Sandbox Summit 2014 Takeaways


The arrival of springtime in Boston gives us many reasons to be excited, and the annual Sandbox Summit is near the top of our list (though warmer weather and ice cream will always be #1 and #2). This year was no exception, with a wide array of thought-provoking presentations and sessions. Even more so than at past Summits, the majority of speakers and workshops had a cohesive message focussed around intertwined core topics including child-driven learning, the importance of play, and the ability to embrace failure. Check out our synopsis (below the break), highlighting key points around these unifying topics.

  • Scot Osterweil of MIT began by announcing that kids today have a deficit of play. With the unfortunate prevailing assumption that kids at earlier and earlier ages need more school-like experiences, the importance of play has been continually eclipsed in early childhood by the attempt to accelerate academic experiences and prevent “failure”. Scot pointed out the irony of this, considering the amount of research that concludes children indeed learn better from play than instruction. He urges parents, teachers and content creators alike to focus on play that naturally leads to school-readiness and suggests open-ended apps that support child-driven inquiry such as Toca Band.
  • John Hunter, a veteran teacher with 40 years of experience, gave an inspiring glimpse into the power of combining play and student-driven learning. His brainchild, The World Peace Game (pictured above), was the focus of both a feature-length documentary as well as a 2011 TED Talk. The game “creates an opportunity for epiphany and discovery with no instruction”, tasking 4th graders with the challenge of solving complex problems not unlike those facing the world today. The game has been so successful that John and his students were invited to the Pentagon, where his 4th graders advised numerous high-ranking generals on policy and tactics they would use to help solve the world’s problems.
  • Giving us a student’s perspective on the importance of self-guided learning and rapid, iterative failure, 17-year-old Jack Andraka detailed his journey from the frustrating loss of a close family friend to pancreatic cancer to his discovery of an affordable, early detector that has the potential to prevent such deaths. With a talk title of “Playing on the Internet: Look What I Discovered”, Jack’s presentation embodied the core themes of play and self-guided learning, and his “playful” approach allowed him to fail often without giving up on his goal.
  • Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner brought the idea of self-guided experiences into the realm of entertainment, advising attendees to “think of different mediums as different instruments” and asking us to consider what we could create if we envisioned these instruments as part of an orchestra playing in harmony. The result should not just be a prescribed narrative, but rather a rich story-world that allows for multiple entry-points into what we compose.
  • The Global Literacy Project is aiming to capitalize on this unique moment in time when the convergence of technology, child-driven learning, science of reading and big data analysis allows for the development of digital tools to help kids read on their own. The presentation about this project, which delivers tablets pre-loaded with curated literacy apps and allows students to self-organize and use the apps freely, was an amazing testament to both child-driven learning and the importance of an iterative process that reacts to quick and rapid failure.
  • Mitch Resnick of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab presented on Scratch and its younger off-shoot Scratch Jr., which allow kids to experiment with programming. These projects, and the research around them, embody the core themes we identified of the Summit, allowing kids to play and create projects that they care about (and to learn from their failures). We’re currently working on a large update to The Big Gig that emulates a lot of the successful aspects of Scratch Jr. that Mitch highlighted.

While we’ve always valued the importance of play, the ability to fail quickly and safely, and child-driven experiences, it was invigorating to see these themes weaved throughout a two-day experience in such a wide variety of presentations. We will continue to challenge ourselves as content creators to keep these values at the core of everything we create.