Press “play” for school

It’s back to school time for a lot of parents, and every year around this time, I can’t help but feel sorry for the kids as they’re shoved back into an obsolete public education system.

I still cannot accept our public school education because of my own experience with it growing up as a kid. I told a friend once, how much I loathed it. Her reply was “But you turned out fine”.

Did I really turn out fine?

Quite the opposite, I believe. I am so traumatized by my school experience, that a large portion of my life’s work is committed to search for education alternatives.

A workshop in YCAM about video streaming + monitors for kids. This is educate children & parents on issues related to media technology. This girl here discovered “feedback”. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman 2013

A few weeks ago, I attended at conference in Yokohama, FAB LEARN ASIA organized by FabLab Kamakura. Themed,”Key Challenges for Digital Fabrication to the 21st Century Education’, it centered on “fabrication learning”. This means having personal fabrication tools as part of the learning environment in the school. Personal fabrication tools are like laser cutter and 3D printer. Once you have these new hardware, you must learn the software that goes with it. By this, I don’t just mean that must learn the operating software like like 360 Fusion, or other Autodesk programs. Instead, the person needs to high level of critical thinking skills. How to identify a problem, conceptualize a solution and build that solution. Cognitive skills like problem-based learning, collective learning, collaborative practice, design and critical thinking; must be shaped first. With these personal fabrication tools in your hand, you must develop your brains in a certain way before it can be fully utilized.

A gathering of FabLabbers, Makers and Educators in Yokohama, Japan (12-13 Dec. 2015)

The conference speakers who consisted of engineers, professors, teachers and industry practioners presented their case-studies that illustrated the application of fab learning and new learning environment. However; as interesting as these programs were; they operated largely on the periphery of the public education system. This means, these new teaching ways and education styles were only accessible to middle to upper income families. Namely parents who are educated and can afford these extra classes, will have these “enlightened” kids.

Stanford University Professor, Paulo Blikstein, called this the  “pedagogical divide” in his keynote address . This means there is a large gap between he kids who are schooled under more relevant education environment (often formulated by latest findings in cognitive development and access to more thinking tools) AND the kids stuck and schooled under obsolete public school system.

At the closing of the conference, an audience member asked the panel, “While it’s clear to me that fab learning is crucial, its quite obvious that it will not enter the public school in the next few years. What can parents do to bridge this gap now?”

His question got me thinking. In my head, I flipped through the many projects done by different bold and charismatic people, driven by the same question.

What is education for?


In that chilly afternoon, I spun around to have a better look of my surroundings “So this is your “university huh?”

What I saw were trees, scattered campsite, a kiln-like stove and lots of nature. Akira narrowed his eyes and grinned

“Yes, this is my university. Can’t you see it?”

Yup. I saw it; the open skies, the mud slides and tree houses. I spoke to Akira Tsukakoshi, one of the founders of Harappa University; a “school”  for outdoors situated on the outskirts of Zushi (Kanagawa Pref). It’s a place where parents and kids can play together, building tree houses and making meals; in forest mountain. He says the regular programs are very popular with families living in Tokyo. They come simply because most of them have never experienced this close contact with nature. Tokyo is such a rat race of a city, that to be playful, silly and to enjoy time with the family, has become such a rare treat. It’s a place for reconnecting with friends, family and environment.

Harappa Map
Map of “Village Ya”. Image credit:


There is a lot of imagination in the forest. Because you don’t necessarily have the best tools, you have to improvise or make own toys or create interesting situations for yourself. This is where the mind really starts to become engaged and active.

Akira said that, “parents should stop outsourcing their time with kids to other people, to teachers, baby-sitters, aunties, uncles, etc.”

I thought the same too before. Why should I pay another person to spend time with my baby girl? Instead, I’ve changed my practice so that I can accommodate my daughter with me, mainly because I want her to experience what I do for a living and practice similar principles. And I like the term Akira used, ”outsource our time”.

Harappa kids activities
Kids learn through serious play. Image credit:

Harappa University’s methodology seem to revolve around constant and direct exposure to the environment to stimulate intuitive responses. Through the act of spontaneous play; people respond in different forms of communicative, construction or physical responses.

~ *~

A friend of mine, Daiya Aida, is one the other end of this spectrum. He is interested in the “design” of alternative learning environments, especially where media technology is concerned. A few years ago, while Daiya was the chief educator at Yamaguchi Center for Arts + Media (YCAM) where he initiated and lead one of my fave projects ever, the Korogaru Pavilion.

Unlike the conventional playgrounds, that we see in our parks and public spaces, the Korogaru Pavilion completely revamped the old notions of play and learning. But it was not done randomly. Instead it was based on the results of years of workshop studies to understand how “learning through play” has changed within today’s digital media world.

I was lucky to catch it in 2013 in Yamaguchi, and experienced the playground for myself. The playground incorporated webcams and monitors on swinging balls, a constant real-time skype session with children at another playground. It also provided tactile experiences like ramps, earth, water and mud. It was a lively and bustling environment that the neighborhood kids took proud ownership of.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.08.56 PM
Design of the spaces encourages personal exploration and interaction with the environment. Photo credit: Yamaguchi Center for Arts & Media (YCAM) 2013

He and his edulab team conducted a series of workshops with kids to find out what is the new concept of play. They worked with the kids to develop new types of “play” forms. According to Daiya, he discovered 3 concepts of play among the kids.

  1. Kids liked vertical axis (up & down, experimenting with gravity)
  2. Sequential (time based like a rotating lights on the floor) or strobing likes to create stop motion effects.
  3. Kids like to play with “remote” tools that allow them to extend their physical self. Like playing with a stick (to push or poke things) or remote control.
Kogoragu Pav
Kids in the Karogaru. Leaving their parents behind without even a care for it. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

Based on the outcomes of these workshops, Daiya and his team worked with architects Megumi Matsubara & Hiroi Ariyama to build the Karogaru Pavillion in time for the 12th anniversary YCAM, and by far, this “exhibition” attracted the most visitors.

Korogaru Pavilion video


In his speech at FabLearn Asia 2015, Paulo Blikstein, asked the audience, ”What is the role of education? Why do we spend so much money and time to get into good schools because we think good schools equals to good education? Is it because we want our children to get good jobs? So that they can be financially stable and live comfortably?”

I mulled over this for a while.

He continued, “The role of education is to emancipate. This means, with the knowledge we get, it must be able to free our minds so that we are empowered to change things around us. Education is to have this mind of knowing we can change things for the better.”

Therefore, education is about giving exposure to powerful ideas and access to the right tools so that we can change our situations to what we want.

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