Highlights from Kids @ Play

by Becky Herr Stephenson, PhD
January 12, 2011

Becky Herr Stephenson is a Research Fellow at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. She attended the Kids@Play Summit at CES 2011, which focused on the way technology is changing how kids learn and play. She shares some highlights with us here:

Kids at PlayThe Kids@Play Summit at CES reaffirmed for me that the best technologies are those that are obviously disruptive — technologies that challenge our expectations about what learning and schooling should look like, about who can participate in creation and production, and about how adults and children should interact around digital media like games and virtual worlds. Kids@Play featured technologies ranging from digital blocks (Sifteo) to electronic books to mobile apps.

The Cooney Center’s own Michael Levine and our friend and collaborator Sara DeWitt from PBS Kids presented findings from our recent report, Learning: Is There an App for That? — they managed to both impress and disgust the audience with demos of the apps discussed in the report. (Check out the PBS Kids Apps page, and take a close look at the demo for the Martha Speaks Dog Party app to see why the audience was both impressed and disgusted.) Presenters and participants alike noted the importance of questioning claims about the educational value of apps without more evaluation like that begun in the Cooney Center report.

While the entire summit was a great event, three panels stand out as my favorites:

It’s a Movement: The first panel I attended was focused on gaming systems that encourage physically active play. Due to concerns about kids’ fitness and health (as well as evidence that games that get players up and moving around can be really fun), active play appears to be a huge growth area in gaming. The panel presentations ranged from a demo of Sony’s Playstation Move system to a skateboarding game by Omek Interactive. By far, however, my favorite presentation on the panel was from HOPSports, a company that makes an interactive system for use in physical education classes, after school programs, and community centers.

Anything that can make gym class a little less harrowing for non-athletes like myself gets my full approval — and HOPSports seems to fit the bill. The system is built around fitness videos focused on different sports and physical activities. However, instead of Richard Simmons or Jane Fonda leading the workout, a host of professional athletes guide students through training for a specific sport, ranging from soccer to stunts. Including popular culture kids care about — appearances by celebrity athletes and popular music — is key to upping the cool factor of the system (and, by extension, kids’ buy-in to the activities.) And, while watching a gym full of students repeat in unison the action modeled by a giant, floating projection of an athlete sometimes feels like something straight out of Orwell’s 1984, it seems clear that HOPSports is a great resource for 2011 and beyond.

3D Moms: Like the movement panel, the presentations during this session addressed an area of concern in children’s uses of digital media — the possibilities and problems of 3D media. 3D is another area in which huge growth has been seen in the past few years — nearly every family movie is released in 3D, manufacturers have begun producing 3D televisions for home use, and consumers are beginning to see gadgets like the Nintendo 3DS hitting shelves (sometimes with ambiguous warnings about allowing children to use the product). Despite all this growth, very little is actually known about how children understand and respond to 3D media, including whether or not 3D should be considered a tool for learning. Further, the effects of 3D on children’s developing eyesight are just beginning to be understood.

This panel pulled together experts from all sides of the 3D issue, including an optometrist and representatives from Texas Instruments and NVidia, companies that have been heavily involved in producing 3D media for games and simulations. Personally, I found it interesting to think about how much 3D media is already available (for example, in the form of PC games) and to learn that TI and other companies are actively investing in bringing 3D resources into K-12 schools. While I have little interest in watching movies in 3D myself (during this session, I learned that my eyes aren’t pointed correctly to fully enjoy 3D anyway), I am very interested in seeing resources for simulation make their ways into educational spaces, and after seeing this panel, I am more hopeful than ever that this is a reality.

The Changing Virtual World: This panel looked at three very different kinds of virtual worlds for kids: one built around curriculum, one built around a product, and one built by its participants. What I found most interesting about this panel is the way each presenter (and, presumably, each company represented) thinks about children as participants, citizens, and active learners. Whereas two of the virtual worlds were very much adult-created and adult-driven worlds to which children were invited to visit and given limited agency, the third, WhyVille, appears to take an opposite approach, addressing children and teens as full citizens with rights and responsibilities — not only for being in the space, but for making the space what it is. Kids do not get opportunities like this nearly enough!

I think it’s clear how each of these panels spoke to the idea of disruptive technologies — by getting kids out of their seats at school, by bringing 3D resources to classrooms and students who otherwise would not have access to them, or by providing spaces for kids to build, interact, experiment, and feel a real sense of ownership and responsibility. While much of the technology on the floor at CES focused on individual user experiences — customizing one’s iPad or collecting and storing one’s video collection — the vibe at Kids@Play felt different, instead privileging technologies that facilitate social interaction, sharing, and creation. Both the disruptive nature of the technologies featured at Kids@Play and the focus on shared interaction and community are incredibly encouraging, and I look forward to seeing what the coming year has in store for everyone at the summit!