by Preston

Kicking the to Sesame Street: How playful learning inspired a path toward creativity and exploration in a digital world

I remember my early years as a time of playful creativity and exploration. As an only child, I spent a lot of time entertaining myself. My toy of choice was LEGO bricks, which I was fortunate to discover when “sets” were built once, admired, and then destroyed in order to create something totally different. In the suburban town where I grew up, kids left the house in the morning and returned maybe for dinner. We would roam the neighborhood and organize ourselves into various games that required a minimum of supplies like “capture the flag” and “kick the can,” both easily managed by our little kid society. Back at home, an AM/FM radio became a portal to a much wider world: Top 40 music plus the news, traffic, and weather. Who knew what the Triborough Bridge was? The Cross Bronx Expressway? The FDR Drive? Another universe to be discovered someday.

These themes – free play, the opportunity to create, modify, and start over, and exploring new spaces and ways of operating – have motivated me throughout my career.

Perhaps inevitably, I moved to New York City after college. Informed by my early experiences of playful learning, I hoped to do something creative and new within the NYC public school system, which serves more than one million students who are diverse in every way. I started my professional journey just as the internet was arriving in schools: the beginning of an exciting national shift as lots of new technology appeared in classrooms, often with high expectations for personalized and more equitable access to learning, but without a lot of knowledge about how to get there. 

Growing up in the ‘80s meant my expectation of computers was more Seymour Papert than Carmen Sandiego. Decades before reading Jean Piaget’s foundations of cognitive development in graduate school, I had been unknowingly inducted into Papert’s constructionism because the most interesting thing you could do on a computer at that time was program it.

Fast forward to the late ‘90s, when a wave of new public initiatives, nonprofits, and community-based efforts sprang up to help wire school buildings and purchase computers. All that new gear didn’t come with a built-in purpose or a roadmap, of course, although it was clear the World Wide Web was an exciting place to visit. There was a real risk at the time of failing to do something transformative, say, by defaulting into familiar patterns like digitizing worksheets or treating “computer time” as a reward after the more serious work was done. We were still years away from “web 2.0” and the idea that people could easily share their own content online.

Fortunately, there were exemplars that centered kids in creative ways and enabled them to explore their interests, express ideas, connect with their communities, and get meaningful feedback and support. I found inspiration in the concept of connected learning, which had emerged around the same time in the work of Mimi Ito, Nichole Pinkard, Katie Salen Tekinbaş, and others. Connected learning describes activities that are “socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity” (Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, 2013). The maker movement is one commonly cited example in which kids (and adults) can create art, games, interactive experiences, and more for themselves and others (video: Digital Ready Maker Party from EdLab Studios, 2014).

It turns out it was possible to support these ideas in schools and school systems, and they didn’t depend wholly on technology. The most innovative public schools I encountered, including transfer high schools and members of the Competency Collaborative, organized themselves around a set of supportive, student-centered practices that provided kids with the opportunity to pursue what they cared about, with people who cared about them, and to grow in accomplishment – academically, in civil society, in workplaces – in many cases using technology to further creative expression and connection (video: Student Voice and Choice from the NYC Department of Education, 2014).

In the early 2010s, many of these ideals became formalized within the nascent Computer Science for All movement, with citywide initiatives in Chicago and New York, and later a national hub that offered a new community for computationally- and constructionist-oriented people and organizations across the country. I was fortunate to be able to help lead and grow both the New York and national efforts. We were enabling kids’ agency to make new things and learn from each other in classrooms, afterschool programs, and weekend hackathons – including the 20 brave schools in our Software Engineering Pilot, a proof point in our journey to demonstrate that any school can offer these learning opportunities (video: SEP Showcase from the NYC Department of Education, 2014).

Now in the 2020s, I run a research and innovation lab at Sesame Workshop called the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, named for the co-founder of Sesame Street who was a radical innovator in her own right by leveraging the emerging media of the day to help kids learn. When Joan conducted her initial research in the mid-1960s, televisions were already in 95% of American homes, but the content was generally considered to be of low quality, especially for kids. Enter Sesame Street, a show that was carefully designed for children through formative research methodologies while borrowing liberally from what made jingles and game shows so engaging and memorable. Cue C is for Cookie!

The Cooney Center continues to ask Joan’s original question of how to leverage emerging media for children’s benefit – all the way up to teens. We help creators, from startups to product teams inside big companies, to mobilize research and include kids in design to ensure their products are engaging, have the impact they intend, and serve diverse kids everywhere. 

Today, many families are concerned that play is bumping up against the digital world in ever more complicated ways, including debates about kids wasting their time playing games, threats to children’s privacy and safety, the mental health dangers of social media, and calls to create “walled gardens” for children controlled by their parents. Fortunately, there’s a growing body of thoughtful research on adolescent mental health and technology use and the challenges of building healthy tech for kids.

In this environment, there is increasing public pressure for digital media producers to do better for kids. Digital media companies are caught between capitalizing on a business model and maximizing the benefit to children, and looking for a way to do both. Creators say they are interested in designing for kids’ benefit, but often don’t know what “good” looks like including the answers to such questions as:

  • How might our potential product shape kids’ learning and well-being?
  • How do we ensure our product will serve a diverse range of kids?
  • How do we understand kids’ needs and preferences across developmental stages and media platforms—including many that aren’t designed for kids’ use?
  • How might digital play support healthy development and empowerment, creativity, and social connection?

To incorporate new development techniques, designers have told us they want easy access to consistent, reliable, research-based perspectives and the ability to pressure-test emerging concepts and products with diverse groups of kids. They also want to know they are on the right track for promoting kids’ well-being and seek to explore friction in human experience earlier in the process than they currently are able to. We draw key lessons from Sesame Workshop’s rigorous approach to R&D and also utilize participatory methods like co-design as part of our Sandbox product lab.

My recent experience as a member of the Digital Futures Commission has also increased our focus on the child rights lens for design. How might we increase awareness and adoption of children’s rights in the digital world as outlined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and define “the best interest of children” when it comes to digital play? 

We are currently working on several new initiatives that seek to answer these questions and translate them into the design of children’s digital play. One key example is the Responsible Innovation in Technology for Children (RITEC) initiative, co-founded by the LEGO Group and UNICEF and funded by the LEGO Foundation, the first product of which is a research report and well-being framework that reflects the views of children from around the world on what well-being in a digital world means to them. Children said that well-being when playing online meant that they felt safe, competent, and empowered, while having the opportunity to connect with family and friends. These ideas drive our Design Well, Play Well campaign to design a digital world that puts the well-being of children first.

Every kid deserves a world in which creativity and exploration reign, with a great sense of possibility and the opportunity to discover and make new things. We must draw from research across fields to generate new insights with and for the industry, policy, and academic communities and work together to ensure our kids can grow up in a healthy and playful world.