I had lunch with a friend of mine last week who asked me whether I spend more of my time concentrating on play, or on learning. At first I was shocked. Play is how kids learn is so ingrained in my brain that I forgot not everyone thinks that way. For those of us not in the kids’ media industry, this was a perfectly normal question. There continues to be a mental divide between learning, i.e., skills schools teach, and play, i.e., what kids do at recess, after school, or in front of the TV or computer.
People love to embrace gamification, laud new schools like NYC’s Quest2Learn, and promote 21st century skills, but no dramatic change is going to come about unless we stop thinking about learning as something that’s tied to an ABC curriculum. A generation ago, LeapFrog made a great leap by turning a toy into a teacher. Over the years, the tech got better. The toys got techier. Enter the LeapPad. But the teaching concept remained the same. Why are we still stuck in that rut? Every toy teaches something. (And every toy doesn’t have to be made of pink or blue plastic.)
Today’s most innovative companies are shifting the paradigm by turning real tools into playful learning toys. Encouraging active exploration rather than passive observation. Several weeks ago I mentioned FlickerLab, which is creating a studio in a box that lets kids create professional looking videos. Nukotoys is introducing a new kind of interactive app. Using collectible cards, players can enter engaging 3D games on the iPad that, oh yeah, introduces them to exotic wildlife and mythology, as well as strategy. Even the simplest social networking sites promise more fun than fact while kids learn to maneuver through a scaled-down communications jungle. Kids intuitively play with what’s at hand. Sometimes it’s a bat and ball, sometimes it’s a computer. In any case, they’re figuring out what they need to know for the times and tasks in front of them.
The trick isn’t to turn learning into a manufactured game, it’s to think of learning as a ready-made game – fun, rewarding, and open-ended. Toys that promise to get kids into Harvard (hello, drop-outs Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates) aren’t doing what toys should do; they’re doing what adults think they should do. Toys should stimulate play. Because play is the way kids learn.
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