does Gregg Behr do? He and his wife Yu-ling are expecting their first child any day now.
Smart, huh? In the end, it’s all about collaboration.
Tracy Certo is publisher and editor of Pop City.
ReefBot exhibit at PPG Aquarium. Photo Joey Kennedy.
Gregg Behr of the Grable Foundation at the Gong Show. Photo Martha Rial.
Digital Toys for Math Literacy at Propel Schools. Photo Joey Kennedy.
Story Box at Saturday Light Brigade Studios at the Children’s Museum. Photo Mark Rawlings.
Michelle Figlar of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children promoting a creativity conference at the Gong Show. Photo Martha Rial.
ReefBot Project Team. Photo Joey Kennedy.
Kids and Creativity Ecosystem.