An Invitation to Wonder: A chat with Kids' Design Researcher Cathy Tran

We had the immense privilege of chatting with Cathy Tran, a brilliant kids’ design researcher and mom to an adorable toddler, who not only studies the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of learning through play at her day job, but applies it to her own parenting methods as well. Read on for practical tips about bringing creative play into your every day, questions you can ask to balance the benefits alongside drawbacks of screentime, and why she couldn’t wait to work with kids – even as a kid herself!

Tell us a bit about yourself! How did you end up in kids’ tech?

Simply put, I just really love kids - they fascinate me, entertain me, and inspire me. I remember running down the street from our house to Superkids Fun Factory, with my resume decked out in sparkly puffy paint and stickers, the day I turned 15 because I was then eligible to work there. I played the role of the super obnoxious racoon in their birthday party shows. :)

Since then I’ve taught kids in one way or another from coaching gymnastics to running science outreach workshops to writing for children magazines. My venture into the tech side happened when I was a reporter for the science and education beats at a newspaper. It was during a time when journalism was shifting from print to web, so I had many opportunities to incorporate media into my storytelling. From that role I transitioned into education tech for kids where I’ve been having fun for the past decade!

In your opinion, why is learning through play so vital for children’s development? And how has being a parent influenced this view?

Kids have such a natural sense of wonder and play that lets them explore those wonders by observing, experimenting, and discovering. My daughter just turned one, so physical play is huge for her to discover how objects feel, taste, and sound and how they interact with each other. Her favorite toy has been her drumstick – for weeks, she’s been whacking everything from the carpet to our glass table to paper bags, squealing at the different sounds she’s making. For older preschoolers, tinkering with physical construction helps them learn about balance, symmetry, focus, and patience. Social play is also huge, as younger kids will imitate and learn from others while in parallel play and older ones play together, communicating, negotiating, and collaborating. Through individual pretend play or social dramatic play with costumes and props, kids learn how to express emotions and understand other perspectives. It’s pretty incredible that the types of play that kids want to engage in also happen to be natural ways of helping them develop language, math, science, and social skills.

Cathy, at play with her daughter!

What do you do as a design researcher? And in your role as a design researcher, how have you seen the benefits of play-based learning?

When I wear my design researcher hat on a product team, I dig into research theories of how kids learn and play, and apply that research to guide design. I curate and dissect related products that either have similar interaction patterns or similar educational goals to add those insights to our thinking mix. As the product is being crafted, I share prototypes with kids at early and late stages to learn more about what they actually do and think with them compare to what was intended to happen so that we can use those findings to make the product better for them.

What’s been most fascinating to me is when kids surprise me by inventing their own games or rules and give us a glimpse of new play patterns that we hadn’t considered. I’ve seen three and four year olds invent rules to turn a competitive racing game into a collaborative one. And some who create new constraints to make an app that is too easy to be more challenging for them. Play-based environments allow kids the latitude to put their own spin on an activity and customize it which is very powerful for teaching kids how to make goals, determine whether they are reaching those goals, and revising them when they feel like they want new challenges. Goal regulation is important skill from childhood to adulthood and play-based learning provides such a natural way to develop it.

If you could give one piece of advice to another parent who’s looking to incorporate more play-based learning into their lives, what would it be?

Actively observe. I think there’s a lot of pressure for parents to constantly interact with their kids which I definitely felt with my daughter. There is so much value though in taking a few steps back and observing, letting the child take the lead on how to play. For the child, this provides the chance to learn to be independent and to focus. For the parent, this provides an opportunity to simply joyfully taking in what’s happening as well as using those observations to reflect and think about how to guide the child’s interest through later conversations or activities. For a preschooler who likes to sort, for instance, it’d be great to provide a muffin tin or egg carton and to take a walk outside to collect rocks, sticks, and other sortable objects. If pouring is their thing, that can be the time to bring out measuring cups from the kitchen. If the child is all about things that roll then perhaps pull cardboard out of recycling to assemble ramps for toy cars and balls. Kids naturally transition through different patterns of explorations and active observation can help with creating play-based environments that allow for those explorations to be child-driven and parent-supported.

Putting learning through play into practice.

What are your thoughts on screen time? Any tips on how parents can balance the drawbacks with the benefits?

Ah what a big question! I wish that screen time didn’t carry so much parent guilt with it though I understand why it does, given that there’s no shortage of mindless options. But the screen has also opened doors for amazing opportunities for kids to be creative and interactive in new ways. As I think about the role of screens and technology in young kids’ lives today I often ask myself a few questions. First what kind of relationship is it generating? The types of social connection that family members all over the world can get through video calls are amazing. There’s also research on the benefits of joint media engagement such as television shows that parents can watch with their children, asking questions and discussing the plot together. Secondly, what kind of activities is screen time displacing? If it’s making exercise, outdoor time, and dinner conversations non-existent then it might be time to rethink how and when it’s been used. Finally, what behaviors are being encouraged by screen time? If the screen time encourages kids to try new food at least once or to go outdoors and explore nature or to pull out markers and craft a letter to a friend then to me to that’s a definite plus. So in a nutshell, my tips revolve around being reflective about the experiences that are important in your family and being intentional about how screen time is used to support those experiences.

What makes a play-based learning experience for kids well designed? What about poorly designed?

A play-based learning environment should be an invitation to wonder, explore and discover. To invent things. To be serious. To be silly. To create challenges. To make mistakes. To learn from mistakes. There’s curation of what toys are out and thoughtfulness in how they’re being presented rather than “here’s a gigantic bucket of all your toys, go!” This could mean that a few of the child’s animal books are taken out of a big book bin and displayed on a shelf after a visit to the zoo to invite him or her to continue exploring those curiosities. Or if a child is really into helping make food in the kitchen then playtime might include an orange to peel but if the child wants to just roll it around as a ball then that’s great too. The environment can lose its play-based nature as constraints are placed, such as needing to use objects the one correct way or needing to follow strict instructions. I recently came across an Instagram post in which a mom set up what looked like a game to her son. When he asked how to play it, she responded with, “you tell me” and his eyes lit up as he invented the rules. It is within this open-play context that the gears starting turning and it’s what engages the child and helps them develop physically, cognitive, and emotionally. I love that quality play is really about being intentional and not about complex training and materials.

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