Everything I Know About Play I Learned from My Cat

Matchy-matchyIt’s no coincidence that cats and mice take the scalpel most when people (for instance, Panksepp 1998, 2001, 2007) research play and play deprivation, giving new meaning to the phrase “playing cat-and-mouse” (whomp-whomp). Cats, like humans, maintain some level of playfulness into adulthood. And perhaps the reason they dominate the internet is this: they are expert, ridiculous players. They so dominate YouTube that when GoogleX developed a simulated brain, the brain taught itself to recognize cats. FOR REAL.

However, despite feline internet dominance, it appears that we are facing a major crisis.

It’s true. The problem is this: Cat owners have a play deficit. Cat owners don’t know how to play with their cats. 

WHAT?

Jackson Galaxy, host of the Animal Planet show My Cat from Hell, says that 99% of his consultations with cat owners drill down to discomfort with how to engage in daily, playful connection with their cats. Jackson coaches cat owners that the key to successfully playing with cats is to get inside the cat’s head and figure out “what makes it tick.” Basically, you need to pay attention to the person/thing/animal with whom you are trying to play. For instance, when you understand that “a cat wants to kill things,” you create playful opportunities that simulate a cat chasing and capturing, for instance, a crazy tropical bird made of surveyor’s tape, a coat hanger, and some random feathers. Once the cat captures your Franken-bird, you give the cat a little protein-rich treat. SIMULATION COMPLETE. CAT AND PERSON HAPPY.

In a sense, Galaxy is a kind of cat playworker. He says that playing with your cat can lead to close, positive, and emotionally-fulfilling relationships. The cat gets some personal (um, “animal”?) benefits, too. Through play, “victim cats” may gain a sense of territoriality. “Bully cats” learn to back down and be a bit more flexible. That’s a benefit of playing with other humans, too, but that’s another story.

Here’s what I think is kind of funny: there is a world of people (um, like me) who are obsessed with both virtual cats as well as our living, breathing, pooping, playing cats. This has led to the existence of a lot of online cat behavior resources. However, you rarely find a blog or how-to column that says “cats have forgotten to play.” That would be absurd. Why would you blame the cat for “forgetting how to play?” Cats just play.

The same cannot be said for the hundreds of blogs that tout “play deficit disorder” among children. Suddenly, it’s not OUR (the adults’) fault. It’s the kids. They, not we, have forgotten how to play.

For an extra does of absurdity, take a glance at the following statements made about children and play,  with “children” replaced by “cats”:

“Holy cowboys and indians, [cats] have forgotten how to play.” (Australia)

“Play is just a natural thing that animals do and humans do, but somehow we’ve driven it out of [cats].” (United States)

“Only one in five [cats] today live within walking distance of a park or playground, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and many lack access to spaces for play altogether.” (United States)

The idea that a cat might lack access to spaces for play is absurd. My cat is batting at my computer cord as I write this. Just like children, where cats are is where they play (to paraphrase the Opies). However, a fulcrum of the “play deficit” debate is, of course, the “where,” or space: in particular, the playground, which is a relatively new and, I would add, regulative  addition to human playfulness. Organizations like Kaboom, who rue the “play deficit,” act on the idea that there aren’t enough playgrounds in our cities. To further emphasize the point, Kaboom’s “Playful City” award goes to cities and towns that have committed to providing more playgrounds. According to Darrell Hammond of Kaboom (in an interview):

“Well, a playful city is somebody that is looking at both the short-term and long-term strategy in approach to understanding what the current state of play is, meaning where are all types of play opportunities from courts to fields to parks and to playgrounds to walking paths, and then understanding where the gaps in quality are.”

It’s good to look at the built environment as an inhibitor or advancer of playfulness. But we cannot focus only on playgrounds. Without a dispersed view of playfulness, playgrounds are essentially playpens, designed by adults who are consciously or subconsciously fearful of the spontaneous play and political efficacy of young people. As Lady Allen of Hurtwood wrote in 1968, “Modern civilization interferes with a heavy hand in the spontaneous play of children.” Without an individual focus, the debate about the “play deficit” and playground proliferation is missing its core: that is, the shifts in habits of playfulness that adults would have to make in order to truly make a city more playful. We, as adults, need to start with ourselves, and THEN move on to the sidewalks we travel. Once we start looking at the built environment with not the “eyes of a child” but, rather, a playful eye, THAT is when real shifts can begin.

But, like the internet, let’s get back to cats.

About six months into “ownership” of both a cat and a small kitten, I realized something terrible. That whole thing about cats and play? As I pored over Lady Allen of Hurtwood’s Planning for Play and Dr. Kitten nibbled at its cover, I realized this, much to my dismay: I wasn’t good at playing with my cats. I, despite my immersion in play theory, was a cat owner that did not know how to play with my cat. The cobbler’s son had no shoes.

So I stopped reading and started playing. When I was a kid and spent time with my childhood cat Mittens (don’t judge– I named her when I was six!), play was pretty easy. But even as an adult with my own children of the corn, matchy-matchy cats, it became pretty clear that my own cat play deficit was easily remediable. I just had to focus a little bit.

Months later, everything is not perfect. However, I feel like I’m a better cat player. And as I write this, now, Dr. Kitten is snuggled in with me on my chair. He didn’t change. But I did. Now we just need to transfer that process to adults, kids, and playing.

Cats in Boxes

Keep Calm and Avoid Biscuits

One of the biggest take-aways from playworker Marc Armitage’s March talk at the Providence Children’s Museum– part of his “Keep Calm and Play On” tour– concerned Vygotsky, the Russian theorist who died in 1931.  Armitage said that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), what is contemporarily known as scaffolding, really focused not on “adult guidance” but on the role of “more capable peers” (Vygotsky 1978: 86). In Sweden and Denmark, early translations of Vygotsky’s work influenced the development of early childhood learning approaches, many of which emphasize the peer-to-peer collaboration that can happen in mixed-age schooling environments. In contrast, in the United States, Vygotsky’s work– though partially translated as early as the 1950s– was not fully recognized until the late 1970s, coinciding with the “rapid proliferation” of children’s museums and other forms of alternative learning environments in the Unites States (Lewin 1989: 55). The term “scaffolding” never appears in Vygotsky’s work and was actually coined in an American study by Wood, Bruner & Ross (1976). Scaffolding has been taken to mean adult guidance and support of children’s learning, overshadowing the learning and playing that takes place in groups with “more capable peers.”

In sum: according to Armitage and from my own observations, kids learn well when playing in mixed age groups. And where do we put kids for the majority of their time? In age-segregated groups.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I watch six high school students, my colleagues in community work at my museum, interact with younger children.  They truly go “questing with the children they want to guide,” just as Manter (1937:7) described play leaders in the early days of the children’s museum movement. There’s a mutuality to their play that is incredibly evident. After one group of kids played for about an hour with one of the teens, I asked them to tell me about what they did.

“We acted, we got to scream, we got to do whatever we want,” said an eight-year-old girl. “And we got to play with him,” she said, pointing to the 15-year-old teen.

“And it was fun,” interjected a seven-year-old boy. “It wasn’t like work, it was just having fun and doing nothing. The best part was following him,” again, pointing to the teen.

The teen, when interviewed after weeks of playing with groups of children ranging in age from six to twelve, reported increased feelings of confidence. “The way kids react to me at the museum– asking for me by name, learning from me– shows that I have something to give.”

Age mixing in children’s play has occurred during the majority of the human species existence; it is only recently that we have been able to separate by age. Peter Gray, of Boston College, writes that there is not a lot of research on the effects of mixed-age play groups and this type of bi-directional learning.

“If beings from another planet were to try to learn about our children’s social interactions by reading our journals of developmental psychology, the aliens might well conclude that children interact only with adults and with peers of almost precisely their same age. They might wonder how and why we isolate six-year-olds from nine-year-olds or nine-year-olds from teenagers.” (Gray 2011: 518)

At typical elementary schools, children play on playgrounds segregated by age; these playgrounds are even praised for their developmental appropriateness. However, it seems that kind of age-segregation can inhibit the kind of social-emotional gains that Gray has observed at Sudbury Valley School, a mixed-age, democratically governed school in Framingham. An excerpt from his observational notebook:

As I sat near the school’s playground, I watched two ten-year-old girls easily and nonchalantly perform the trick of walking upright down the slide. A six-year-old girl nearby watched them more intently than I, and then she climbed the ladder and started gingerly to walk down the slide herself. This was clearly a challenge for the little girl. She walked with knees bent and hands down, ready to grab the rails if she lost balance. I also noticed that the two older girls remained next to the slide and looked on with a degree of apprehension, ready to catch her, but not too obviously so, if she should fall. One said, “You don’t have to do it, you can just slide,” but the little girl continued walking, slowly, and beamed with pride when she made it to the bottom. Shortly after that, the two older girls began climbing a nearby tree, and the younger girl followed them in that activity too. The little girl was clearly motivated to do, with effort, what the older girls could do with ease. (Gray 2011: 512)

At the museum, we often hear complaints from adults about older kids acting too “rough” and “running over” younger kids. Though that’s an overstatement, if there is truth there perhaps it’s because the older kids are not as used to being around younger children. Perhaps the museum is one of the only places they can learn to negotiate and learn together, getting more towards the “not too obviously so” caretaking we see in Gray’s observation. Here is an excerpt from an observation I did last year, after four boys (ages 8 – 12) and a female caregiver entered an exhibit.

“They’re here! Go faster!” the oldest boy says. He climbs up into one of two towers connected by a rope bridge. Another boy starts to make a hissing sound with his mouth and bares his teeth. The other boys giggle quietly and turn to run into the tower. “Get up! Get up!” says the oldest boy. The female caregiver says, from below the tower, “Guys, watch out for little kids!”  A little girl, approximately 2.5 years old, enters the tower on the right side. The boys shift slightly. The caregiver reiterates, “There are little kids! Watch out!” The oldest boy turns to the others, points to the toddler, and says “Hurry! It’s a zombie!” They all recoil from the toddler and leave the tower and go to another tower across the room. 

The boys creatively involved the “obstacle”– a much younger child– into their play story. The stilted walk of a toddler does, after all, sometimes resemble a zombie shuffle. However, later, I also watched as the boys paused their play to help an overstimulated toddler get down from the tower. They, like the girls in Gray’s observation, had a subtle and sensitive understanding of the situation.

Inspired by the story of the boys incorporating the toddler as a zombie, the teens with whom I work created a similar storyline for another day at the museum. As part of a spy game– targeted at kids ages 6 and up– they told participants that they must avoid “biscuits.” This, of course, was a code name for children under the age of three, the very kids that parents and caregivers worry the older kids will “trample.” The teens, in their very knowing way, transformed a potential point of anxiety into part of the game. As “more capable peers,” they playfully guided the younger children in their groups. I get the sense that Vygotsky, though he would have no idea what a “biscuit” was, would approve.

 

New Happy Museum Report

There has not been much research on the connections between museums, art and wellbeing– until now.

The Happy Museum Project has commissioned new work from Daniel Fujiwara– the London School of Economics professor responsible for innovative work around the Life Satisfaction Valuation methodology– to explore the impact of museums on personal and community wellbeing.

The initial report can be downloaded here:

Museums and Happiness: The Value of Participating in Museums and the Arts

[Spoiler alert: it’s good news!]

Cootie-Catchers & Oxygen Masks: The Grown-Up’s Right to Play

Boston Children’s Museum’s Early Childhood Summit 2013: Innovation and Opportunity was a landmark convening of neuroscientists, pediatricians, educators, business professionals and policymakers. Presentations by leaders such as Harvard researcher Jack Shonkoff, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative Executive Director John Barros and Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish (not to mention Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick) urged the formation of a broad partnership dedicated to improving the outcomes of all children entering kindergarten. It was amazing.

I had the privilege of leading an afternoon Innovation Session alongside two other “Thought Leaders”: Janet Rice Elman, Executive Director of the Association of Children’s Museums, and Dr. Don Wertlieb, President of the Partnership for Early Childhood Development and Disability Rights. Our focus was the Power of Play for All Families, and my talk focused on “Adult Play.” Below is a slightly expanded summary of the April 5, 2013 talk. 

Cootie Catcher

I see that many of you have started to fool around with the paper fortune tellers sprinkled around the room. When I told my teen coworkers that this session was at the end of the Summit, they thought you might need something playful to do. They folded these “cootie-catchers”– as I used to call them as a kid– for you.

The teens’ other suggestion was that I lead you in a game of duck, duck, goose. Some of you look relieved that we’re not playing duck, duck, goose right now. I’m with you. If I came in to this room and told you to get on the floor or run around, you would probably think: Oh, god, another team building exercise. When we create somewhat forced opportunities for adults (particularly parents) to play, we often do just the opposite: add just one more piece of unexpected work to their to-do lists, one more place to feel subtly inadequate. However, when a different kind of self-chosen play takes place in a space, that micro-action shifts a space forever. How many of you remember the micro-aggressive feeling of spitballing, passing notes or folding a fortune teller in a classroom much like this one? Play can be a form of small, political power for those held in captivity, just as you are, to some extent, at this moment. Play transforms your lens on a space; by paying attention to the stuff around you, you gain a second sight that reveals more choices, options, and a sense of hope that your environment offers more than meets the eye.

I’m lucky to spend most of my time in an environment that is officially called a “children’s” museum; however, children are not the only demographic audience. How many of you have been to a children’s museum as an adult? Over 50% of our audience are over 18. They are parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighborhood friends, and teachers. This composition is radically different from that of the first sixty years of children’s museums, when neighborhood children visited semi-autonomously (Manter 1933). In many communities, children’s museums are the only institutional spaces that are explicitly designed as spaces for play and joyful discovery.

Now, imagine, for a second, that we’re all on an airplane (don’t worry, I’m not going to force you to make airplane sounds). Each of us is seated with a child. Suddenly, the cabin pressure drops. The compartments above your head reveal dangly oxygen masks. In this moment of crisis, what are you supposed to do? What did the nice flight attendants and your seat pocket instructions tell you to do if this happened? Put on your own mask first, before assisting others.

oxygen mask

Though much of the research on play focuses on children, play’s oxygen-like properties– restorative, life-giving, stress relieving–  can help adults. Through Dr. Shonkoff’s talk and other presentations today, we have explored the destructive role of toxic stress in the lives of young children. A child’s early experiences, largely controlled by adults, affect not just learning but also health; individuals who were maltreated in childhood experience a much higher rate of heart disease as adults (Danese et al. 2008).  A primary contributor to toxic stress is maternal depression, and as Dr. Shonkoff said, information and advice alone will not buffer children from a parents’ personal wellbeing. We need to go beyond the pamphlet to impact the environmental roots of stress and encourage true capacity-building in adults, transforming the lives of parents. Chick (2001), in a summary of observations about play, says that “play disappears under stress.” This is echoed by Burghardt (2009), who says that play behavior is initiated when the animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress; in other words, when the animal is in a “relaxed field.” The moderate level of arousal or anxiety created in play may be beneficial by enabling enhancement of stress response systems and developing repertoires to respond in appropriate ways to environmental stimuli. Sounds suspiciously like good parenting technique, doesn’t it?

So here we are, with a quandary: Research indicates that free form play leads to the greatest advantage in brain building and plasticity in children. Playful experiences in a relaxed environment can make adults feel better and less depressed. Then why are so many children’s museums sticking with the parent information model for play?

Children’s museums and other play-based environments need to think more deeply about not just how we see adults as children’s “first teachers,” but also as unique individuals who can benefit from the transformative moments of play. In these child-centered environments, in which adults may themselves feel like a “captive population,” how can we create the “relaxed fields” in which adults can begin to play? In an often-stressful place where parents often feel that their parenting styles and techniques are judged not by the staff but by other parents, and the concern of misplacing a child in the hustle and bustle of the museum is always present, how can we create places where adults move from wardens to players?

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with a museum education world increasingly focused on communal family learning, I’m saying something quietly radical:

 If children’s museums and other play-based environments want to truly impact children through their caring adults’ capacity to be “available and responsive,” then we must create conditions where adults and children can play separately

That’s why my Boston Children’s Museum colleagues and I started Grownup Breakroom, a monthly experiment in providing the conditions for adult play. Since last fall, GB has provided a place for adults to be with other adults, co-created by museum experience designers and users in a design process similar to the GoKids program. On Target Friday nights, when admission is $1 per person and parents are often dead-tired from a long work week, we set up two rooms that are adjoined by one door. One room is styled for adults. The other is prepared with conditions for children’s play. We make an offer to adults: come into the Breakroom for fifteen minutes or so, sit down, have a cup of coffee. Parents can check out toys they may remember from their own childhoods (Lite-Brite, an Easy Bake Oven from the late 70s/early 80s) and try simple crafts. Music plays. If we can get them, volunteer masseuses offer hand and shoulder massages. Parents can connect with each other through simple games in which, for instance, if they find another grown-up born in the same month, both adults are entered into a drawing for a free museum pass. Staff member Leora Rifkin, who is a natural match-maker, works the room like it’s a cocktail party at her house, introducing adults to each other and making connections like a boss. Adults also sign up for the free Very Important Family card, which links them into future events like this one.

In the directly adjoining room, our staff engage younger children with Imagination Playground giant blue blocks. Kids over the age of eight join Teen Ambassadors to play alternative reality games, make short movies, or a variety of other activities. Mixed-age play begins to happen fluidly.

Such segmentation of audience may seem counterintuitive to family learning. However, this foundation of peer-to-peer playful experiences seems to lead to the very family learning we aspire to. Adults self-report that they are more likely to do double dutch after a break, or engage in dramatic play in Arthur’s World. One parent said as she left the Breakroom table, “I feel like I can actually enjoy this now. I just needed to sit a minute.” Most importantly, they say they feel happier.

The basic formula that we are testing seems to be:

user-centered design that focuses on adults’ needs + separate experiences for adults and kids = increased parental responsiveness & social connectedness

How are we giving parents permission to access the oxygen of play, not just the suggestion that they do so? How do we offer parents places to be with other parents and say, in the words of Brene Brown, “Me, too– I also struggle”? Vygotsky’s scaffolding is not about an all-knowing teacher guiding children’s play– it’s as much about the guidance of a “more experienced peer.” When families have networks and can learn from each other, there are more chances for them to withstand crisis. Combine the resiliency effects of play with the effects of increased social capital, and you have a space that can be more than just a breakroom.

Given the right conditions, play in that space could be a transformative force in the lives of emotionally captive, stressed adults: a much-needed oxygen mask.

The Little Things

The Little Things

There’s a liquor store in Providence that I visit sometimes. The owner keeps a small dog in what appears to be a spacious apartment– soft bed, toys, a buffet of food– behind the counter.

If you pay for your stuff in cash, the owner might prompt her dog to put your change in his mouth, run around the counter, and deliver it to you. With his mouth. It’s a (slightly moist), cute party trick, and it would be cloying except for the infectious joy both the owner and the dog show when it happens.

The last time I was there, the owner had placed a paper bag over a bottle on the counter. Written in Sharpie were the words “New: Look Under Here.” Alcohol is already a social object (I’m feeling theoretical, so I’ll go so far as to call it an actant). The little things the owner of the store does make the experience of buying booze more playful.

The Scared is Scared

Young director Bianca Giaever finished the Scared is Scared a few weeks before she graduated from Middlebury College. The film’s direction and main narrative comes from a conversation Bianca had with a six-year-old named Asa Baker-Rouse, who walked Bianca through a storyline ostensibly “about” a mouse and a bear. Bianca took that conversation, meshed it with her own feelings as she prepared to leave school, and got together with her peers to make the meaningful film you see here:

<p><a href=”http://vimeo.com/58659769″>the Scared is scared</a> from <a href=”http://vimeo.com/user7252450″>Bianca Giaever</a> on <a href=”http://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Early childhood educator and thinker Vivian Gussin Paley writes that “play and story take us where we want to go.” Where we want to go is not always clear, and that’s kind of the point. To be able to get into a mindset of play– or a true openness to where a story might lead– requires a quiet courage and resiliency. It’s kind of ballsy. It requires trust that things are going to turn out okay, and that trust has probably been built on multiple other moments in which it did turn out okay. Giaever’s film seems to simultaneously be about that delicious openness that can come from taking an emotional risk– and it seems that she did that by opening herself up to where a child’s story might go. Process and product are intertwined, and that’s why the film works.

I imagine that Paley would be pleased with Giaever’s film. Paley’s storytelling technique, which she developed while at the University of Chicago’s Lab School, involves a process of dictation and dramatization. Trisha Lee of Make Believe Arts adapted Paley’s work to develop the Helicopter Technique. Its title comes from Paley’s book The Boy WhoWould Be a Helicopter:The Uses of Storytelling in the Classroom (Paley, 1990).  Make Believe Arts describes the Paley-based technique this way:

The teacher or workshop leader sits down with the child, listens to his / her story, and writes it down word for word. At the end of the story, the child decides which character he / she wants to play and the teacher moves on to the next child on the list. Towards the end of the session, the whole class gathers to act out the stories of their peers.

(Trisha Lee visited with early childhood educators last month at a Boston Listens seminar. You can watch portions of the session here.)

Though the Helicopter Technique is certainly a teacher-led process, the children in the classroom do truly work out the story together and devise ways of telling it as a group. By doing this, they probably get closer to what Vygotsky truly meant by the “zone of proximal development.” Yes, Vygotsky says that the gap between actual development level and potential development level decreases when a child is supported by “adult guidance”; however, in the same breath, he equally emphasizes the role of “more capable peers.” (Vygotsky 1978: 86) In this way, as seen in the Helicopter Technique, the teacher and students collaborate to create an enjoyable, playful experience together.

In the credits of Giaever’s film, she features images of the actors, cinematographers, costume designers, and other young artists who participated in making of the film. When Giaever credits Daniel Sauermilch as “Production/Friend,” you half-expect to see a prologue line like you see in a John Hughes movie– e.g., “Daniel went on to become the most powerful producer in Hollywood.” There’s a poignant sense of potential and transition.

Though six-year-old Asa “wrote” the story, Giaever and her friends– all poised just before graduating to the “real world”– got together to figure out how to make it work. I imagine that some of the creativity and playfulness early childhood educators might see when employing the Helicopter Technique might mirror the feelings you get from watching Giaever’s film. In any case, as educators or filmmakers or just as people, it seems that play and story truly take us where we want to go, as long as we are comfortable that the destination may be far different than we expect. That’s kind of what resiliency is about– being open to change and recognizing that we may not be in control. In an instant, the cookie might be shaped like a piano, or I mean a keyboard, or it might become something totally different.

As Asa says in the film, “If, like, something feels like you’re closing, you should just say, ‘OK, I’m fine.'” And then you’re okay.

The Happy Museum Project

Try this experiment: Toss a paper towel roll down a long hallway in a museum gallery. Step back. Watch as a school group passes through the hallway.

At the Manchester Museum, you would see children walking the unfurled roll as if it were a tightrope. When the perforations began to break, the towels became skates. Kids glided across the floor. Play changed an otherwise staid space into a gallery of action.

This was all part of Stuart Lester’s Playful Museum experiment, a sub-project of the Happy Museum Project. The Happy Museum Project “looks at how the UK museum sector can respond to the challenges presented by the need for creating a more sustainable future.” In other words, the project proposes that museums can promote thinking around happiness and wellbeing. You can read the project manifesto here.

Think about it for a minute, and you’ll realize how revolutionary this is. The Happy Museum Project proposes that we start with user happiness first. Yes, first. Not before we choose the objects we want people to see; not before we examine the Common Core and what we and schools want children to learn; and not before we worry about our reputations as the keepers of culture and privilege. FIRST. This is the basic element of user-centered design, and I’ve seen amazing things follow from this; if we start with the things that make people feel more happy to be alive, then we’ll probably get to other stuff that museums want to do.

puddles

To evaluate the effects of this approach, the Happy Museum Project encourages use of The Story of Change model, which comes from Davies (2005) “Most Significant Change” technique. This revolves around collecting “significant change” stories, via:

  • Fieldworkers who write down unsolicited stories that they have heard;
  • By interview and note-taking;
  • During group discussion;
  • Or the beneficiary writes the story directly.

This storytelling/collection often happens in the Development departments of museums (with direct application in annual reports), but less rarely in program planning and evaluation. In grant reporting, anecdotes and other qualitative data can play second fiddle to the outcomes and quantitative data. The process of user-centered design (notably, at IDEO and Stanford’s d.school) is gaining hold in commercial companies, and Nina Simon has gone far in raising the profile of the storytelling/participatory experience in museums, but we still have far to go.

Again, this is the core: look at happiness and wellbeing first, then content. How much do museums have to loosen up to get to this starting point? How long will it take?

Learning to Code

What I love about this video, from www.code.org, is the enthusiasm the interviewees remember feeling for the act of just figuring stuff out. I saw great glimmers of this during Programmable Park, our 2012 summer collaboration with Amon Millner and Modkit. It makes me want to learn more about coding and to create more opportunities to do this code-questing with kids.

iPlay

At work, we’ve been experimenting with using the new Directr app to enhance adult experiences in children’s exhibits. The initial result, at least for my teen colleagues, has been a fast track to playfulness.

But first, a little about Directr– Directr is an iPad and iPhone social video app that aims to go beyond sharing videos by helping people make better videos, ones that tell more interesting stories. It does this by offering in-camera storyboards that guide each shot, and then it edits it all together in seconds.

Our decision to explore Directr as an exhibit engagement tool came from two observations: A. Parents and other adults at a children’s museum often report feeling bored while their kids play. B. Parent and other adults often respond to this boredom by turning to their mobile devices– taking photos, checking email, etc.

What if we could use a video app to enhance mindfulness/increase engagement during the museum experience?

We met with the creators of the app last week to explore ways we might create a museum-specific storyboard– more on that in a later post. But in preparation for the creation of that storyboard, the Teen Ambassadors played with Directr in a few exhibits. Suddenly, we and the TAs– already a playful group– were able to use movie-making to act silly, do crazy things, and, together, imagine a short storyline. The buffer of the iPhone or iPad gave them a licence to play.

In the meantime, as we develop these ideas, here’s an example of how the iPad-induced playfulness played out:

Construction Zone Dance Party