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Edutainment? No Thanks. I Prefer Playful Learning

By Mitchel Resnick

Let me start with a contrarian point-of-view: I don't like edutainment.

What do I mean by that? Am I a stodgy professor who wants to keep play and fun out of the learning process? Certainly not. In fact, my research at the MIT Media Lab focuses on ways to integrate play and learning. I have found that many of people's best learning experiences come when they are engaged in activities that they enjoy and care about. Based on these ideas, I have helped develop new toys that provide children with opportunities to learn as they play (and play as they learn).

So why don't I like edutainment? The problem is with the way that creators of today's edutainment products tend to think about learning and education. Too often, they view education as a bitter medicine that needs the sugar-coating of entertainment to become palatable. They provide entertainment as a reward if you are willing to suffer through a little education. Or they boast that you will have so much fun using their products that you won't even realize that you are learning—as if learning were the most unpleasant experience in the world.

It might seem like a small change, but the words we use can make a big difference in how we think and what we do.I also have a problem with word “edutainment” itself. When people think about “education” and “entertainment,” they tend to think of them as services that someone else provides for you. Studios, directors, and actors provide you with entertainment; schools and teachers provide you with education. New edutainment companies try to provide you with both. In all of these cases, you are viewed as a passive recipient. That's a distorted view. In fact, you are likely to learn the most, and enjoy the most, if you are engaged as an active participant, not a passive recipient. So I prefer to focus on “play” and “learning” (things that you do) rather than “entertainment” and “education” (things that others provide for you). My preference is for “playful learning” rather than “edutainment.” It might seem like a small change, but the words we use can make a big difference in how we think and what we do.


An Example of Playful Learning

Eleven year old Alexandra wasn't very excited about school. But she loved coming to the Computer Clubhouse, an after-school center where young people (ages 10-18) from low income communities come to work on creative projects with new technologies. At the Clubhouse, Alexandra learned how to manipulate digital images and create animations on the computer. She became particularly excited when two volunteer mentors (from a local university) organized a Clubhouse workshop for building “marble machines” - whimsical contraptions in which marbles careen down a series of ramps and raceways, bouncing off bells and bumpers.

As the marbles dropped from one ramp to another, Alexandra giggled with delight.The mentors, Karen Wilkinson and Mike Petrich, brought a variety of craft materials to the Clubhouse: pegboard, wooden slats, bells, string, marbles. They also brought a collection of tiny computers called Crickets, small enough to fit inside a child's hand. Crickets can be programmed to control motors and lights, receive information from sensors, and communicate with one another via infrared light. Children can use Crickets to make their constructions come alive - for example, making a motor turn on whenever a touch sensor is pressed, or whenever a shadow is cast over a light sensor.

Alexandra cut wooden slats to serve as ramps, and inserted the ramps into a pegboard. She began playfully rolling marbles from one ramp to another, trying to create interesting patterns of motion, without the marbles dropping off. As the marbles dropped from one ramp to another, Alexandra giggled with delight.

Next, Alexandra created a Cricket-controlled conveyor belt with a small basket on top. Her plan: the marble should roll down a ramp into the basket, ride along the conveyor belt inside the basket, then drop onto the next ramp when the basket tipped over at the end of the conveyor belt. How would the conveyor belt know when to start moving? Alexandra programmed the conveyor-belt Cricket to listen for a signal from another Cricket higher up on the pegboard, alerting it that the marble was on its way. The conveyor-belt Cricket waited two seconds, to make sure the marble had arrived safely in the basket, before starting to move the conveyor belt and basket.

Alexandra worked on her project for several weeks, experimenting with many different configurations of the ramps, and adjusting the timing of the conveyor belt. She playfully tried out new features—for example, putting bells on the ramps, so that the marbles would make jingling sounds as they rolled past.

Alexandra decided to enter her marble machine into her school's science fair. But when she talked to her classroom teacher about it, the teacher said that the marble machine was not acceptable as a science-fair project. The teacher explained that a science-fair project must use the “scientific method”: the student must start with a hypothesis, then gather data in an effort to prove or disprove the hypothesis. The marble machine, said the teacher, didn't follow this approach.

Alexandra was determined to enter her marble machine in the science fair. With support from mentors at the Clubhouse, she put together a sequence of photographs showing different phases of the marble-machine construction. Even though Alexandra never wrote a hypothesis for her project, her teacher ultimately relented and allowed her to enter the marble machine in the school science fair. Much to Alexandra's delight, she was awarded one of the top two prizes for the entire school.

Learning through Play

Although Alexandra's teacher was concerned that the project did not use the scientific method, I see the project as a wonderful example of the scientific method. True, Alexandra did not start with a single overarching hypothesis. But as she playfully experimented with her marble machine, Alexandra was continually coming up with new design ideas, testing them out, iterating based on the results. Each of these design ideas can be viewed as a “mini-hypothesis” for which Alexandra gathered data. Over the course of her project, she investigated literally dozens of these mini-hypotheses. While positioning the ramps, for example, Alexandra tested different angles to try to find the maximum range for the marble. Alexandra also experimented to find the right timing for the conveyor belt. She modified the conveyor-belt program so that the basket would make one complete revolution, returning to its original location, properly positioned for the next marble.

Learners don't mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.Alexandra's playful explorations with her marble-machine were not a sugar coating for science experiments; rather, play and learning were fully integrated in her project. Alexandra experimented with ramp angles and conveyor-belt timing not to get a reward or a grade, but as an integral part of her play experience. In other words, Alexandra was driven by “intrinsic motivation,” not external rewards. That distinction is critical. As Edward Deci wrote in his book Why We Do What We Do: “Self-motivation, rather than external motivation, is at the heart of creativity, responsibility, healthy behavior, and lasting change.” Indeed, in our studies, we have found that youth who have short attention spans in traditional school classrooms often display great concentration when engaged in projects that they are truly interested in.

Alexandra's project was far from easy: she worked very hard on her project, and parts of the project were very difficult for her. But the challenge of the project was one of the attractions. Too often, designers and educators try to make things “easy” for learners, thinking that people are attracted to things that are easy to do. But that is not the case. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihályi has found that people become most deeply engaged in activities that are challenging, but not overwhelming. Similarly, Seymour Papert has found that learners become deeply engaged by “hard fun”—in other words, learners don't mind activities that are hard as long as the activities connect deeply with their interests and passions.

Where to Look for Playful Learning

Children's museum and science museums have a long and successful tradition of hands-on activities that help children learn through playful exploration and inquiry. As Howard Gardner writes in his book The Unschooled Mind: “As institutions, schools have become increasingly anachronistic, while museums have retained the potential to engage students, to teach them, to stimulate their understanding, and, most important, to help them assume responsibility for their own future learning.”

Our research group at the MIT Media Lab helped to start a collaborative network of museums called the Playful Invention and Exploration (PIE) Network. We are working together to develop a new generation of technologies (such as the Cricket) that bridge the divide between the physical and digital worlds, and a new generation of hands-on activities (such as marble machines) that integrate art, science, and engineering. Through these types of activities, the PIE Network aims to provide the next generation of children with new opportunities to engage in creative inquiry and inventive exploration—and to experience the joys and benefits of playful learning. Though we are starting with museums, we hope that these ideas, technologies, and activities will spread to homes, schools, community centers, and beyond. Our ultimate goal is a world full of playfully creative people, who are constantly inventing new opportunities for themselves and their communities.

A version of the article appeared in the Associazione Civita Report on Edutainment (2004)

Mitchel Resnick, professor of Learning Research at the MIT Media Laboratory, studies how new technologies can help children learn new things in new ways. Resnick's research group developed the ideas and technologies underlying the LEGO Mindstorms robotics construction kit, and he co-founded the Computer Clubhouse project, a network of after-school centers where youth from low-income communities learn to express themselves creatively with new technologies.


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