In this expert interview,  we sat down with Katie Salen  (Director of Institute of Play and associate professor in the Design and Technology department at the Parsons School of Design) to talk about kids and “play” to help us better understand what kids get from playing — and what they could learn from it.

You’ve talked about the idea of “tinkering.” What do you mean by that?

Katie: The term “tinkering” comes from an old idea of people “doing” — having a hobby and sort of messing around. Tinkering isn’t necessarily achievement-driven. It starts in the beginning simply with an interest about “what would happen if…?” and then there’s a kind of problem-based exploratory process that you go through where you’re messing around with things, understanding how they might fit together, developing new hypotheses. So tinkering is a play space, it’s an exploration space, an experimentation space that we see in some sense as a gateway towards more interest-driven activities, where kids become really serious around ideas like, “I’m really interested in doing that kind of thing.” Tinkering affords an opportunity for kids to just try out stuff that maybe they didn’t even know they had an interest in.

What are some 21st-century examples of how kids are tinkering?

Katie: They may be downloading animation software, and they don’t really know how it works, but they kind of start working with it. They’re looking at help manuals, they start drawing some pictures, they might upload that and see what kind of reactions they get from their friends.

They might tinker around trying to develop their own home page. So they may tinker with HTML, trying to figure out, “Well, how do I customize my MySpace page?” Or in Facebook, trying to figure out, “Well, how do I add new little widgets to my profile page that allow me to do particular kinds of things?” And digital media is awesome for tinkering because it’s very forgiving. It’s easy to make a change, and it’s easy to delete something they don’t like. It’s a very flexible kind of space for kids to explore and experiment in.

How can parents help their kids tinker in digital spaces?

Katie answers this question in the video interview at the top of this page. Check it out!

What are some big take-aways for parents from your research?

Katie: I think one of the most important things that we want to communicate to parents is that kids are learning all the time, everywhere. We’ve traditionally thought about school as the only place where kids are learning and that things that they might be doing outside of school sort of “don’t count” as learning.

So the first thing we’re trying to get parents to think about today is how you can help your child understand the connections between things that they do in school and things they do in their after-school space, like a fan fiction site that they might be interested in. By beginning to develop a dialogue with them around that activity, parents can help bring it back to things that they’re working on in school and can help create a kind of coherence for their child around these different learning spaces.

The second thing I would say is to not try to judge for a child what is good learning and what isn’t good learning. Kids really pick up on this. If they’re spending time in a game or on a site and the parent is very critical that it’s wasteful time, children will begin to either hide that activity from parents or miss out on things that they might be able to do in those spaces.

So how do parents do that?

Katie: Parents should just be interested in what their child is doing, what they’re looking at, what they’re interested in, and what they’re reading. Kids of different ages, of course, will share information to differing degrees. Little kids are very, very open about this. They want to share every sort of space that they’ve been to, what they’ve learned. Teenagers will edit where they’re going, what they’re doing. But the goal is to begin to develop a dialogue with the young person around their media use.

Tell us about the charter school you’re helping to launch, Quest to Learn.

Katie: Quest to Learn is really about re-envisioning the future of education via a school that takes on game-like learning and uses principles of how games work to teach kids. Because our work is focused on games, we began to ask questions about, “Well, what would a classroom space look like, or a curriculum look like, or a day in the life of a student look like that felt more like a game?” What this doesn’t mean is that kids are playing video games all day. The curriculum itself is designed in such a way that it works like a game works, and it may include the play of some games, but it’s equally digital and non-digital. It uses direct instruction, it uses collaboration and teamwork.

Audrey S.

Audrey managed the education products at Common Sense Education, with a primary focus on our digital citizenship program. She previously oversaw the marketing outreach to our educator community. Prior to joining Common Sense, Audrey worked at the San Francisco SPCA animal hospital and shelter. She received her degree in Marketing from San Francisco State University.