On Wednesday I attended the Sandbox Summit here in New York, which is a conference about the intersection between technology, toys, play, and learning. For someone deeply embedded in the software development world, but also deeply troubled by the state of education in America, the event seemed fascinating and also pregnant with possibility. And it did not disappoint.
And while many of the speakers had lots of really interesting stuff to say, one statement by Nancy Schulman, Director, 92nd Street Y Nursery School really got my attention. She said “kindergarten is becoming more like regular school, but I think regular school and life should become more like kindergarten.”
For those that may miss the nuance, what she was suggesting is that joyful playful exploration is critical to learning. Rote learning and memorization is less effective. As I sat, I realized how much the ideas I was hearing relate to how we make products. Much of this way of thinking I believe is already embedded in my thought processes, but there is something different and crucially important about codifying it, and expressing it concisely. What Schulman was saying got me immediately thinking about Apple.
I believe that a big part of the reason that Apple has been successful is that they figured out long ago that their products had to have the elements of joyful exploration that are the hallmarks of great toys. The concept of play is generally something associated with children, but I believe that that desire and that need never die. It is just muted by the expectations of adulthood.
The best example of this is my mother’s excitement about her new iPhone. My mother loves her iPhone because it is the best toy she has had since childhood. No, she has not said this to me, but I can see it clear as day. When she played her first YouTube video, she could not wait to tell me. For her, the iPhone is hard enough to still present challenges, and yet easy enough that she can overcome them. And the payoffs are joyous. The sound, the animation, the smooth virtual physics are incredibly compelling and toy-like. But of course it is not a “toy” it is a phone. It has a real function so she could never be accused of “playing.”
And so, the real question here is what does Apple, and what does the Sandbox Summit teach us about our way forward. First, I think that Apple sets a great example of what is possible, and it should inspire us to make our products more playful, accessible and exploratory.
But the second and more important lesson is that adulthood, and teen-hood are not demarcation points for a reduced interest in play – in fact the converse may be the case, meaning play may in fact become *more* important as we get older. And with our high school graduation rates at 50% in our 20 largest cities, something is obviously and seriously wrong with our current process. With that said I suggest that perhaps our educational system could use a serious injection of not so serious exploration and play. It seems to work for Apple.