Fresh Dirt from the Sandbox

Educational video game designer and Entertainment Technology Center grad Dave Faulkner shares his Sandbox Summit experience

I just spent two days in Cambridge, MA at the MIT Sandbox Summit.  The theme of the conference was “Pixel the Possibilities, Nurturing kids imaginations in the digital age.”

Andy Clayman gave the keynote address.  Andy is the creative director of Avenues, The World School, an amazing K-12 school that recently opened in New York City.  The school does a number of unique things such as teaching multiple subjects around a central topic and instructing in multiple languages over the course of a single day.  Check out their YouTube channel, the videos are beautiful.  I think this is a great model for schools, unfortunately the price is way above what most families will ever be able to afford.

Margaret Robertson is the managing director of Hide and Seek and she gave a talk titled “New Games / Old Rules: How we play today.”  She spoke about a few of her games including The Show Must Go On, a game for kids about assembling an opera, and Tate Trumps, a game that challenges kids to go into museums and find the painting that, if all the paintings came to life, would win in a fight.  Margaret has such a wonderful attitude and approach to game design.  Hide & Seek just had their Tiny Games Kickstarted, I wish I had caught this a few days earlier.

Katie Bisbee gave a surprise talk about Donors Choose, a website where teachers post classroom project requests.  Donors can choose to fund specific projects and when a project reaches its funding goal the organization ships the materials to the school.  Each and every Sandbox attendee was given a $50 card to use on the site to fund a project.  This website is such a fantastic idea and has been doing this amazing work for quite some time collective action toolkit, I’m a little ashamed that I had never heard of it.  I’m looking forward to choosing a project to donate to, I’m going to hunt for a teacher that is doing a cool game-based project.

Monday afternoon I attended a presentation by David Sherwin of Frog Design called “Timeboxing: Better ideas faster.”  This was essentially a workshop about agile development and methods to get the most out of your creative time.  Timeboxing is working in short sprints that each has a distant purpose and goal, and then taking a step back to reevaluate and redirect.  The verbs he used are act, evaluate, and articulate, allowing you to work iteratively.  A theme of David’s earlier talk was that design is a form of directed problem solving (check out the Collective Action Toolkit), and the workshop was an exploration of this idea.

Fred Newman gave a fun talk about growing up in Georgia and falling in love with sound.  He performed a number of songs, don’t miss him performing the nutcracker suite with his mouth!  Fred creates the voices for Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion which my stepfather assures me is quite excellent, I’ve never had the pleasure of listening.

Sandbox Day 2

On Tuesday morning I ran a workshop with my Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center teammate Anisha Deshmane and CMU ETC director Drew Davidson.  We gave a short presentation about the work we did designing educational experiences for the SMALLab system at the Elizabeth Forward School District in the fall of last year, then took the workshop attendees through a design exercise.  I’ll be posting a write up about the workshop shortly.

The first talk on Tuesday morning was by the founders of JibJab and, more recently, Storybots.  Evan and Gregg Spiridellis told the highly entertaining story of how JibJab came to be, and also showed of some of the new content and applications that are being made for their new kid-centric brand StoryBots.  On the Storybots website kids can make books that star themselves similar to the way that you can create customized eCards on JibJab.  Check out the website to see a set of animated ABC videos that are fantastic, Evan’s favorite is the hilarious video for the letter “X”.

Mathias Crawford gave a presentation titled “After the Sandbox:  Everything you didn’t learn in kindergarten.”  The thrust of his presentation seemed to be that people aren’t engaging in collaborative work and play as well or in the way that they think they are.  He talked about people creating projects together in Minecraft as not real collaboration and as more of parallel play.  He said that the most people don’t actually think about what other players are doing in collaborative Minecraft projects until they get in their way, and that most collaborative Minecraft projects show more individual creativity based on self-direction.  He thinks that true collaborative creativity needs to look more like bebop jazz, where your creativity is rooted in the actions of the people around you.  He uses the Schulberg Playground in Wiesbaden, Germany as an example of play where the movements of one person on the ropes affects every other person on the rope playground.  I wonder what he thinks about tabletop roll playing games such as D&D!

The closing keynote was by Dale Dougherty, the president and CEO of Maker Media.  He gave a heartwarming talk peppered with examples of people reaching out into the community by making things and sharing that experience with others.  I’m a huge fan of Make Magazine and hearing Dale talk made me want to run home and start a new build project.  He spoke about making as empowerment, as a way to realize that you can really do something.  I really hope that schools embrace the maker culture that bass been springing up around the country.  It is sad to think that kids get so excited about making things, then go to school and have their creativity stifled.  The Makerspace playbook is intended to help you start a Makerspace in your school or community, it is free at

The 2013 Sandbox Summit was full of interesting conversations, positive people, and also a few tears.  Our thoughts and prayers go out to the people of Boston and to all people affected by violence around the world, peace be with you.

Now go make things!

Published April 19, 2013