Earlier this month, I was invited to spend an enlightening day with Institute of Play (IOP), a non-profit based in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan that aims to help educators integrate game-design principles into their learning experiences. The future as we know it is rapidly changing and the workforce that today’s students face is widely unknown. During my visit to NYC, I got to witness the power of play and how it is shaping the next generation of innovators at the Quest To Learn (Q2L) public school, opened in 2006 by Institute of Play.

In the spring of 2013, a Remake Learning sponsored Lunch + Learn promoted the opportunity for educators to participate in an IOP PD opportunity at Allegheny Intermediate Unit. Twelve of us engaged in the two week summer MobileQuest CoLab and I have continued to work with the 2014 summer session TeacherQuest. This experience was a turning point in my approach to program development with an ongoing interest in game based, game like and gamified learning. Since I was already familiar and impressed with the impact IOP was making in education, naturally I jumped at the opportunity to visit them on their home turf.

With just a 15-minute walk from Q2L to the IOP offices, the nimble team of learning designers, game designers, and management spend their days bouncing back and forth between the two buildings. During the initial phase, IOP associates spent lots of time in the classrooms– guiding the game design principles, identifying curriculum additions and giving teachers direct access to tools and leaders in the field. Phase two is more focused on capacity building where teachers are empowered to continue the “play” aspect of learning and maintain the core mission of the “quest” learning philosophy.

We began with a curriculum team meeting, held bi-weekly for noobs and weekly for returning Q2L educators. The team is comprised of the Teacher, Learning Designer and Game Designer. The work continues with shared documents that capture the semester goals, challenges, and successes, along with frequent digital check-ins. For this meeting, IOP was working with a French teacher who was getting support printing a mission poster that she designed with her newly acquired Illustrator skills.

She was also seeking input on how to incorporate game play into learning numbers in French. After the meeting, back at the teachers lounge–referred to as Mission Lab, I asked about determining candidates for teaching at Q2L. The Game Designer made it very clear that it was not based on how tech or game savvy the teacher was, it was based on the teacher’s willingness and desire to learn. It was as simple as that. You don’t have to be an expert. Apply with an open mind and be ready to have fun.

At lunch, we talked even more about the successes and challenges with the program, and I shared news of some of Pittsburgh’s success stories. I was proud that Pittsburgh is just as invested in advancing our public school system as NYC is.

I then visited two English Language Arts classrooms referred to as POV. Both teachers were utilizing Socratic Smackdown–“a versatile discussion-based humanities game to practice argumentation around any text or topic for grades 6 through 12.” The game was designed by IOP in collaboration with Q2L teacher Rebecca Grodner. Each room’s experience and engagement level differed slightly as the educators modified the original game. As one smackdown wrapped the teacher complimented a student for their level of examination of the subject matter. She also related that depth of reflection as something she is exploring in her current professional development course, taking the opportunity to share with students her pursuit as a lifelong learner. Next I joined an Earth Science class that was testing buoyancy and learning about volume and mass. The team challenge to earn points was to building an aluminum foil boat to hold the largest quantity of pennies. A student in the midst of construction wanted to share with me what he thought Q2L was all about–”competing while working as a team”.

Currently, the school serves roughly 500 students and the inaugural class will graduate in 2016. Since inception, the school has grown each year and its currently planning on installing a dedicated “makerspace.” Due to the success of their first school, IOP advised on CICS Chicago Quest–a pioneering public charter school in Chicago that has its foundation in the “quest” learning model. As IOP’s reputation grows, they continue to make an impact on learning models across the country. They conduct in-person professional development workshops in Pittsburgh and cities nationwide, augmented by a plentitude of online resources. Both Gamekit–a community site where youth and educators can access game design challenges to practice their game design skills–and Playforce–an online database of learning games and the content and skills they are aligned to, from the player’s perspective–are accessible to anyone at anytime”

By the end of my day with Institute of Play and bopping around New York City, I was exhausted but excited. Excited to get back to work on current projects with members of Pittsburgh’s learning community. Excited that my son, who is now 5 years old, and his peers will grow up with access and resources that will make learning fun and forever.