A New School of Thought

For graphic designers Katie Salen MFA 92 GD (right) and Nancy Nowacek, comprehensive learning should be fun and games.

Salen is the executive director of Institute of Play, a nonprofit that cultivates critical thinking and problem-solving skills in the classroom by teaching grade school students to create their own games, whether it be in the form of paper cards or mobile apps. “They go from being kids to amateur designers,” she said last night during a well-attended presentation in the RISD Auditorium hosted by the Graphic Design department.

This educational model makes it more fun (and in turn, less of a headache) for students to digest curricula that can sometimes fall flat in a digital world, according to Nowacek, who runs summer camps to orient new students. “Why do we play? To have fun, to explore, to build a community – and to learn.” If there’s organized chaos in the classroom, something’s going right, she points out. Learning is happening.

In 2009 Institute organizers opened Quest to Learn, a school in the heart of New York City that teaches approximately 375 sixth and seventh graders; a sister school in Chicago was recently launched. And the students are flourishing, partially due to the inclusive environment.

“There are vital skill sets that you can’t test for,” Salen told the RISD audience last night, adding that a sense of belonging is a key indicator of student success. She hopes to add high school grades at Quest by 2015.

Check out our Game Changer story to read more about Salen’s groundbreaking ideas.

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