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Children and Communication

February - April, 1971

A child is working on the electrowriter. Kids invented games and used one machine to send each other instructions on how to use another machine.

Children sending messages on the Electro-Writer equipment  during Children and Communication.

In a Projects Outside Art project entitled, Children and Communication and led by staff members Ritty Burchfield and Barry Kaplan, E.A.T. developed two environments for children filled with a variety of communications equipment that the children in each environment could use freely to communicate with each other. The aim of the pilot project was to  encourage communication and cooperation among children from different geographic locations and cultural backgrounds. If successful, similar projects might be undertaken to link diverse groups of children.  E.A.T. also worked with educational specialists from New York University to explore the possibilities of using such communication environments for education.


Robert Whitman designed the two environments -- at the E.A.T. loft at 9 East 16 Street and Automation House at 49 East 68th Street -- using a large tent with head room only for children, made from theater scrims and  lit from above with multi-colored broad-beam lights. These environments were linked by 14 dedicated telephone lines; and the terminal equipment included 10 telephones,  a Xerox and Magnavox facsimile machines, 2  Electro-writers, and 2 telex machines. The equipment was spaced around the perimeter of the space. Each environment could accommodate up to twelve children at any given time. Equipment was loaned by Automation House, Magnavox, New York Telephone Company, Victor, Comptometer, Wester Union, and Xerox; Creative Playthings donated children’s tables and chairs. 

Selected schools and community groups were invited to arrange sessions for their students from ages 6 to 14 in groups from 7 to 10 children. The groups were flexibly scheduled, generally for sessions about an hour and a half, from February 22 to April 9, 1971. Groups from fifteen schools and educational programs from different parts of the city participated. Included were Brearley School, Children's Community Workshop School, Good Neighbor Tutorial Program, Horace Mann School, Intermediate School No. 201, Little Red School House, Northside Center for Child Development, Public School No. 19, Saint Ann's School, United Nations Schools, and We Care, a community group in Harlem. A total of about 400 children were estimated to have visited the two locations and used the equipment to communicate with each other. Of the 17 sessions organized during the project, most consisted of children from the same school at each location. However six very interesting sessions  consisted of groups from different schools at each environment.


Ritty Burchfield and Barry Kaplan at the respective centers would show children how to use the equipment, after which the children were free to devise their own activities. The younger children had to be given more continual assurance on how to use the equipment. Parents, teachers, and other adults were asked to remain outside the environment unless the children asked them to come in. Refreshments were provided. The children at the two centers communicated with each other by writing messages and stories, asking and answering questions, drawing pictures, and playing games like tic-tac-toe. The younger children thoroughly enjoyed using the  equipment designed for adults, even if their hands could not easily operate some of the equipment. The telephones themselves were a joy for those children, not otherwise permitted to use them, Attention spans were considered significantly longer than usual. The older children were found to be  more facile but also more inhibited than the younger ones.

The project showed that children from different backgrounds and geographic locations could establish contact with each other without having to leave their own area. They were able to communicate as individuals rather than having to be part of a group reaction to a new group of children. The environment was not programmed to teach specific skills but enabled children to use the equipment actively and creatively in a non-competitive situation. The children reacted extremely favorably to the environments and showed no fear or hesitation in using the equipment. They would teach each other how to use the machines, often giving instructions over the telephone. They devised their own rules of cooperation and determined the form and content of their written and oral communications. We found the children were greatly motivated to use writing and reading skills to communicate with other children. The project showed that such communication centers established between cooperating schools could be programmed for open communication or directed toward developing specific learning skills.

Ernst Rothkopf, E.A.T. Board Member and head of the Learning and Instructional Processes Department at Bell Telephone Laboratories, invited Marcia Newfield to observe the children's activity during the project. Newfield, who was a fellow at Bell Labs and also studied at the Institute for Developmental Studies at New York University, explored the possibilities for a more structured educational application of the communication centers. Based on her observations, Newfield and  the head of the Institute, Dr. Martin Deutsch, prepared a proposal titled "Curriculum for the Future" outlining a curriculum to be developed through collaboration of different professionals that would incorporate the same technical and communication equipment and child-centered environments as in Children and Communication.

Later in 1971 E.A.T worked Erns Rothkopf on a proposal to use videotape material and editing facilities at Automation House to develop and encourage visual literacy in children. The grant proposal was submitted to the United States Office of Education. 


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