12/01/2010 04:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Teaching Kids to 'See' Play-Doh Possibilities

Core 77 recently sponsored Play-Doh Kicks, a design challenge asking participants to recreate their favorite "kicks" or sneakers out of Play-Doh. Wearing "my play is not just for kids" hat, I laughed at the craziness of these miniature shoes and the adventure the designers must have felt embarking on their journey working in this highly sentimental but very unforgiving material! I was excited to think about the joy these wonderful Play-Doh kicks must have brought to their makers and are certainly bringing to their viewers!

And then I saw my other hat hanging dutifully by the side of my desk: director of a new Los Angeles museum for kids focusing on media, arts, culture and technology. And with that hat on I immediately saw an opportunity. Why should designers have all the fun? Especially when there is good learning to be had by all the fun.

What do kicks, Play-Doh, fun and a design challenge have to do with kids and learning? Everything.

Mixed together, they teach a highly valuable habit of mind. How to "see." And this means seeing not only what's in front of them (as in the creases of a worn leather shoe) but also how to see what could be in front of them.

Experts across disciplines remind us that in today's new world the need to produce thinkers who can see both opportunities and challenges as well as envision new possibilities is greater than ever before. Our industrial, manufacturing-based economies are gone, giving way to a new creative economy where the most important intellectual property according to Bloomberg BusinessWeek "isn't software, music or movies, it's the stuff inside people's heads."

The real assets of today are found in ideas and ideas don't just happen. Ideas are the result of sophisticated thinking behaviors that need to be taught. How to observe and how to envision are two behaviors in a portfolio of thinking skills that are mandatory if we are to raise the next generation of competitive leaders, thinkers and do-ers.

So what do kicks, Play-Doh, fun and a design challenge have to do with kids and learning? An opportunity to use play to help develop creative and analytical thinking skills in young people.

And incidentally, working in Play-Doh is no easy task. How about helping kids develop the habits of "persistence" and "stretching beyond self-expectations"? Young people are a lot more likely to internalize these thinking skills engaged in a playful and relevant activity then in traditional top-down learning environments.

Looking at it this way, a Play-Doh sneaker is only one step away from the world's next great building, social media site, or peacemaker.

All photos and image copy courtesy of Core 77

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