Cultivating Communities of Creativity and Caring

Mitchel Resnick
11 min readMay 7, 2024

Presentation at the Play Explore Research (P.E.R.) conference in Reggio Emilia, Italy, November 2023

It is wonderful to come to an event that’s organized and supported by two of my biggest inspirations: Reggio and LEGO. Many of my ideas about children and learning and creativity have come from my collaborations with the Reggio Children Foundation and with the LEGO Company and the LEGO Foundation.

I appreciated that Carla asked me to speak on the theme of community, because I think that community is such an essential part of learning through play. I’ve seen the importance of community in the schools here in Reggio, and it plays a central role in the work of our Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab.

I want to start with a story from 18 months ago. In early March of 2022, I got an email from a Ukrainian educator, Olesia Vlasii, who I had never met before. The email came just 10 days after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. Olesia wrote to me: “I’m Olesia Vlasii, a Ukrainian teacher, a mother, and a children’s poet. Now is a very hard time for my native country. I decided to write to you and ask for help to create the largest wave of kindness.

And she went on to describe what she meant. She wrote: “There are so many people on the planet who need help. What can each of us do? We can create our own wave of kindness to send to these people.” In other words, each of us needs to connect with others, to express some kindness and support. According to Olesia, these ripples of kindness could add up to a wave that brings about change in the world.

Olesia was writing to me because she had been using Scratch, a children’s coding platform developed by our Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT. With Scratch, children can create their own interactive stories and games, then share their creations with other children around the world. Olesia suggested that children could use Scratch to create waves of kindness: “You can make a beautiful animation, a kind message, or simply draw a peaceful picture.”

I was really touched by Olesia’s message. I reached out to Olesia and set up a telephone call. As we had our conversation, I heard air-raid alarms in the background. Olesia told me about the difficult challenges that she was facing and her community was facing. But she believed that we could bring about change if we just had people make connections with one another around kindness.

Along with my colleagues at the Scratch Foundation, we decided to create a Scratch studio on the theme of “Spreading Kindness.” We encouraged children around the world to create Scratch projects to provide some happiness to someone, or to give advice on how to support others in difficult times, or to spread a little kindness in your community.

Within days there were literally thousands of projects from children around the world with ideas about how to share kindness and examples of things that they had done to help support others in their community. Some of the projects were explicit about supporting the people of Ukraine and particularly the children in Ukraine. Some of them did very sophisticated programming projects to make animations of the Ukrainian flag, and they added Ukrainian folk songs and artwork, and they brought it all together to give a message of hope to the people of Ukraine.

I think that Olesia realized that these projects alone were not going to stop the atrocities that were happening in Ukraine, or they would not end all aggression. But Olesia felt the projects were an important first step. When people start to think differently, over time it can create a new culture and bring about real change.

In Brazil, our colleagues at the Brazilian Creative Learning Network, who work with schools and educators across all of Brazil, initiated a coordinated effort to support waves of kindness across the country. In classrooms across Brazil, the students discussed what qualities are needed to create and support a more peaceful world, and how they could support those qualities. They shared many Scratch products and other ideas with one another and ideas, both in their classrooms and online.

In our Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, we’ve been deeply inspired by Olesia’s ideas, and by the waves of kindness initiatives in Brazil and elsewhere. These ideas and initiatives have provoked us to rethink some of the ways we describe our work and goals in the Lifelong Kindergarten group.

We call our group Lifelong Kindergarten because we’ve always been inspired by the way children learn in kindergarten. The kindergartens and preschools in Reggio have been a great inspiration for us. In kindergartens, children have opportunities to playfully create things in collaboration with one another, building houses and castles with blocks, making pictures with finger paints and crayons. In the process, they gain an understanding of the creative process: how to start with an idea, create something based on that idea, share your creations others, reflect on your experiences.

Unfortunately, in many schools, the process is very different after kindergarten. Children spend their time sitting in rows, listening to lectures, filling our worksheets. They have few opportunities to continue to develop their creative capacities. In our Lifelong Kindergarten group, we want to extend the kindergarten approach to learners of all ages, so that students can continue to develop their creative abilities throughout their lives.

In the past, we’ve often described our work this way: we design tools and activities to engage young people in creative learning experiences, giving them the opportunities to create, design and express themselves — and to develop as creative thinkers and learners.

But in the past few years, we’ve realized we’re not just about designing tools and activities. In fact, one of the most important ingredients to the success in our projects is the support of caring communities around these tools and activities. So now I describe our group a little differently. I say that we’re designing innovative tools and cultivating caring communities to engage young people in creative learning experiences. Caring communities play a very important role in our efforts to support playful and creative learning experiences. When people feel welcomed and supported and safe within a community, they are more willing to experiment, try new things, and take the risks that are an important part of the creative process.

The pace of change continues to accelerate in all parts of the world, in all parts of society. Today’s children, as they grow up, will face a never-ending stream of unknown, uncertain, and unpredictable situations. So the ability to think and act creatively is more important than ever. But children will only develop their creative abilities if they are part by caring communities. I think that’s an important part of the success of our Lifelong Kindergarten group — and the success of the Reggio schools.

To support the development of creative learning and caring communities, we’ve developed four guiding principles, which we call the four P’s of creative learning: Projects, Passion, Peers and Play. That is, we want to provide children with opportunities to work on projects, based on their passions, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit.

When children work on projects that they are passionate about, they are willing to work longer and harder, and persist in the face of challenges, and they make deeper connections to the ideas involved. And creative learning is not a solitary process: children do their most creative learning when they are part of a community, collaborating and sharing with their peers, learning with and from their peers. And when we talk about play, we don’t mean just laughing and having fun. We see play not as an activity but as an attitude. When children have a playful attitude, they’re willing to explore and experiment and to try new things.

I hope that the four P’s of Projects, Passion, Peers and Play will lead to an all-important fifth P: Peace. If children have opportunities to work on creative projects as part of a caring community, they will be more likely to generate waves of kindness and contribute to a world that is more equitable, more just, and more peaceful.

Let me give an example from the Scratch online community. In the United States, there’s a terrible threat of gun violence, with many more mass shootings than anywhere else in the world. It’s a terrible problem for young people in the United States, with school shootings happening very often, and it tears at our hearts. A couple years ago, there was a mass shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and most of the people killed were from LGBTQ communities. It was a violent and hateful crime. One of the young people in the Scratch community, named Jinho, was very upset and sad about this shooting, so he organized a collaborative Scratch project that involved dozens of young people. Here’s how he described it (in this video):

I thought why can’t we as Scratchers create something together, to honor the people who died in the Orlando tragedy? We created a multi-animator project, which means that each part was animated by a different animator and we stitched it all together to create the final project. I think around 40 or 50 people were involved in making the project.

Scratch is a really open place, where you can share anything you want. And you can express your feelings however you want. I think that’s a really beautiful part of it. My hope for the project was to reach out to some of the other people in this generation, so they know there are other people who support them.

For me, this is an example of the amazing things that young people can do, given the right support and the right environment that allows them to work together and to express themselves. And it really shows that tight connection between caring and creativity: clearly these young people were learning creative skills as they created their animations. But the project also came from their hearts, from working together as a community, within the Scratch community, and doing something to support the community around them, to try to address one of the big problems and dangers in society.

We want to make sure that all young people, from all backgrounds, have the opportunity to express themselves creatively and to come together, to work together on projects that are meaningful to them and to one another, to make changes in their communities.

The need for community became even greater in the last few years during the pandemic, when people were disconnected and isolated and it was even more difficult to form connections with one another. It was interesting to see how young people responded in the Scratch online community.

I want to highlight one project created by a Scratcher with the username “helloyowuzzup”. She had created more than 600 Scratch projects, so she was very active in the community. She had left Scratch a couple years before the pandemic because she was getting older, she got interested in other things. But during the pandemic she came back to Scratch, partly because it was a safe and familiar place, like coming back home. She was feeling disconnected and isolated, so she came back to a familiar community where she could feel a connection. She also wanted to help other people make those types of connections. So she created and shared a project called “Random Acts of COVID Kindness!” She wrote that it was more important than ever to support other people during this time when people were isolated. In her project, she suggested that other people could write to her if they were going through a difficult time and needed some support — or if they wanted to offer some support to other people. She offered to act as a type of matchmaker between people who said they needed some support and those who wanted to offer support. Hundreds of young people participated in making projects to lend a little bit of hope and kindness to other people.

I think young people will rise to the task if they are given the opportunity to support one another and build community. Of course, although some of these examples are online, this is just as important when young people gather together in person. We have seen this in Computer Clubhouses, the network of after-school learning centers that our Lifelong Kindergarten group co-founded 30 years ago.

There are now more than 100 Clubhouses in 20 countries around the world, all located in marginalized communities, where young people have not had as many opportunities to engage in playful, creative learning experiences with new technologies. We worked with local community centers to open these Clubhouses as safe spaces where young people, ages 10–18, can come and learn to create together with new technologies. Young people from South Africa, Mexico, Jordan, Taiwan, Brazil, India, and many other countries are going to these local Clubhouses to create and share projects in collaboration with one another within a caring environment.

I think these Clubhouses have been successful because they aren’t just rooms full of technology but caring communities where young people can collaborate and share with one another, with support from adult mentors.

I want to highlight one Clubhouse initiative called Youth Activism and Advocacy. Clubhouse members were asked to propose projects where they could actively work to bring about change in their local communities. This initiative was organized by Jaleesa Trapp, a graduate student in our Lifelong Kindergarten group, who participated as a Clubhouse member as a youth, then later served as a Clubhouse coordinator, and is now a graduate student at MIT giving back to the Clubhouses.

Jaleesa organized Youth Activism initiative with ten different Clubhouses. At each of the Clubhouses, members are working on projects to address challenging issues in their own local communities. Different communities are facing different challenges. But in all cases, young people identified and worked on issues that they were passionate about. Here are some of the issues that youth at the ten Clubhouses addressed in their projects: Environmental Justice, Food Insecurity, Immigrant Rights, LGBTQ Education, Economic Opportunity, Youth Voice in Local Government.

Last week, Clubhouse coordinators from around the world gathered in Boston for the Clubhouse annual conference. There was a keynote panel the projects from the ten Clubhouses that participated in the Youth Activism and Advocacy initiative. The panel generated great interest and excitement. But in a sad reminder of the challenges of today’s world, only nine of the ten Clubhouse coordinators participated in the panel, since the Clubhouse coordinator from Palestine could not come to the conference due to the tragic violence in that region.

With all the challenges in the world, from gun violence to pandemics to wars to climate change, we need better ways to support caring communities.

Let me end by going back to Olesia Vlasii from Ukraine, who continues with her efforts despite the ongoing challenges that she and so many others are facing in Ukraine. As I’ve talked with Olesia over the past year, she recognizes that the things she’s doing will not, by themselves, end the war in Ukraine. She says that we need a long-term strategy for change. In my conversations with Olesia, we’ve identified two things that are needed for long-term change.

First, we need to engage the next generation. Second, we must work together to foster a culture of creativity and caring.

If we hope to bring about long-term change, we must keep these two goals in mind in whatever we do. You are already doing that here in Reggio. I’ve often heard Carla say that children are citizens from birth, and they can play an active role in bringing about change to their communities.

We try to think about these two goals, whether we’re designing a new technology or designing a new activity or designing a new space for learning. We’re always trying to think “How can we support children’s creativity and cultivate a caring community?”

Bringing about long-term change is a big effort that will require many people and many years. It will require efforts from parents and educators and researchers and administrators and policy makers. It’s a difficult challenge, but it’s the most important thing we can do. We need to help young people develop as creative learners and caring members of their communities, so that they can help build a society that is more equitable, more just, more sustainable, and more peaceful.

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Mitchel Resnick

Professor of Learning Research at MIT Media Lab, director of Lifelong Kindergarten research group, and founder of the Scratch project (http://scratch.mit.edu)