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Zoe B. Corwin

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Play—engage—grin

My son started Kindergarten on Wednesday. The week prior, his big sister and I took him on a tour of his new school. We walked him into bright classrooms, showed him the library, and explained where he would eat lunch. He met a few teachers, saw the outdoor play structure, and visited the mural he had helped paint the year before.  He did not crack a smile. Nope. Not even the hint of an upward turn at the corners of his mouth. Not even one corner. My heart sank but my smile, of course grew bigger, as I attempted to convey how exciting and fun Kindergarten was going to be. But Jesse wasn’t buying it.

Then we stumbled upon a new outdoor space they had built over the summer. To deal with spatial constraints, parents had constructed an open air play space. The shelves were filled with building blocks and big tubs of Legos. There were plenty of books—but the tactile atmosphere clearly reflected “PLAY!” Jesse stood at the edge and finally a twinkle sparked in his eyes. He nodded his head, looked up at me with a gentle grin, and said quietly, “Mom, I think this is a really good school.”

Across town at USC, incoming students in the School of Cinematic Arts are participating in a different type of play experience—a reality game designed to introduce them to the School, facilitate social connections, and foster learning. The initial and evolving projects are well-crafted, funny, and most definitely engaging. When I watched the first submission, I wished that I had been given a similar opportunity when starting college. Imagine jumping into a challenging, interactive project as you set foot on campus. And what if that project also made you laugh and put you at ease? How might that lay the foundation for the rest of the year?

As we all know, the college application process can cause high anxiety for students—and their families. As you also might know, CHEPA researchers and game designers from the USC Game Innovation Lab are developing a series of games to ease the college preparation and application processes. Our intent is to create playful ways for students to learn about college and become empowered college applicants and students. Next week, the second edition of our first product, a college application card game, will go on the market. Our team has spent many hours play-testing the first game with high school students, obtaining feedback from practitioners and revising/revising/revising. The new game, Application Crunch, is much improved—we also just received a very positive review from the premier serious games reviewer.  We will still be offering a limited number of complimentary copies of the game to programs serving low-income students but are also excited that Application Crunch will be available to a broad, national audience through direct sales.

Do I hope that Jesse learns a lot during Kindergarten? Of course. But I also believe that if his education involves good playtime—and plenty of twinkles in the eye, he’ll be more likely to develop a love of learning that will last him a lifetime.

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