Archive for the 'Presentations' Category

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

[Wendy Smolen is a contributing writer to the KidScreen blog. She is also a friend and the co-founder of the annual children’s conference called Sandbox Summit. Wendy asked if I would share some thoughts with her regarding the latest Sandbox Summit event held at MIT. Originally published to the KidScreen blog on April 25, 2012.]

Scott Traylor, Chief Kid at 360KID, had the daunting job of taping the recent Sandbox Summit@MIT, Going Mobile, Going Global, Tracking the anywhere/everywhere state of play. While this gave him a front and center seat, it also meant he had to listen to every word (no bathroom breaks!) I asked him to comment on a few of his favorite presentations.

Generally I find conferences don’t provide a helpful starting point about how kids are changing. Not so here. Allison Arling’s presentation from The Intelligence Group covered uncounted aspects of generational preferences with Gen Y and Gen Z. I found myself nodding in agreement as she communicated subtle differences in media consumption, messaging that resonates with a generation, and triggers for engagement across generational divides that can make or break any media plan. Clear, crisp, exact. (Or whatever.)

Allison’s presentation provided the scaffolding used by many of the other speakers. On day two, Jane Gould of Nickelodeon delivered a resounding kids’ media data punch . Jane always has access to great info, and she’s willing to share! Ever wonder what apps are most popular with kids, and why? What kinds of media do kids consume on tablets? What barriers will prevent media consumption on a tablet but not on television? What is consumption like on non-Apple devices? The answers were startling and maybe the most detailed and in-depth I’ve seen in the mobile/tablet/apps space ever. Jane made understanding the drivers of mobile media consumption a no-brainer.

Gaming and learning was a common thread in conversations both inside and outside the auditorium. Eric Zimmerman, game designer and industry thought leader, challenged us to rethink long-standing assumptions about learning games. Eric delivered one media mind bomb after another, the biggest being why educators challenge the value and potential for learning in games at all. Why is this one tool for creative expression challenged more than others? Why is it so many in education, as well as in business, wish to “gamify” learning? Should we have similar concerns about books in learning? Should we “bookify” learning? That’s crazy talk, and so is the current conversation about the potential games have to teach. Books are just one element of learning, why aren’t games?

These are just three small samples of a larger conversation. There’s no way I can do justice to all the intriguing thoughts each presenter brought to the conversation over the two days. If you missed attending this event, watch one—or all—of the videos here. You’ll be as amazed as I was at what you‘ll learn.

Disclosure: Scott Traylor is the founder of 360KID, a children’s interactive media company. Scott is also on the Board of Advisors for the Sandbox Summit. He captured the video being shared in this article’s links.

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Monday, January 26th, 2009

Can video games be successful vehicles for learning? Over the years many companies have tried to create video games that not only entertain, but also deliver some learning value. Very few of these products have succeeded in being fun to play as well as helped achieve their desired learning goals. Many “edutainment” product fail in the consumer marketplace as well as in the classroom. However, a very small number of such games reach some level of critical success in both of these domains. Why is it that few succeed where many fail? What should developers of such products be doing to increase their chances of success? What assumptions made along the way are incorrect?

Over the last year I’ve worked on a presentation to suggest a few of the difficulties in creating effective learning games. The video included below is of a presentation I delivered this past November at the annual Dust or Magic Children’s New Media Design conference, though some version of it has appeared in a number of other presentations I shared with others in 2008. After taking a look, let me know your thoughts; What is important to think about when developing video games with learning in mind? What products do you think achieve success in this area? Which ones miss the mark completely? Where do you look for inspiration? Enjoy.

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Monday, September 29th, 2008

Last week I attended a conference called the Sandbox Summit in New York City. The Summit was a day long event with many noteworthy speakers who are software and content creators, child development experts, and reviewers of technology toys for children. The event’s main theme? The power of play and its ability to help facilitate learning.


During the opening keynote, speaker Andy Berndt, managing director of Google’s Creative Lab, described how almost everyone can remember a favorite toy when they were young (link to audio of presentation.) Andy shared his favorite play activity, that being a creative experience which involved the process of inventing new bicycles. When he was a child, what he did was take apart many different bicycles, and because bicycle parts for the most part are standardized in terms of their bolt sizes and screws used to make them, he was able to recombine different bicycle parts into unique, unusual, and exciting combinations. One could say that Andy’s open ended experimentation with bicycle parts was on par with play experiences found in Legos, K’Nex, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and the like. What is it about Andy’s creative experience that can lead to insights on how best to help facilitate a love of learning? Read on.

The Importance of Play and its Relationship to Learning

The next speaker who I thought did a fantastic job of providing an overview on the importance of play and the learning opportunities that come from play was Nancy Schulman, the director of the 92nd Street Y Nursery School in New York City (link to audio of presentation.) Nancy shared with the audience that one of the best things about her job for the last 18 years was the wonderful opportunity to watch young children play. With that experience she has learned a great deal about the benefits of play not just for preschoolers, but for all ages.

Nancy expressed that educators, psychologists, and even the American Academy of Pediatrics have great concerns today about the quality of children’s play, how children play, and the quantity of time children play. Parents on the other hand express a lot of concern around wanting their children prepared for success at a very early age. Through her work, Nancy speaks with many parents. One of the greatest anxieties she hears from parents is that they want to be sure their child has every advantage, making sure that before they’re five years old they’ve mastered a second language, mastered every sport they might possibly play, and excel at playing a musical instrument as well. While child professionals are encouraging more open ended play in a child’s life, sadly most parents aren’t paying much attention to these recommendations.

When Nancy was asked “What types of skills do kids learn through play? And why is that meaningful in terms of a child’s lifelong appreciation for learning or confidence in their ability to learn?” she responded first with a quote from child development expert David Elkind of Tufts University:

“Play is not a luxury, but rather a crucial dynamic of healthy, physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development at all ages.”

Nancy then discussed each of these developmental benefits and how child initiated play can lay the foundation for learning:

  • Social – “Through play, children learn to interact with others. Play prepares children for morale reasoning. They figure out how to resolve a problem with a friend independently.”

  • Intellectual – “They learn to recognize and solve problems. Children get that feeling of mastery that only comes from when they’re challenged but not frustrated at the same time. In academic areas, play is linked to creativity, imagination, and problem solving skills and it lays the groundwork for successful learning experiences in reading, writing, math, and science. If you think about what children do when they play, it’s very language rich. They are interacting with words and language all the time and learning communication skills.”

  • Physical – “In terms of physical development, they can develop through play fine motor skills, gross motor skills, overall strength and integration of their muscles, their brains, and their nerves. It sets apart a start in their lives for healthy living and fitness, which of course, can counter obesity as well.”

  • Emotional – “Play is Joyful. It is probably one of the greatest underpinnings for later adult happiness. It can’t be underestimated how much happiness and joy have in terms of learning as well.”

Survey of Kids Opinions about Play

The next speaker who offered some additional insight into what kids think about their favorite play objects was Peter Shafer, Vice President of Harris Interactive (link to audio of presentation.) Peter shared with the audience a recent online survey conducted in collaboration with the Sandbox Summit of 1, 353 US children ages 8 to 18.

There was a wealth of data to digest in this presentation that spoke to tween and teen toy preferences as well as video games and digital toy products. In general I found this data interesting in that it backs up many gut assumptions about what different age groups prefer in their toy playing experiences.

One observation, it appears the definition of a “toy” was intentionally left undefined in this survey. Did survey respondents think a toy was a traditional toy, a technology toy, or maybe even a video game? Parts of the survey appeared to suggest what the differentiation of a toy was while other questions were not as clear.

Here are a few pieces of data I found interesting to pull out of the Harris Interactive Sandbox Summit survey press release:

“How much do you agree or disagree with the following?”
Summary of Strongly/Somewhat Agree


8-12 Year Olds

13-18 Year Olds









The most important part of a toy is that it is entertaining.





Toys that involve technology, like video and computer games and handheld games or toys, are more fun than other toys.





I enjoy toys or games that make me think.





I would rather have a toy or game that is fun to play even if it does not help me learn.





Toys are important in our lives to help us learn.





I call your attention to a couple of specific items from the survey (colored in light blue.) For the 8 to 12 age group the most popular response for a toy product was that it should be “entertaining” whereas with the 13 to 18 year old group there is a great appeal in products that “make me think”.

Best Practices for Developing Playful Products

After the Harris Interactive presentation, Carly Shuler, a Cooney Fellow from Sesame Workshop’s Joan Ganz Cooney Center and educational technologist Carla Engelbrecht Fisher delivered a presentation called “Fun Follows Function: Ten Tips for Developing Quality Toys”. Below I briefly outline each tip, but you can download an audio recording or download a PDF copy of the PowerPoint presentation here.

  1. Bridge the gap between industry and academia – This first tip strongly suggests the benefit of bringing together multidisciplinary teams (child development experts, content experts, pedagogy experts, etc.) This first tip is one my company follows frequently. There’s a great paper by Brian Winn and Carrie Heeter, both from Michigan State University, about the important balance needed (and often the necessary heated debate) that comes from working collaboratively with multidisciplinary teams. A copy of this paper can be downloaded here.)

  2. Incorporate research and testing in your product development and discovery process – Any amount of testing, large or small, will have a beneficial impact on your product’s development. From informal focus and user testing groups to serious product research efforts there’s a research approach that can fit your budget.

  3. Track what users do in your product – There’s lots to be learned from watching how your target audience interacts with your product either informally or through data collection. Spend time analyzing what you find.

  4. Read some research – Become familiar with the basics of developmental psychology for the specific age group your developing for. Doing this will help avoid reinventing the wheel. A handout was shared at the conference with many great places to jump start your research reading list. A copy of this reading list can be downloaded here.

  5. Become an observer – Watch kids at play in the real world or even on YouTube (a cool suggestion offered by Carla). Watch how kids interact with products, visit playgrounds, schools, toy stores. Note what’s on the shelf and where it’s located. Also be aware of what’s on sale, it may provide a tip for what’s not selling.

  6. Break the traditional model of one child per screen – Think outside tradition single player models. Think multiple players, or better yet, how can you actively encourage inter-generational participation! Think outside the keyboard box, consider alternative input devices (dance pads, guitars, balance boards.) Consider how you could combine virtual and physical worlds in new ways (like the success Webkins achieved with dual play patterns online and offline.)

  7. Leverage consumer market trends for learning – Consider user generated content, online video, or casual game approaches. Be aware of these every changing trends and you just might find one that will greatly elevate the success of your product.

  8. Go beyond the “3 R’s” – Think 21st Century Skills: Creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, communication. For more on 21st Century Learning Skills, download this presentation from the May, 2008 Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s first annual symposium.

  9. Become familiar with various game mechanics – There are many different game mechanics that could increase interest and engagement in your product. Some old mechanics can be made new again with the newest technologies.

  10. Tap into your own childhood – Everyone has childhood experiences that can help shape your product for the better. Tap into your own experiences as well as those around you.

Note about Virtual Worlds

Kids and virtual worlds was touched on a few times throughout the day but I thought the following statement was worth calling out in its own section. Peter Shafer of Harris Interactive indicated that we will see explosive growth in the area of virtual worlds specifically for kids. The numbers cited were that there are about 80 virtual world destinations for kids today and by the end of 2010 there will be more than 150 virtual worlds to choose from. For a current list of virtual worlds available, I have the following link to share.


So what’s the key take away for developers, innovators and creators of playful learning products for kids, whether traditional or technological? Here’s the secret sauce that was repeated over an over again through words and through examples:

  • Make the play experience as open ended as possible. Think about opportunities for vast exploration, not a limited path of play. Include opportunities to fail as well as ones to succeed. Let each child develop their own unique path to play, one that is customizable enough that it appeals to a single user and flexible enough that multiple users can find their own unique approach.
  • Bring together a variety of child experts.
  • Become familiar with research.
  • Watch your audience, get familiar with your audience, test with your audience.
  • Try something new! Break the habit of relying on the same old technology and user input solutions.
  • Think 21st Century Skills

Nancy Schulman also offered this sage advice:

“If your child can’t play with a toy in at least three different ways, leave it behind.”

And one last thought for making the next greatest learning toy, digital or otherwise… Think bicycle parts.

Referenced Products and Videos

Here’s a list of digital products and online YouTube videos that were referenced throughout the Summit.

Apple Ad Andy Berndt from Google reference this old Apple ad called “Industrial Revelation” that looked at computers and their power to significantly enhance learning empowerment

Dizzywood Scott Arpajian’s latest virtual world environment. In Scott’s presentation, he touches on how schools are using Dizzywood to promote student diversity
Huru Humi Mike Nakamura of Senario, demonstrates his company’s latest digital avatar toy that is designed to encourage self-discovery and social skills by using technology to spur real-life interaction among tweens and teens.
Kerpoof Kerpoof is an empowering online creative tool for kids.
Kidthing Kidthing CEO Larry Hitchcock presents his safe digital online environment which can be used for distributing entertainment and learning material
LeapFrog’s Learning Path Jim Gray, Director of Learning for LeapFrog, discusses LeapFrog’s Learning Path, and online component to LeapFrog’s consumer products that lets parents see and shape a child’s learning.
Backyard FX – How to make Movie Rain Erik Beck, who is a producer for NextNewNetworks develops an online low budget video show called Backyard FX. Erik’s work is wonderfully creative and the audience cheered his YouTube presentation on how to make “movie rain”. It was an excellent example of how best to combine a technology and creative vision. The example video is a must see!
Sabi Games Margaret Johnson, CEO and Cofounder of Sabi Games, discussed her upcoming learning games release that is worth keeping an eye on. Stay tuned for more from Sabi in October.
Scratch Mitchel Resnick’s online creativity and collaborative learning project called Scratch. For an interview with Mitchel about Scratch and his learning approach embedded throughout the product, click here.
Sesame Street Makeda Mays Green discusses the newly relaunched preschool learning website at

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Sunday, June 8th, 2008

I just made it back from a three day conference in Washington DC held by the Association of Educational Publishers. The event, called the AEP Summit, occurs every June and industry leaders in educational publishing from around the globe gather together to discuss advances in technology, instruction, educational content, development and many other aspects of creating and delivering high quality student learning materials.

During the event, sessions are offered to discuss and showcase best practices, products, and trends. A highlight of the yearly event is the AEP Awards Gala. This banquet is held during the last evening of the conference and awards are presented to acknowledge the best educational products in their respective disciplines.

This year attendees were in for a special treat during the Summit. Through the amazing and tireless efforts of Doug Ferguson, AEP’s VP of Operations, with the assistance of his fantastic staff, conference attendees and invited members of the press participated in a debate between the senior education advisors of presidential hopefuls Senator Barack Obama and Senator John McCain. Jeanne Century, Director of Science Education and the Director of Research and Evaluation, University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education (CEMSE) spoke for the Obama campaign and Lisa Graham Keegan, Principal of The Keegan Company spoke for the McCain campaign.

During the more than ninety-minute debate, many important questions about education, policy, teacher performance, and global competitiveness (just to name a few) were asked from an insightful group of panelists moderated by Frank Catalano of Pearson. Panelists included education experts Marjorie Mayer from Scholastic, Neal Goff from Weekly Reader, Bernice Stafford from the Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration (CILC), Dr. Sara Davis from USA Today, and Joel Packard from the National Education Association (NEA).

During the debate, two noteworthy moments stood out from rest. The first came from Neal Goff, president of the Weekly Reader Publishing Group. Neal asked:

“How do you go about reintroducing subjects [like music, art and others] than those that are being tested [as mandated by No Child Left Behind] into the curriculum and how do you keep teachers from teaching to the test?”

In response to this question, Senator Obama’s education advisor Jeanne Century responded:

“With regard to keeping teachers from teaching to the test, the point isn’t keeping them from teaching them to the test, it’s making sure that teachers know and agree – on all the skills and expertise (students) need to succeed in the 21st century, agreeing on that, and then testing those. If we all agree and commit to what students really need to know and be able to do, we’re all good with the teacher teaching to the test, including the teachers.”

I thought this response spoke clearly to the United State’s need to address a 21st Century Skills approach to learning as outlined by Bernie Trilling, not just the country’s proficiency in math and reading skills.

The next memorable moment in the debate came from an impressive twelve-year-old middle school student named Madison. She is a member of the Scholastic Kids Press Corps. and a reporter for Junior Scholastic News. The reality of Madison’s question gave greater weight to the discussion. Ms. Madison’s question was:

“I attend a public school in Washington DC, just a few blocks from each candidate’s senate office. Although it’s academically one of the best schools in the city, we have clauster falling from the ceiling, water fountains and air conditioners that don’t work. We also learned that our entire foreign language program is going to be cancelled next year. How will your candidate make sure that all public schools have proper facilities and provide a variety of classes for students that will allow them to be more competitive in the global economy when they grow up?”

The first reply to Madison’s question was Jeanne Century, advisor for the Obama campaign:

“There is a sub-group within our education policy group that’s developed a plan for ensuring that school facilities are up to par with what they need to be. That we have not just the modern technologies, but the basics in place. It’s an obvious necessity. It’s part of that floor I was talking about [earlier] that needs to be in place. With regard to foreign language, it certainly shouldn’t be cut from middle school, but we need to have foreign language programs happening even earlier than that. Senator Obama is committed to helping our students become bilingual, trilingual. It’s a necessity for our country and for the future, not just so we can compete, but so we can communicate and collaborate with our colleagues and with their fellow students, as they are still students and their colleagues as they grow into adults.”

Next to reply was Lisa Graham Keegan for the McCain campaign:

“This question of school facilities is one that half of the states in the country right now, or at any given time, are in their supreme courts arguing about their school finances, and usually that revolves around inequities and access to facilities. I think this is a question this country needs to take very seriously. Senator McCain is very interested in hearing from different states because this is their purview and the federal government has not (been) acting to the facilities business except in the backing of the finance in various minimal ways. But we obviously need leadership together to ask why in areas like DC, where the money is seemingly available, it is not tracked down to schools. The percentage of money available to education that does not get into school facilities and classrooms and instruction is way too high. We’re one of the highest in the world for administrative overhead so salaries outside of school or expenditures outside of instruction need to be addressed and it’s something he would want for us to take a look at.”

Digitized video and audio podcasts of the debate will become available sometime in the coming days through the Association of Educational Publishers. For further information about the debate or for information on how to acquire video or audio files of the debate, contact Doug Ferguson (dferguson at aepweb dot org) at the AEP.

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Wednesday, May 14th, 2008

A Presentation by Connie Yowell at the First Annual Symposium of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center

May 9, 2008

Connie Yowell of the MacArthur Foundation photo [Background: The presentation that left the strongest impression on me during the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s Symposium was the four minute speech delivered by Connie Yowell, the Director of Education for the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Before Connie Yowell spoke, the symposium’s keynote speaker Bing Gordon, the Chief Creative Officer of Electronic Arts, discussed his experience developing video games for EA. He gave an enlightening presentation about the successful video game franchise Madden Football. What was most impressive about Bing’s presentation was the amount of mathematics, statistics and probability that are an integral part of the game’s experience. To hear the recording of Bing Gordon or Connie Yowell’s presentation, please refer to my prior blog post.]

“Good afternoon everyone. I’m Connie Yowell, the Director of Education at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. I want to start off by saying that we do a lot more than give out “genius awards” even though that’s how Bing Gordon of EA referred to us in his introduction. One of the things we do at the Foundation is award a fair amount of education grants.

Two years ago the MacArthur Foundation began to question how effective our grant making was. We were really focused on district reform, school reform, and instructional improvement. It was suggested to me that I begin to look at the digital world. I did so kicking and screaming. My heart has always been in social justice and in civil rights. I understand that education is the pathway to that result.

I had a lucky opportunity one morning to meet with Will Wright, the video game visionary behind The Sims, SimCity and SimEarth. Will was kind enough to have breakfast with me and I spent two and a half hours listening to him talk about how he creates a game. I distinctly remember leaving that meeting and emailing my boss immediately thereafter to say “I just met John Dewey.” There was no question in my mind that game developers and the folks who are working on some of these new technologies are the pedagogical theorists of the 21st century. They are the folks who are developing curriculum for our young people.

I have just one point to make and that being my greatest concern is with who we are as adults. My concern is with the paradigms we bring to this work. My concern is that we are at a time where we need dramatic changes and shifts in how we think about learning. My concern is the paradigms we bring to this conversation.

I’m curious, of those of you here in the room, how many of you, prior to or even after seeing Bing Gordon’s presentation, could watch somebody play a Madden Football video game and recognize where learning is happening in that game? [About 12 hands go up in the crowded room of more than 150 people.] I see a few of you could. If you can’t understand where learning is happening through the Madden game, then we’re in the wrong paradigm. If you’re stuck in conversations about whether or not the Encyclopedia Britannica is better than Wikipedia, then we’re in the old paradigm.

What matters dramatically at this moment, for me and for the Foundation, is that we ask the right questions. You can’t get to the solution and you can’t understand what direction to move in unless you’re asking the right questions. So if you look at Encyclopedia Britannica and you look at Wikipedia and your questions are about credibility, then you’re probably more concerned about something from the 20th century. If you look at Wikipedia and you say “Oh my God, this is going to teach my kid how to be a historian!” it’s then that you’ll see this is an incredibly different kind of learning opportunity and a fundamentally different kind of reading practice that our young kids are engaged in when they’re looking at Wikis and blogs and other things on the Internet. We cannot measure what they’re doing or understand the learning that is happening in context with our old measures – our old paradigms for learning, and frankly, our old understandings of learning that are based on models of consumption.

We’re in a time of participation. We’re in a time of production. And as important as participation and production are, we’re in a time of networked learning. I want to say that over and over again; We’re in a time of networked learning, – where kids are communicating and collaborating with each other in ways that fundamentally shift the role of the teacher and fundamentally shift the role of the adult. If anyone thinks a classroom of 25 kids with a teacher at the front is the paradigm that will result in the most effective use of digital media, that result is not going to happen. We can’t be using the same kinds of standards and measures or think that we’re simply going to move digital media into schools as they currently exist. We will only find that they have no impact. And then we’ll miss one of the most important opportunities for advancing our kids’ learning that we have had in over a century. I can’t express this with enough emotion and importance; we are in a moment, and if we ask the wrong questions, if we stick with our questions from the 20th century, and hold the new digital media accountable to things we’ve been holding accountable in the same ways for decades, we’re going to miss this opportunity.

I would also like to point out that commercial industry is driving learning. They are fundamentally driving learning. They have outstripped anything the textbook industry is doing or anyone else. What has to shift in a significant way is the relationship with and our understanding of the relationship between public and private, and I think that’s a good thing. Thank you.”

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