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July 18, 2013

By Jessie Renee Hopkins

Teaching Science by Telling Stories

Jessie Renee Hopkins is a Senior Writer and Game Designer in Sesame Workshop’s Department of Content Production. Dave Glauber is a Writer and Interactive Designer in Sesame Workshop’s Content Innovation Lab.

When my colleague, Dave Glauber, and I were asked to co-lead a workshop on Narrative Design at this year’s Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference, we had no idea it would culminate with a giant cat face. As it turned out, we couldn’t have been happier that it did.

The IDC conference’s mission is to bring together designers, researchers, and educators to explore ways of creating better interactive learning experiences for children. Our goal for the workshop was to guide conference participants through adding a story to exhibits at the New York Hall of Science. We wanted find out if narrative elements would influence visitors, kids especially, to spend more time with the exhibits. The hope was, if we could do a better job of drawing kids in, we could do a better job of helping kids learn. 

For a few hours each week, Dave and I hunkered down in a conference room to come up with a useful theory of interactive narrative design for preschoolers based on our experience at the Workshop. We began with the central problem we often face when tasked with writing for games—how to craft a story that makes simple mechanics fun for kids without getting in the way of the interaction. After a series of meetings, cups of tea, and rainbow-colored Google docs, we came up with four basic strategies for interactive narrative design.

On the day of the workshop, Dave and I presented these strategies at the New York Hall of Science, followed by a great presentation from NYSci designers Peggy Monahan and Dorothy Bennett. Then, we set the participants free to form groups, choose an exhibit, and prototype their designs using our proposed narrative strategies and a table full of colorful craft supplies. The workshop was off and running, the room buzzing with possibility.

Participants from India to Australia gathered together and drew up plans for the exhibits they’d chosen. Some groups were drawing diagrams on poster paper, one was twisting pipe cleaners into multi-colored zebras, and another was hanging a sign on the wall that read, “Help Mr. Friskers get fancy whiskers!” I had no idea what was happening, but I couldn’t wait to find out.

Once the participants had outfitted their exhibits with these newly created design elements, Dave and I got to check them out. What we saw was nothing short of inspiring:

There was an exhibit about peripheral vision had been transformed into a miniature farm. Instead of watching for a plastic stick to appear in your peripheral vision, you were now helping a farmer look out for a wolf sneaking up on his sheep. For another exhibit, a mirror illusion of a spring in a black box was now the belly of a broken robot who needed your help finding the actual spring. And, what had been a rod of light rotating inside a giant square box, was now the whiskers of a cat’s face (Mr. Friskers), which could be changed by manipulating the frequency and revolution of the light.

Dave and I marveled as kids made a bee-line for the exhibits with the added story elements. Even though the designs were just simple proto-types cut from cardboard and felt, kids saw something special. We witnessed them laughing, spending more time with the exhibits, and trying to solve the problems the narratives presented.

Our collaboration with the New York Hall of Science at IDC was heartening, not only because it affirmed Sesame’s mission, but also because it showcased the passion and creativity of people working to help children reach their highest potential all over the world. After all, giving someone the power to write their own story is the best story any of us can hope to tell.

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