Category Play

On Emotions, Cognition, and Comedy: An Introduction

Hello everyone! My name is Melissa Cesarano, and I am a new member of the rethinkED team for the 2015-2016 school year. To introduce myself, I’d like to begin by stating that I’m quite an eccentric human with eclectic tastes and talents. I’m a yogi, actress, comedian/improviser, poet, and cognitive scientist! I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (Quakersssss!!!) with a Bachelor’s Degree in Cognitive Studies and Philosophy of Mind, and a minor in Poetics. Currently, I’m a PhD student at Columbia University in Cognitive Studies in Education. I also work at a biotech company, Evoke Neuroscience, where I serve as the company’s science writer, lecturer, and research associate. At Evoke, I’m also training to receive a certification in biofeedback and neurofeedback, which will help me acquire a more holistic approach to emotional and psychological wellness, in addition to my more academic brain expertise. Additionally, I’m attending comedy school at The Peoples Improv Theater and The Upright Citizens Brigade. I’ve co-founded my own NYC sketch comedy group, Laundry Day Comedy, and believe strongly that humor, play, and creativity are essential to our epistemic growth and self-realization as life long students; as Ludwig Wittgenstein so elegantly stated, “If people never did silly things nothing intelligent would ever get done.”

My research as a Doctoral Candidate focuses on emotions. In undergrad, I felt that the cognitive realm was academically interesting, yet lacked the poetry, color, and humanity that I yearned for as an artist and creative. Admittedly, there seemed to be a lack of understanding as to where/how to fit emotions into a cognitive framework. Therefore, about two years into graduate school education, I resolved to undertake the task of understanding emotions from a cognitive perspective.

Emotions are difficult to comprehend intellectually even though they’re an integral part of our everyday lives. Nevertheless, they certainly color our interactions with others, motivate our behaviors, elucidate our passions, and are essential to our experience as humans. To clarify, they are a phenomenological manifestation of the things that matter to us. For a brief introduction to emotions (What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)) I recommend reading this riveting article in The New York Times by Lisa Feldman Barrett, the head honcho in Emotion Research (I like to call her ‘The Big LFB’):

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/opinion/sunday/what-emotions-are-and-arent.html?_r=0

Specifically, the research that I’ve been conducting at Columbia, along with my research partner Ilya, relates to teaching people abstract models of the Human Emotion System (HES). Creating accurate mental models of our own emotional functioning and grounding these principles in tangible real-life emotional situations, seems to increase self-regulation through increased self-awareness of emotional functioning in a variety of different experiential contexts. The topic of my dissertation, however, deals with the ‘naïve’ mental models that people acquire intuitively through everyday life experience prior to explicit learning of the HES. Arriving at a deeper understanding of people’s HES intuitions and misconceptions (and the cognitive processes that underlie them) through careful epistemological inquiry, should thus allow for a more effective teaching of the HES model and other social-emotional learning (SEL) concepts.

Basically, I think it’s really insane that students are taught things like ‘the laws of physics’ in school, but are never taught the ‘laws of emotions’, the causal relations and principles of our own emotional functioning. Instead, we are left with the difficult and daunting task of pretty blindly dealing with these powerful and mysterious forces. Interestingly, emotionality is delegated to ‘higher learning’, a Psych 101 lecture in the hallowed spaces of America’s college halls.

Finally, I would like to join Ali in saying that it is an absolute privilege to be a part of such an inspiring community here at Riverdale. We hope to enlighten you and to contribute to the ever-evolving educational landscape at this prestigious school. Keep a lookout for upcoming posts from the rethinkED team!

With gratitude and an abundance of smiles,

Mel

“Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence” …*

 

"Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence" ...* | rethinked.org -Photo: Elsa Fridman

Right in time for the weekend here is a lovely meditation on the intrinsic power of active play from an opinion piece published last month on the New York Times by professor of philosophy and fellow of the Research Group in Mind, Science and Culture at Columbia College Chicago, Stephen T. Asthma. Asthma divides play into two categories: amusements and active play, which are very much aligned with Martin Seligman’s categories of the pleasures–fast, cheap and ephermeral joys–and the gratifications, which are activities that fulfill us and build a sort of positive emotional capital. A welcome reminder that play is its own reward and a critical component of a full, engaging and meaningful human life.

p l a y   f o r   p l a y ‘ s   s a k e   &   r e t h i n k   . . .

Usually, if we see an appreciation of play, it’s an attempt to show its secret utility value — “See, it’s pragmatic after all!” See how playing music makes you smarter at other, more valued forms of thinking, like math, logic or even business strategy? See how play is adaptive for social evolution? All this is true of course, but one also wonders about the uniquely human meaning of play and leisure. Can we consider play and leisure as something with inherent value, independent of their accidental usefulness?

[ … ]

I want to suggest that we divide play into two major categories; active and passive. The passive forms — let’s call them amusements — are indeed suspicious, as they seem to anesthetize the agent and reduce creative engagement. From our “bread and circuses” television culture to Aldous Huxley’s soma culture in “Brave New World,” the passive forms of leisure are cheap pleasures that come at no effort, skill or struggle. On the other hand, active play — everything from sport to music to chess, and even some video games — energizes the agent and costs practice, skill, effort and calories. Even the exploration of conscious inner-space, through artificial or natural means, can be very active. The true cultures of meditation, for example, evidence the rigors of inner-space play.

[ … ]

The stakes for play are higher than we think. Play is a way of being that resists the instrumental, expedient mode of existence. In play, we do not measure ourselves in terms of tangible productivity (extrinsic value), but instead, our physical and mental lives have intrinsic value of their own. It provides the source from which other extrinsic goods flow and eventually return.

When we see an activity like music as merely a “key to success,” we shortchange it and ourselves. Playing a musical instrument is both the pursuit of fulfillment and the very thing itself (the actualizing of potential). Playing, or even listening, in this case, is a kind of unique, embodied contemplation that can feed both the mind and the body.

When we truly engage in such “impractical” leisure activities — with our physical and mental selves — we do so for the pleasure they bring us and others, for the inherent good that arises from that engagement, and nothing else.

Source: Reclaiming the Power of Play

the power of [ awe…* ]

The Power of Awe…for altruism*

The NY Times published a great Op Ed this past Friday called Why Do We Experience Awe? In it, psychologist professors’ Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner cite studies that demonstrate the power of experiencing awe, “that often-positive feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends our understanding of the world.” Experiences of awe are those that give you goosebumps.

In a series of studies, the authors found that awe is a “collective” emotion that motivates us to be altruistic – to act in collaborative ways and care more for the greater good than for ourselves. In one study, people were either given a few minutes to look at awe-inspiring Tasmanian blue gum eucalyptus trees or to look at the facade of a science building nearby. Afterwards, an experimenter “dropped” a handful of pens. Those who spent the previous few minutes staring at the trees picked up more pens to help the other person.

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

Photo Credit: Institute of Paper Science & Technology (http://www.rbi.gatech.edu/)

In another experiment, participants who wrote about past experiences of awe or watched nature scenes for five minutes cooperated more and shared more resources.

The authors explain that

…awe imbues people with a different sense of themselves, one that is smaller, more humble and part of something larger… fleeting experiences pf awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.

The Power of Awe…for your health*

Other research has indicated that awe is also beneficial for your health. One study found a strong correlation between experiencing positive emotions and low IL-6 levels, a molecule that promotes inflammation in the body. The stronger correlation was between levels of inflammation and having felt awe-struck.

The college students in their study reported feeling this “awe-struck” emotion 3 or more times a week, which is good news. Awe-inspiring experiences are out there if you look for them.

My Awe-filled Weekend…*

Piff and Keltner worry that today’s culture is awe deprived. The cite art, nature, and simple quotidian acts of humanity as places to find this awe and suggest that we more actively pursue awe-inspiring moments.

In a place like NYC, there are ample opportunities to find awe, if you take the time to look for it. Over the weekend I noted my own experiences of awe.

On Friday I visited the MoMA – a wonderful place to appreciate the beauty and wonder expressed upon a canvas. While there, I discovered a painting I had never seen before, entitled Hide-and-Seek by Pavel Tchelitchew (1942). This image is a game of hide and seek on its own, and the longer you stare the more images you find hidden in the canvas.

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

Hide-and-Seek (1942)

I spent Sunday at Coney Island, where the old school amusement park, giant busy boardwalk, and aquarium provided countless experiences of awe. Luna Park is a place out of an earlier time, with old wooden roller coasters and traditional carnival games. It was a wonderful break from the modern-day technological world to co-experience the joy of more simple entertainment.

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On the Coney Island Boardwalk, the colliding of cultures and experiences make for an awe-inspiring experience. There were dance parties, snake-charmers, and people of all ages, races, and cultures coming together to enjoy the beautiful weather (and Nathan’s hotdogs from its original location).

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At the New York Aquarium, we were mesmerized by tropical fish, sharks, and sting rays. I saw a sea lion show sitting beside two young children and together we delighted in the sea lions’ tricks.

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I hope you all had a similarly awe-inspiring weekend! Until next week…*

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{ Playwork & Adventure Playgrounds } Places of Psychological Safety & Calculated Risk That Empower Children Through Play …*

{ Playwork & Adventure Playgrounds } Places of Psychological Safety & Calculated Risk That Empower Children Through Play ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

 

“Think of an adventure playground as an urban countryside, where children can experience all sorts of play that they might have only with great difficulty in the city. Its adult designers should examine the environment around it and compensate for the deficits. If children have no access to trees, then work with them to build something they can climb. (When asked what the big structures were for on his adventure playground, Bob Hughes said, “They are for trees.”) 
An adventure playground should be in a constant process of change, directed, informed, and executed by the children and their playing and supported by the play workers. It is a space that allows for all the different types of play to be discovered by children. It is a place of psychological safety and calculated risk. 
It may be helpful to think of an adventure playground as a Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” a space and time where all one’s senses are engaged.  – Penny Wilson, The Playwork Primer 

 

We are in the midst of a play crisis. Recess keeps getting shorter if it’s not cut out all together in schools across the country, while children’s free time outside of school is increasingly scheduled and managed around various ‘enrichment’ programs and activities. Yet, years of psychology and cognition research as well as personal experience from our own lives and childhoods, make clear the importance of unstructured free time and scaffolded risk-taking for children’s growth, confidence-building and cultivating grit to name just a few of the vast emotional, physical and mental benefits of free play. Which makes the The Land, a new documentary by Erin Davis on “an endengered human behavior: risky play” all the more relevant. The Land, which recently premiered at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, explores a Welsh adventure playground where children are allowed and encouraged to play with fire, build and break things, get their hands dirty and maybe skin their knees…you know, be kids.

The Land (2015) is a short documentary film about the nature of play, risk and hazard set in The Land, a Welsh “adventure” playground.  At The Land children climb trees, light fires and use hammers and nails in a play-space rooted in the belief that kids are empowered when they learn to manage risks on their own.

The documentary highights a growing movement, Playwork, which aims to create a paradigm shift and turn play into something that we take more seriously.

Playwork is a practice and a profession that removes barriers to children’s play.  It has a decades long history in Europe and a hearty library of fascinating theory. Playworkers make adventure play possible.

To create an adventure playground in your own community and learn more about the theory and history and the playwork movement, check out Penny Wilson’s The Playwork Primer and Pop-Up Adventure‘s Pop-Up Play Shop Toolkit –  a workbook designed to help you transform an empty storefront into a thriving community play space.

play & rethink …*

The Importance of Playing With Fire (Literally) from Play Free Movie on Vimeo.

When asked what she hopes people will take away from the documentary, director Erin Davis answers:

Landscape matters. Access to the elements matters: trees, water, fire. Agency and empowerment matter. Variety and change in a playspace matters. The Land, and places like it, push the envelope of what is possible. 

I also simply hope people leave the film excited to interact with the children in their lives in a new way. A way that is bold, compassionate and enriching for both the child and the adult. 

Source: Inside a European Adventure Playground

{ whimsical urban spaces } for fostering play

live from AERA…*

I am currently attending the 2015 AERA (American Educational Research Association) conference in Chicago, and I have been attending and participating in a variety of exciting presentations, roundtables, and poster sessions about the many types of interesting research around education and its unique challenges. I am still making sense out of all I learned, and I hope to share some of the interesting talks with you in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, today I want to talk about this amazing playground I spotted here in downtown Chicago.

Fostering Play…*

Last week Elsa wrote about the importance of play in our ever-changing world, reminding us of the essential nature of play. Perhaps this was on my mind because during my free afternoon this weekend I was walking near Millennium Park and couldn’t help but stop to admire this incredible play space.

maggie-daley-2

Photo Eric X. via Yelp

Maggie Daley park is a $60 million, newly opened 20 acre recreational space, opened in 2014. It was designed by architect Michael Van Valkenburgh as “a counterpoint to the symmetry and formality of Grant Park… with..  curvilinear forms, dramatic topography, and many whimsical elements.” As described in this article, there is a 3-acre play garden designed in the spirit of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is the piece of the park I stumbled upon . I was immediately enchanted by the surrealist, cartoon-like environment. Mayor Rahm Emanuel stated that the play garden “will allow kids to challenge themselves and do things they didn’t know they could do“.

In a world where I worry about childhoods lived behind a screen and enacted through highly constrained, scripted environments, I am so excited by this notion of fostering unstructured play. The rich narrative and creative potential of places like this is endless, and I find myself envious of the young children who will be enjoying the play garden this spring.

More pictures of this play space below. I will report back on my more academic experience at this conference next Monday!

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Children loved running up and down the rubbery foam hills, rather than using the stairs.

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A giant bridge connecting two towers. When I crossed, three young boys were working together to shake the bridge, excited at the prospect of making me fall (I remained upright, to their extreme disapointment).

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My colleague from Teachers College taking a turn on one of the slides.

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A web made of wires and ropes, where young boys created a clubhouse to call home.

A Whimsical Video Game That Boosts Your Creative Confidence By {re}Framing Writing As A Problem-Solving Puzzle …*

A Whimsical Video Game That Boosts Your Creative Confidence By {re}Framing Writing As A Problem-Solving Puzzle ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

I’ve previously featured an intriguing take on a “chance meeting” between video games and philosophy —Greg Edward’s 8-Bit Philosophy series--but today’s project, Dejobaan Games‘s Elegy For A Dead World, looks specifically at what might result from combining writing with video games. Elegy is an experimental online game in which, “you explore long dead civilizations inspired by British Romance-Era poems, and write about them.”

In Elegy for a Dead World, you travel to distant planets and create stories about the people who once lived there.

Three portals have opened to uncharted worlds. Earth has sent a team of explorers to investigate them, but after an accident, you are the sole survivor. Your mission remains the same: survey these worlds and write the only accounts of them that outsiders will ever know.

The game is out now on Windows, Mac, and Linux on Steam.

What I particularly love about this game is its mission to help everyone write –

“We created Elegy so that everyone can write. As you explore, the game helps you create the narrative.”

All too often, people shy away from creative pursuits because of the skewed beliefs they hold about their own creativity. They’ve been told in school, by peers or adults that they are not creative, that they’re not good writers, painters or photographers. This fixed mindset take on creative pursuits is terribly limiting and is based on a core belief that creativity is a set, static and predetermined capacity that only some possess. Yet, writing, like all creative pursuits, is not about waiting to be struck by the muse. Sure, inspiration is important in the creative process but even that is something that can be cultivated. What Elegy does is reframe the act of writing from being accessible only to the very few who experience bouts of seemingly inexplicable inspiration, to a form of problem-solving game.

Each world offers multiple sets of prompts, each intended to inspire you to write a different story about it. Elegy might ask you to write a short story about an individual’s final days, a song about resignation, or a poem about war. In the more advanced levels, you’ll sometimes get new information halfway through your story which casts a new light on things and forces you to take your story in a different direction. We like to think of those as puzzles — writing yourself out of a corner, so to speak.

play, write & rethink . . . * 

 Hat tip: Experimental Game Turns Players into Poets and Writers

“The Internet of Things,” empowerment, & ground-up technological advances.

In my Culture, Media, and Education course we’ve talked a lot about how media has evolved in recent years such that students are not simply consumers of media, but also producers of media. Platforms such as YouTube, Square Space, and Scratch have made the means of media producing so widely  accessible in a way that is both empowering and transformative for our society.

A recent ideas.ted.com blog post, WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE INTERNET OF THINGS, Karen Eng explores similar ideas, related to the internet that now exists in the objects around us. Thermostats, traffic lights, and Fit Bits are examples of objects that can possess “the internet”; objects that communicate with us and one another in ways that better our lives. For example:

It’s more about gathering intelligence with a variety of different systems. So while traffic lights do currently communicate with light controllers, they don’t yet communicate with approaching cars, for example. But what if traffic lights could tell the car ahead of time that there’s a string of traffic lights coming on, and so the car should take another direction?

[http://ideas.ted.com/2014/10/02/whats-next-for-the-internet-of-things/]

While the “internet of things” is becoming more of a reality every day, Karen Eng suggests that we are going about it the wrong way, specifically in a very top-down way. Companies are creating closed off devices with prescribed functionalities to solve specific problems, and then we can then buy them. No customizability, just consuming, no room for producing. See the problem here?

She calls for a world where we “democratize the technology,” or where the internet of things exists in open platforms. Mirroring the recent ways in which students and the general population have become producers of media, we can become producers of all types of technologies. While engineers at big companies will likely design amazing things, people on the ground who are face-to-face with problems may see different problems and come up with different solutions.

One great example of a such a technology, that is not only open platform but also child friendly is littleBits. As explained in another great TED talk (embedded below):

…beyond simple play, littleBits are actually pretty powerful. Instead of having to program, to wire, to solder, littleBits allow you to program using very simple intuitive gestures. So to make this blink faster or slower, you would just turn this knob and basically make it pulse faster or slower. The idea behind littleBits is that it’s a growing library. We want to make every single interaction in the world into a ready-to-use brick. Lights, sounds, solar panels, motors — everything should be accessible.

[http://www.ted.com/talks/ayah_bdeir_building_blocks_that_blink_beep_and_teach/transcript?language=en]

I’m excited about the day when we begin to bring open-sourced object-based technologies into the classroom, because I can only imagine some of the creative and useful things our students will develop. Additionally, the more we move our students to be producers of technologies, rather than consumers, the more empowered and prepared they will be to function in our ever-changing, technological world.

[ Literacy ] through Educational Technology?

I recently read a cyberpunk novel called The Diamond Age (highly recommended), and it delves deeply into issues of education and social class.The main plot line concerns the development of a new technology, a book called the A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. This is an infinitely adaptive interactive book that bonds and grows with the young girl it is first given to. It speaks natural language, teaches through allegory and elements of the learner’s environment, and consistently provides just-in-time information. It’s higher goals are humanist in that it aims to make the learner a strong, independent thinker. Along the way, the primer teachers various characters many different skills including how to read, problem solve, self defense, and computer programming.

Diamond Age is fiction, and we are FAR away from developing anything of this caliber, if it is even remotely possible. Yet the books presents an interesting model of education, and I was delighted to see an article recently about teaching literacy through technology from Sesame WorkshopThey have recently signed a two-year grant to explore how conversational technology (with toys such as Elmo or Grover) can teach preschool early literacy.

The success of this idea hinges firmly on two things: 1) technology capabilities and 2) the ways in which children will interact with a toy versus a human. Speech recognition software is good right now, but is it good enough to understand a toddler who is just learning to make sounds? I will love to see how this project progresses. The other aspect is how children interact with toys. Speech theories often suggest that children begin to use language around the same time as they develop “theory of mind” or an understanding that there are other people in the world with their own minds, who are experiencing the world from another perspective. Once you recognize this, you realize the need to communicate with them. Yet in today’s world, children communicate with technology all the time – sometimes as a means to speak to another person (e.g., Skype, FaceTime) and other times just with a screen (e.g., Blue’s Clues). Children also develop rich narratives, often aloud, when they play with toys or as they go to sleep at night.

Are we taking one step closed to A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer?

And the bigger question… how is educational technology good and bad for rethinking education?

[ Ed Tech – The Bigger Picture ]

A larger theme of my studies is thinking about and discussing technology’s role in the education world. This is something that everyone you meet will have an opinion about, and these opinions can often be very polarized.

My standard response is that I do research in order to better understand what technology is good for and what it is not good for. I am the first to admit that there are many current uses of technology in our classrooms and education systems that are under-researched and therefore poorly executed. Yet in this digital age there is such a need to integrate technology more seamlessly into education that I know there are spaces where Ed Tech could help teacher teach, help students learn, and provide experience with new forms of learning that are vital for functioning in today’s society.

[ What are the hurdles to successful Educational Technology?? ]

Umang Gupta wrote an article in edsurge last month explaining some of the issues surrounding integrating Ed Tech in schools. Currently, we spend only 1% of education funds on technology, compared with the approximate spending of 10% of GDP in the wider economy. Obstacles for technology in the education world include 1) worries that the tech world is going to replace teachers with laptops, and brick-and-mortar schools with services such as MOOCS (massive open online courses), and 3) a highly fragmented, high regulated, and highly bureaucratic industry.

To respond to issue #1, I maintain that real life teachers and brick-and-mortar schools are here to stay. The social aspect of school is important and motivating in and of itself, and I doubt we will see technology in my lifetime that can rival a really good teacher working one-on-one with a student. Yet good teachers are a limited commodity, so the idea with technology is to supplement that teacher’s abilities. If a computer program can teach and manage some of the more basic aspects of a lesson, the teacher is free to move about the room and provide individual help with other aspects. The research project I am working on currently exists entirely under the rationale that we’ve discovered a great pedagogy but the current teacher to student ratio is too high (about 1:4) for it to be feasibly introduced into classrooms. With a software to guide students, the ratio can go down.

In terms of online education, I’m definitely wary of any education that is completed entirely from a screen. Yet blended learning has a tremendous future and value to students, creating multimodal, asynchronous learning opportunities for students to connect across time and space and to learn in more authentic spaces in the world.

The bureaucratic red tape is definitely another huge issue, especially when combined with the time constraints of school. In addition to some of the issues Gupta brings up in his article, simply finding a school to pilot test or conduct research in is extremely difficult (if anyone has a middle school in the NYC area let me know!), and once you have a product, the general rule of thumb is allowing up to 6 months of professional development to teach the teachers how to use the software before beginning to integrate that software into classrooms. When this lag doesn’t happen, teachers tend to just ignore the new piece of technology. When the lag DOES happen, a better piece of technology is often already in development.

Ultimately, I am excited to be a part of the education world, specifically in the technology realm, and I think that we will see huge transformations in the ways in which technology supplements traditional modes of education over the course of the next few decades.

The Wisdom of 6.5-Year-Olds: What Cannibalistic Cocoons & Jumping Through Fire Can Teach Us About Change & Empathy …*

The Wisdom of 6.5-Year-Olds: What Cannibalistic Cocoons & Jumping Through Fire Can Teach Us About Change & Empathy ...* | rethinked.org

Hola rethinkers* Elsa here, back from my camino! Had a truly splendid time and made it all the way to Santiago. Walking 800 km has given me plenty of time to think (a really really good combination and ancient tradition this walking and thinking business). I’m excited to share with you some of the insights and discoveries I made on my trip but as I’ve only just got back and barely had time to digest my experience, I’m going to write about something completely unrelated which happened this past weekend: I got to hang out with a six-year-old—correction, a six-and-a-half-year-old— and I was struck by how much adults, especially those interested in challenging the status quo and developing their capacity for empathy, stand to learn from young children.

MEET MY NEW FRIEND MATHIEU & HIS LEGO HERO FACTORY TOYS–BULK & STORMER

I met Mathieu at his parents’ house where I was having a long Sunday lunch. He sat at the table with us to eat a bit and then disappeared around the garden to play. When dessert was served, Mathieu came back for some ice cream, holding in his hand a Christmas catalogue. I asked him if he had started making his list for Santa and if he’d show me what it was he wanted. We went over the catalogue together and he explained the various delights of each toy he had circled. I then asked him what was the one toy he most hoped Santa would bring him, to which he answered Lego’s Hero Factory before disappearing to his room to bring back two specimens.

I spent over an hour talking with Mathieu about his Lego Hero Factory toys and playing with him. I could hardly say which of us had the most fun. But the reason I wanted to write about my encounter with Mathieu, goes beyond wanting to brag about my awesome new tiny friend or my love of all things Lego. Having no children of my own, I rarely get the chance to hang out with the six-and-a-half-year-old crowd and that’s a real shame. I’m passionate about storytelling, empathy and the architecture of change and as my time with Mathieu showed me, we (the part of the population who no longer values half years in our age) have much to learn in all three of these interrelated domains from children.
STORYTELLING 101 – WHY THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CANNIBALISTIC JUMPER & CANNIBALISTIC COCOON MATTERS
 
What quickly became apparent to me as Mathieu and I played with Bulk and Stormer is that the toys were artifacts from an incredibly rich imaginary world, one which Mathieu inhabits very comfortably. Mathieu painstakingly explained the origin story of the Hero Factory world, the main hero, (Evo, for the uninitiated) the good guys and the bad. When I tried to rephrase what he had said to make sure I had understood, I confused the cocoons and the planters several times and each time, Mathieu patiently corrected me. Once I had gotten the full back story, we started playing and caught up in the excitement of the game, I started making what can best be described as attack noises – “Grrrrrrrrr,” “pooowww,” “watch out!” Mathieu looked at me a bit embarrassed and then said, as nicely as he could, “It’s a machine, it doesn’t talk.”

 

I think the fact that Mathieu corrected me each time I confused the cocoons and the jumpers or when I got carried away with battle sounds was critically important. He sensed my genuine interest in entering the Lego Hero Factory world and took it upon himself to guide me in. Each imaginary world operates according to a specific set of rules (so while vegetal cocoons attack robots in the Hero Factory world, machines do not speak or make battle calls) and it is these shared laws that keep the world bounded together and allow it to be a shared imaginary space. Creating these rules and then exploring the possibilities of the worlds created within them is what fiction writers, dreamers, and rethinkers * of all type do. It is no secret that soft skills are becoming increasingly important as the pace of change accelerates and the collective problems we face become increasingly wicked. We need people who can craft solid, inhabitable alternatives–“what ifs” that offer better, more sustainable futures for more people. And that starts with storytelling and storytellers. We need to cultivate and amplify children’s natural capacity for creating imaginary worlds and we need to learn from them how we ourselves might regain that wonderful and critical ability to ask “what if?” and run with it.

 

EMPATHY & PLAY – JUMPING THROUGH FIRE REGULARLY WILL HELP KEEP YOU NIMBLE IN YOUR ABILITY TO ENTER OTHERS’ INTERNAL WORLDS
Not only are children naturally adept storytellers, they are also able to grasp with ease the nuances of others’ stories (I think the proper buzzword to describe this aptitude, these days, would be creative listeners). In many ways, each of us, carries and inhabits his or her own world. Our reality is constantly mediated by our perception; our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to others is shaped by a mix of past experiences, character traits, hopes, neuroses, tensions and dreams. In essence, empathy is about being able to experience what an exterior situation might feel like when viewed from the particular lens of another (an Other’s internal world). Children do this extremely often when they are at play, seemingly without any effort. Just a few weeks ago, I was having a drink with a friend on a rather deserted village town square while two little girls played nearby. The girls were running around and jumping, taking turns yelling, “now water, now fire.” Evidently, they were on an epic journey through the elements and shared a common imaginary space, worlds away from the physical environment, that had them running around panting with excitement. They were able to take turns designing the world and could seamlessly go from their own internal reality to that of their friend’s, experiencing with equal ease and immediacy what was in their friend’s mind’s eye as what was inside their own.

 

It’s interesting to note this link between play and empathy, how they seem to go hand in hand naturally. Perhaps it is because we try to stamp out our own playfulness as we age that we become more and more stuck within our own world and less able (or willing?) to enter into those of others. My advice? Go play with a tiny human.
play & rethink …*

In a World of Constant Change, How Do I Constantly Construct New Lenses Through Which to Make Sense Out of the World?

“People are amazed today at a 2-year-old being able to pick an iPhone and make it work. Okay? Whereas a 50-year-old, many of the executives that I know, or 60-year-olds, feel like they can’t figure this thing out. Or anything new that comes up, they get thunderstruck. Oh, damn it, what do I do now? They have to call for help. There’s no sense of saying well, hold it, let’s just goof around with it a moment, get a feel for it, see how you get out of that problem. And if you can do that, then you don’t feel alienated by these changes. And instead, you start to see how oh, I can figure this kind of stuff out, and I’m beginning to connect the pieces in new ways, and pretty soon I feel like I own this. Because a tremendous sense of learning is, how do I make something personal? How do I bring it in to me as opposed to just things out here? Can I internalize it, can I play with it, make it personal to me? And then I got it for life.” – John Seely Brown

In the short video below, John Seely Brown highlights the importance of play in enabling us to navigate a world of constant change. He also shares some insights on the types of context–from the one-room schoolhouse to cultures that promote reverse-mentorship–that facilitate and harness the potential of play as a source of understanding and innovation.

So it is the kind of the willingness to be able to sit back and just play with something, look at the world as a riddle, see if you can generate epiphanies about these little micro-riddles that come forth, and when you can do that, you start to craft a new set of conceptual lenses. And so the real question is, in a world of constant change, how do I constantly construct new lenses through which then I can pore all kinds of knowledge and make sense out of the world, see how to connect the dots? So this actually has a tremendous amount of play to it, but it also has a fair amount of tinkering into it. It’s kind of working with the system – if you can work with the system abstractly as you do in string theory, but it’s a sense of playing with how do these pieces really come together? It can be casual play, fairly simple stuff, or it can be deep conceptual play. But then you see things kind of lock in. You made that lock-in happen and so suddenly things start to now jell.

play, learn & rethink …

 

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