What did you learn today?

How to Design for Children

In the past four weeks, I have had the opportunity to facilitate two interesting learning experiences, both positioned as “how-to” sessions. My co-learners were:

  1. 32 adults who work as planners and strategists at creative agencies (at Planning-ness 2013), and
  2. Twelve 6th through 8th graders and three adults from the Brookwood K-8 School

To prepare for both, my collaborator Ben Durrell and I gathered some of our experiences under the title “How to Design for Children.” The title is a deliberate diversion. Like a laundromat that sheaths a spy agency, a straight-forward title acts as a “front.” It hides radical ideas in plain sight. And the big, simple secret that we shared in both presentations was this: adults cannot design “for” children before they find empathy for the experiences of children in an adult-managed world.

The learning sessions were not about communicating a step by step panacea for children’s design (we don’t have the “answers”), but rather about a group of people sharing their personal experiences with play, and then approaching some of our previously unaddressed assumptions.  Though we used the same slides to talk to both the (older) adults and the (younger) adults, the experience in both places was unique and weird and fun. They involved reading from Captain Underpants. There was some discussion of dirt and poop and hiding under the bed. In other words, you had to be there.

However, I and my collaborator Ben do have an (adult?) desire to share some stuff. I’ve summed up five of the characteristics that usually show up in my designs for a young audience. Some of them work for an older audience, too. The caveat is that they are no replacement for true reflection on one’s own experiences. If you check it out and have ideas to add/shift/etc, please let me know at megan [at] takeplayseriously [dot] org. If you were at Planningness or are still working on your board game at the Brookwood School (hang in there, students!) and want to continue the conversation, please contact me and Ben to keep the thinking going.

How to design for children

A few reflections

When I facilitate teaching experiences such as the ones above, my primary measure of success is simple: Did I gain empathy for someone else’s experience?

In this sense, I’m a fierce Freirean. I believe that knowledge “emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” (Freire 1993: 72) I have been at my best as a teacher when I did not see myself as teacher, but, rather, as co-learner questing with other humans. Human hope lives in those moments of praxis.

I recently read an interview between Paulo Freire and Seymour Papert. Papert recalls that he used to have a cartoon on his wall that features a little girl who approaches her teacher after class to ask “What did I learn today?” The teacher says, “That’s a funny question. Why do you ask that?” The girl says “When I get home, Daddy will ask me, ‘What did you learn today?’ and I never know what to say.” Papert reflects:

 And that what we’re really trying to do in education in small children is to…you can say it all sorts of ways: give them more consciousness of the process, more control, or allow them to throw themselves into it. But however you describe it, it’s the opposite of them wanting to ask …having to ask … the teacher, “What did I learn today?”

When you’ve learned something in the way that I learn during teaching, you feel it more than you know it. For me, teaching is a bit like yoga. At the end of a yoga session, you stop and notice how your body might feel different. Looser. Tighter. Whatever.  After engaging in discussion like we did at Planningness and with the kids from Brookwood, I feel a subtle difference in understanding. And I hope my co-learners do, too.

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