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Play: What’s to be learned from kids? Part 1

With their boundless curiosity, fertile imagination, and a natural mastery of the art of self-directed learning, children have much to teach adults about creativity and innovation. That’s perhaps even more true with today’s “digital natives,” says developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann, whose work explores—and exploits—the intersections of play, learning, design, and technology. An educator and researcher, […]

Developmental Psychologist, Edith Ackermann

With their boundless curiosity, fertile imagination, and a natural mastery of the art of self-directed learning, children have much to teach adults about creativity and innovation. That’s perhaps even more true with today’s “digital natives,” says developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann, whose work explores—and exploits—the intersections of play, learning, design, and technology. An educator and researcher, Ackermann has consulted for LEGO and the LEGO Learning Institute for more than 20 years and worked under the direction of Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist renowned for his studies on children and play, at the Centre International d’Epistémologie Génétique. She has taught at Harvard, MIT, and other universities.

Part of the Designing Play program series, Edith Ackermann visits the Walker this spring to address the topic: Playful Inventions and Explorations: What’s to be learned from kids? (Thursday, April 22nd, 7 pm, Cinema, Free) Here’s a snippet of a  Q&A we exchanged over email…I’ll post more in the weeks leading up to her talk.


How would you summarize your professional relationship to play, children’s learning, and design?

Ever since I was a student, and started working with children, I have been wondering: why are children such good learners? How do they do it? And what are they learning about as they apparently “mindlessly” and playfully interact with their world?  Later in life, I shifted gears from studying how children act, think, and learn to designing environments for children to act, think and learn in. Two lessons I have learned:

1) Children may not have much experience or knowledge (at least not as much as grown-ups or older siblings) but they sure are born with a knack to do “the right thing” in order to get to know more about what they don’t know yet.

2) Children learn all the time and everywhere – in school, at home, on-line. And the best part, they learn a great deal even as they are playing! Alas, they learn especially well as they are playing. As the saying goes, play is a child’s most serious work!

Whose ideas/philosophies have been most influential to your work?

I owe much to my mentor Jean Piaget and his colleagues from the CIEG (Centre International d’Epistemologie Genetique) in Geneva who taught me to appreciate, understand, and elicit children’s ways of thinking (through a technique known as clinical exploration), and to create conditions that fuel their interests and leverage their potential through indirect teaching, or design.

I also learned from Seymour Papert and the Epistemology and Learning Group at the MIT Media Lab to emphasize the importance of situated and embodied cognition, and to explore the potential of digital technologies as a means to mediate and leverage children’s talents as self-directed learners and creative thinkers.

Above all, I seek collaborations with individuals and teams who take it as their task to rethink the links between curiosity, imagination and creative expression and who “walk the talk” by bringing delight and lightness into the should-driven world of educators or the humorless exposés by scholars of human creativity. Some heroes include designers and artists Bruno Munari, Toshi Iwai, Fischli und Weiss, poet and writer Gianni Rodari, The Reggio Emilia infant and toddler schools, and the Exploratorium Science Museum.

What has been one of your most memorable/favorite projects?

One of my favorite projects is happening right now, at the Exploratorium Science Museum in San Francisco, CA. As an Osher fellow, I have been able to spend significant chunks of time working with colleagues from the “playful inventions and explorations” group, also known as PIE.

While not intended exclusively for children, PIE tinkering activities are unique in their abilities to put imagination and playfulness at the service of knowledge and reasoning. The result is exquisite. You may enjoy a peek into some of the PIE projects, such as  “wind-powered wonders”, “light reflections”, and “scribbling machines” by visiting the website: http://www.exploratorium.edu/pie/ideas.html

In your mind, how is design like play?

Both design and play involve breaking loose from habitual ways of thinking, and making dreams come true! This, in turn, requires 1. an ability to imagine how things could be beyond merely describing or representing how things are (ask what if, do as if, inventing alternative ways); and 2. a desire to give form or expression to things imagined, by projecting them outward (thus making otherwise hidden ideas tangible and shareable). Both are about building and iterating. Messing around with materials, or giving the head a hand often sparks a maker’s imagination and sustains her interest and engagement: you get started and the ideas will come. You persevere and the ideas will fly.

What are the pitfalls of designing for kids (i.e. toys, play environments)?

Nothing is harder than to design environments for other people to design in. And the reason for this is that bells and whistles, ease of use, or age appropriate-ness alone won’t make for meaningful interactions. In order to grab a child’s attention and sustain her interest, a toy needs to have “holding power”, a term introduced by Papert to describe its ability to grow with the child (I grow with my toys and my toys grow with me). Favorite playthings – or playground – can be many things. Yet to hold active engagement, they should be: open enough to let you in; intriguing enough to capture your imagination; safe enough to let you enact otherwise risky ideas; and generous enough to always give you a second chance. While guidelines such as these are useful, they offer no warranty for success:  the children may still ignore a toy especially designed for them—and what’s a hit for one kid may leave another cold.

Kids Play Space in the Walker's Local Artist Gift Mart, Target Gallery, December 6, 2009. Photo: Gene Pittman

  • I’ve taught children most of my life from pre school on up.I coompetely agree with you that chidren learn through play.I’ve always provided a creative atmosphere in which they can pretend.Pretend is practicing life.It’s also important to give a child a problem or project and let them from start to finish reason it out .If they are told what to do and how to do it they learn to depend on others to figure it out for them. This becomes a habit and it begins early in life when they play.I espcially believe this concept to be correct in teaching art. Art is a great way of practicing creativity.Provide different materials and allow children to come up with something. They learn to depend on themselves and not a list of instructions.I”ve spent my life playing with children and it’s the best way to understand how a child developes and grows;what an awsome creation!

  • harriet beck says:

    I don’t think play should be restricted to children.
    Adults could benefit a great deal from play and fun as well.

  • Jennifer Hooper says:

    “I don’t think play should be restricted to children.
    Adults could benefit a great deal from play and fun as well.”
    I totally agree, I am 30 and I wish I could have a tree house. I was delighted to find adult sized play structures at the Franconia Sculpture Park recently. I am also a parent of two young children and an artist, which allows me to express the urge to play without appearing to crazy. I hope. While I was studying art and design I was introduced to many new mediums. I really enjoyed approaching the new materials, sometimes with my kids in an uninhibited, playful way. I think being a parent has helped me see the world differently and being an artist has given me something to fiddle around with.