A Glimpse Into the Playful World of Seymour Papert

Movers and Shakers

A Glimpse Into the Playful World of Seymour Papert

By Idit Harel     Aug 3, 2016

A Glimpse Into the Playful World of Seymour Papert

My mentor and collaborator, Seymour Papert, was a brilliant mathematician, a distinguished computer scientist, an innovative learning theorist, a humanitarian and a visionary for technology-based education to empower every child. That he is widely considered the father of a movement that espouses play and games as an integral part of learning—any learning—may seem incongruous.

While a visionary, he was also very much a realist. Seymour’s belief in playful learning remains firmly grounded not only in over 50 years of field research with children in-and-out of schools, but also on the work of seminal thinkers about how the mind works and develops, and how children acquire language and manipulate knowledge; or, to use his language, how we learn to construct objects and play with powerful ideas to the point that we own these ideas as our own knowledge.

Seymour’s genius went far beyond the academic. Just like a good video game, he, too, was unpredictable, full of surprises, and a fount of unexpected, sharply intuitive expressions and original terms to describe learning at its best.

My thinking sessions with Seymour were always playful, and often generated unexpected brain waves, fun out-of-the-box concepts, and countless original ideas. I always envied how he could talk, tell stories, and write about big ideas in simple, jargon-free terms. But even now his aren’t run-of-the-mill ideas. Again, like good video games, Seymour’s ideas can work on many ‘levels,’ ‘layers,’ and ‘depths,’ and have a serious ‘holding power.’ Any of his speeches or writings make you think for hours, days, years!


“Constructionism,” a term Seymour coined in the mid-’80s in connection with the academic work on LOGO, (the children’s computer programming language) and the education movement it spawned, became the basis for our work together at the MIT Media Lab (described in a book we published in 1991). We later developed it further together in non-academic contexts through MaMaMedia (a pioneering children’s website), ConnectedFamily (a pioneering book website for his book of the same name), and Papert.org (his resource website), World Wide Workshop (an incubator for global education innovation) and Globaloria (learning platform to bring computer science courses to K-12 schools). Seymour coined the term to advance a new theory of learning, claiming that children learn best when they

  1. use tech-empowered learning tools and computational environments,
  2. take active roles of designers and builders; and
  3. do it in a social setting, with helpful mentors and coaches, or over networks.

His theory stems from the work of education innovators such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and Paulo Freire; but most of all, Jean Piaget, the genius genetic epistemologist with whom he worked in 1958 to 1963 in Switzerland.

Seymour wanted to help kids from all racial, social, and economic backgrounds improve their learning and thinking. In his view, there is hope for every child. He believed children’s cognitive development and scientific thinking grew through stages of self-constructed knowledge structures—and that they need to actively work through exploratory activities that allow them to discover and construct their own world.

The Gears that Took Him to Piaget and to MIT

As a young child in South Africa, he developed an obsession with cars. He was proud about knowing all the parts of the transmission system, the gearbox, and most especially the differential. Many years before formally learning about how gears work, playing with them “did more mathematical development than anything I was taught in elementary school,” he wrote, noting that he later created mental gear-driven multiplication tables and equations with variables.

“Piaget’s work gave me a new framework for looking at the gears of my childhood,” Seymour wrote in “Mindstorms.”

“The gear can be used to illustrate many powerful advanced mathematical ideas, such as groups or relative motion; as well as connecting with the formal knowledge mathematics, it also connects with the ‘body knowledge’ the sensory-kinesthetic cognition of a child. You can be the gear, you can understand how it works by projecting yourself into its place and turning with it….It is this double relationship—both abstract and sensory—that gives the gear the power to carry powerful mathematics into the mind.”

Gears fueled one of the central ideas behind Constructionism: thinking about thinking while playing with objects, and imagining being inside them or becoming these objects, can enable children to concretely understand big, complex ideas. “I fell in love with the gears…something very personal happened,” he wrote. Falling in love can happen more easily with objects invented and designed by oneself.

But not every child’s mind works the same way, Seymour understood, and the “gear model” could not be replicated or taught with similar effect for all children. Enter computers. “The computer is the Proteus of machines,” he said. “Its essence is its universality, its power to stimulate. Because, it can take on a thousand forms and can serve a thousand functions, it can appeal to a thousand tastes.”

And so began close to 40 years of research and innovation tying together computer technology with ideas about the development of intelligence, knowledge, and learning to learn. In the early ‘60s, Seymour came to MIT and co-founded with Marvin Minsky its Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. With his Al team and a development team from Bolt, Beranek and Newman, they created in 1967 the first version of Logo, widely regarded as the first and most important effort to give children control over computers and over their learning and development.

The key to computer programming in Logo was its playful way of enabling children (and adults) to think together about important ideas in geometry and mathematics by writing code that guided the movements of a virtual turtle (or several sprites) on the screen. In the early ‘80s, he helped found the Media Arts and Sciences program at the MIT Media Lab, and in it the Epistemology and Learning Group, where I earned my doctorate collaborating with a diverse group of students (50% were women, African Americans, Hispanics, and gays). Upon graduation I joined him to lead educational technology research and Constructionist theory development. This innovative research work continued through the ‘90s, as he served as MIT’s LEGO Professor of Learning Research. (Later, the name for the LEGO company’s award-winning toy Mindstorms, a robotic construction system for youngsters, was inspired by Seymour's 1980 book of the same name.)

Playful Learning and Hard Fun

‘Playful learning’ has always been a key component of Seymour’s computer-based education programs with teachers and students alike. In his mind, the best and most effective learning is “hard fun,” a term he has embraced since hearing a young student apply it to a LOGO-based school project introduced in a San Jose school in the mid-’80s.

“I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard,” he said. “Once I was alerted to the concept of ‘hard fun,’ I began listening for it and heard it over and over. It is expressed in many different ways, all of which boil down to the conclusion that everyone likes hard challenging things to do, and complex artifacts to play with. But they have to be the ‘right’ things, matched to the individual’s style and personality, background and ethnicity, and to the culture of the times. These rapidly changing times challenge educators to find areas of work that are hard in the right way: they must connect with the kids and also with the areas of knowledge, skills—and don’t let us forget ethnics—adults will need for the future world.”

Learning Stories

Numerous learning stories were generated by Seymour to validate his “hard fun manifesto,” playful learning and constructionist approaches to educational change. His students’ and colleagues’ research led him to stories about:

  • How adolescents in Maine’s juvenile correctional facility overcame their longstanding aversion to school learning by being given the opportunity to invent and construct sophisticated mechanical and robotic devices, and actually took pleasure in writing about their experiences.
  • How inner-city Boston students combined imagination and computational models, learning mathematics and physics by building LEGO cars that can race each other uphill.
  • How a California fifth-grader demonstrated spectacular screen graphics he programmed using LogoWriter. He explained with pride that he figured out angles and curvature to obtain the greatest grace, and said, “I want to be a person who puts math and art together.”
  • How “hard fun” that integrates math, writing, design and art in a computer programming project captivated students previously bored with the curriculum, and developed in them new confidence and significantly improved their scores on standardized math tests.
  • How kids developed their own computer games for other kids in the school to play, rather than buying ready-made games; and the learning that happened in this rich context.

Telling these stories about the potential of enjoyable, computer-based constructionist tools and projects became Seymour’s primary way of inspiring educators who want to maximize children’s potential and become agents of change.

Video Games and Learning

Seymour believed that Constructionist projects are like some of the best video games: they have holding power that can become “as much a part of the lives of young children as playing with toys and dolls, or other construction kits.” Wouldn’t it be great, he wondered, if “the concepts, which children do learn at school, but reluctantly and not very well, would be learned with the gusto one sees in playing Nintendo games”?

Yet many of the industry’s efforts to create computer-aided learning software, or attempted to infuse traditional instructional material onto games, frustrated Seymour. He railed at advertisements for ‘edutainment’ software products that proclaimed “Our software is so much fun that the kids don’t even know they are learning” or, “Our games make math easy!” Nonsense, Seymour said: “The language of these ads betrays the way in which this software throws away what is best about the contribution of game designers, and replaces it with what is worst about the contribution of school curriculum designers.”

“What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear about a game advertised as being easy? What is worst about school curriculum is the fragmentation of knowledge into little pieces. This is supposed to make learning easy, but often ends up depriving knowledge of personal meaning and making it boring. Ask a few kids: the reason most don’t like school is not that the work is too hard, but that it is utterly boring.”

His writing on games raised the hackles of some in the education community:

“Game designers have a better take on the nature of learning than curriculum designers….Their livelihoods depend on millions of people being prepared to undertake the serious amount of learning needed to master a complex game. If their public failed to learn they would go out of business. In the case of curriculum designers, the situation is reversed; their business is boosted whenever students fail to learn and schools clamor for a new curriculum! I believe that this explains why I have learned very little about learning from reading textbooks on curriculum design, and have learned a great deal from both the users (mostly kids) and the designers (often ‘grown-up kids’) of computer games.”

In fact, bucking the conventional wisdom of the education and sociology establishment, which largely decried the emergence of “video games for children,” in the late 80s Seymour and I became fascinated by the Nintendo phenomenon. Observing the enormous sales of the Nintendo game system and the virtual learning community of youthful strategists and game-software tinkerers that grew around it, we saw a huge potential for a real-world lab to explore new ideas about the value of learning while playing and creating video games.

As a result, we submitted a grant proposal to Nintendo on behalf of our Media Lab team. Concerned about its usage with American parents, and curious about this strange group of academics (who saw educational value in their games), Nintendo sent an evaluation team that included the engineer who invented both the Nintendo game system and the Game Boy. I remember how on the evening before our meeting, I attended a concert with a Media Lab colleague in Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston symphony. I took with me some of Nintendo’s latest gadgets that were sent to us from Japan, to bone up for the meeting and to conduct a little informal field research on the grass lawn. I will never forget the reaction of children around me, which affirmed my enthusiasm; kids gathered around us to play, and even parents, who at first gave us concerned looks, joined their children.

In the spring of 1990 we eventually won a first-of-its-kind $3 million grant for pure epistemological and learning research. The press captured it: “Nintendo to Fund Learning Research at MIT!” Many of the concepts about how video games can revolutionize and help us understand learning grew out of that work.

Learning Learning

Underlying Seymour’s research on computers, games, and other instructional tools and methods is the idea that children must be empowered to take charge of their own thinking and learning process, rather than be forced to become passive receptor for top-down instruction and multiple-choice quizzes. Helping children learn to be good learners was much more important than teaching them a rigid curriculum.

Yet Seymour also felt that some of his ideas have been misconstrued and misapplied. In one of our conversations during the fall of 2004, he told me, “I miss the old days of Big Ideas about the nature of knowledge and human learning.” He added, “I have been deeply involved in three movements that began on a galactic scale and were painfully reduced and trivialized:”

  1. Piagetian child development theory being turned into fourth-grade math word-problem strategies (“A Piagetian curriculum is a contradiction in terms,” he always said);
  2. The change in focus on Artificial Intelligence from understanding human intelligence, complex systems, common sense, emotions, to computer-programmed robotic assembly and accounting in businesses;
  3. The transformation of kid-friendly computer science and computational inventiveness into computer use to support old rigid and outdated curricula and traditional instruction.

“School is so out of step with society” was something Seymour often said to me. There is so much to learn from the ways kids play, learn to create their own games, and figure out creatively technology and gadgets on the fly.

His work and ideas, carried by his past students and their students, and his colleagues and disciples worldwide, continue to stir radical rethinking about how to learn learning, how to coach for Constructionist teaching, and about transformation of education through Constructionist uses of technology and programmable new media inside school systems, and through self-directed learning at home.

The journey has never been easy, but that shouldn’t be a surprise to Seymour and those he has inspired. After all, hard fun is the essence of good games and good education.

Idit Harel (@Idit) is the CEO and Founder of Globaloria.

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