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Play: What’s to be learned from kids? Part 2

Part of the Designing Play program series, developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann visits the Walker this Thursday to address the topic: Playful Inventions and Explorations: What’s to be learned from kids? (Thursday, April 22nd, 7 pm, Cinema, Free). Ackermann has studied under Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist renowned for his studies on child development and has […]

Edith Ackermann

Part of the Designing Play program series, developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann visits the Walker this Thursday to address the topic: Playful Inventions and Explorations: What’s to be learned from kids? (Thursday, April 22nd, 7 pm, Cinema, Free). Ackermann has studied under Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist renowned for his studies on child development and has devoted her research to exploring the relationship between play, learning, design, and technology at MIT’s Media Lab, the LEGO Learning Institute, and most recently at the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art and Human Perception in San Francisco, California. Below is the second part of an interview with Ackermann, click here for part 1.

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What happens when you design with, rather than for kids?

When you design with, rather than for kids there’s a better chance to come up with a solution that fits the children, provided the designers don’t surrender their expertise to come up with surprising solutions, and the children are given the elbow-room and time to let designers know what they really care about (beyond the contrived context of usability studies). Easier said than done! When it comes to innovating for others, don’t guess what they want or do what they say: co-create what they—and you—will love once it is there!

Playscapes Activity at February 2010 Free First Saturday "Let's Play!" Photo by Gene Pittman

What’s your earliest play memory? Why do you think we remember these experiences?

I always loved to play on the beach with my sister. We spent hours building castles and entire cities, using buckets to moisten and shape the sand. We collected stones, sticks, and shells for decoration. It was also fun to dig holes in the sand till they were deep enough for the water to appear at the bottom, and then to widen the walls to form puddles big enough for us to sit in – and our dolls to swim in. Not to mention the joy of covering ourselves up in the sand, letting only our heads stick out, and then running into the water to rinse off! Looks like the beach is a perfect playground for old and young to have fun together….

Why is play important, and what can adults learn from kids’ play?

Play, like imagination itself, requires an appreciation of things in their unreality, a desire to move outside the comfort zone. Through pretense and fantasy play, children detach messages, experiences, and objects from their context of origin, creating a new frame that allows for greater freedom, interactivity, and creative possibilities. As they tweak the constraints of a situation [respecting and transgressing rules], they feel free to move, engage with new contexts and open up their experience to unexpected possibilities.

People, young and old, need fun, humor, poetry, pretense, and make-believe. They seek to cross boundaries, widen their horizon, and feel ‘transported’. They love to know what’s NOT THERE and take a walk on the wild side.

Do you think there’s a deficit of play in the lives of children or adults? If so, what’s your suggested antidote?

We seem to witness both an overkill of entertainment—and its pedagogical servant: edutainment—and a lack of open-ended and constructive play—and its pedagogical equivalent—genuine “hard fun”: the ability to move or operate freely in a bounded space. The metaphor of the “leap” is often used to capture the sense of exuberance and freedom that characterize children’s play, as well as its boundary-crossing nature. Problem is:  We can’t just leap without a place to land, and there would be no levity without gravity.  It is in this deep sense that play is not merely an escape from reality but the freedom to participate in, transform and be transformed by the world.

As John Holt put it  “Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world”. It is their way of understanding it and coming to grips with their experience, turning it over and owning it. To play is to become a part of a reality in constant transformative engagement with itself. Play does not disappear with adulthood, nor is it a luxury reserved to poets and artists alone.

Father/son team designing a model on Google SketchUp. Photo by Ashley Duffalo

What are your thoughts on technology’s effect on children living in the digital age?

Question is: what do “we” mean by technologies. In Allan Kay’s words: grown-ups tend to call “technology” any tool that was invented after “they” are born. Not so for children! Born into a world filled with human-made artifacts (from spoons to buzzers, from electric appliances to remote-controls, from tree-houses to interactive toys), Children have no preconceived ideas of what’s high-tech or low-tech, animate or inanimate, physical or digital. Instead, they build their own categories as they gravitate toward and come to experience useful and fun things to play with. Children, in other words, re-purpose intended uses and appropriate the tools and toys at their avail to support them in own their relentless desire to play and learn. Obviously staring at a computer screen day in day out won’t get the kids moving, nor, for that matter, will sitting in a library, in a car,  or in a classroom for hours in a row.

What’s your perspective on the relationship between kids and their senses these days? Is the profusion of screens (TV, computer, mobile phones, etc) making them afraid to get their hands dirty?

The profusion of screens seems to have the paradoxical effect that today’s children are more than ever obsessed with getting their hands in the dirt! Unlike their parents or grand-parents (the TV watchers), many so-called “digital natives” (the young cyber-geeks) are, in fact, reclaiming their mobility (cell phones, iPods) and their territory (digitally-augmented physical places, locative and ubiquitous computing). They form a new culture of makers, hobbyists, bricoleurs, pro-ams, fabricators and tinkerers –who care about things because they know how to fix, mend, personalize, and recycle things. They are also a culture of participation – people who share their creations; and who borrow, remix, address and swap their creations. They build on each other’s contributions all the time…

It has become commonplace to think of young people as “geeks” who spend their lives playing on line and browsing the web. While many still do, today’s tinkerers also design, create, and invent: they move between worlds (digital, physical, virtual), they mess with materials, and they care for their environment. While worried parents fear for their senses, the children ironically show us the way.