designing toys and games

Attendance: 21 from the eighth grade (12 girls, 9 boys).

Learning goals: role-playing and prototyping to elicit creative responses to prompts

Activity/ies: draw your favourite toy or game; design a new toy or game

The toy design exercise doesn’t even feature in the syllabus, although I’d been thinking about something of this kind for a while. I decided to pull it out because the feedback to yesterday’s workshop was a little concerning – not only did they copy each others’ forms, some wrote that they liked certain activities because they were “easy,” and some confessed that when prompted to sculpt anything they wanted, they “couldn’t think of anything”. I wanted to come up with a challenge that would reward them for being creative while working through a problem that was fun.

Interesting projects: I wanted to gauge where the children’s minds were at, so as a little ease-in exercise, I asked them to draw their favourite toy or game. I was rewarded with nine drawings of cricket, five drawings of dolls, one of a teddy bear, and one of hopscotch.


I was prepared for this same-ness, so I then showed them around 15 slides of different kinds of toys and games – chess, checkers, water guns, dolls, toy trains, cricket bats, building blocks, magic sets, snakes and ladders, ludo, toy cookery sets. Then, I told them to pretend they were toy designers tasked with coming with with a creative new toy for kids, and to draw their initial design (and that any duplicate ideas would be disqualified).

I still got a lot of same-ness, but also a few fun ideas like a flying bicycle (and a flying child or doll), a boat that could travel on land, a talking tree, and “disco football”. I got really excited about this last one, until I learned that these children call plastic checker pieces “discos” instead of discs. Haha.


Then I got really into the activity, and pretended to be their boss at the toy factory. I started asking them questions like, “What age group is this meant for? How big is it? How expensive is it? How can I be sure there won’t be an accident? Why is this idea so new and interesting?” It was fun watching them try to defend their work on the spot. I said I was seeing too many similar ideas, and that I was a very disappointed boss, but if they wanted to keep their jobs, they had to make a group prototype in 20 minutes of the most promising idea produced by someone in the group. I picked the flying bicycle (partly because when I asked her about accidents, she promptly responded that there was a parachute attached), the land-boat, and disco football because it made me laugh.

Their final prototypes were actually really fun to look at, and I think this ended up my most successful workshop so far. I also got them to write the “specs” of their toys, and here are the descriptions (and teams) involved in producing the flying bicycle, the land boat, and “disco” football game.

The flying bicycle concept drawing.
The prototype, along with parachute and mobile phone to call your mother in an emergency.
Disco football concept drawing and gameboard (look at the tiny cup!!!).
The land boat crew seem to have lost their concept drawing, but their prototype really evolved, with an added little goods cart at the back.

Insights/surprises: Pretending to be their gruff boss was completely unplanned, but worked because I could be strict or challenge them in surprising ways without being in my role as teacher. I refused to break up fights or sort out team issues, telling them they were adult workers, not eighth graders. When I documented their progress, I told them I was doing an inspection round. I like to think they found it novel, and it certainly produced interesting results. It also fitted in with my own style of facilitating – drawing from my theatre background and being a bit of a clown. I struggled a bit at the start of this series because they’re not ready to engage with the interviewing component of design thinking – they can’t sit still and follow intellectual directions, and don’t have the discipline to complete a mentally challenging, writing-heavy exercise on their own. Some have difficulty stringing a sentence together on paper. Activities that encourage role-playing, I think, will fill that gap in a fun way and prepare them for the standard “empathy” processes of design thinking.

Workshop feedback: Asking them to write three things that they liked and learned, instead of one, was a good move, I think! Overall, I got more varied feedback than I did yesterday, and better articulations of what they learned, like “coming up with creative ideas” and “working in a team,” in addition to the inevitable “drawing pictures” and “working with clay”.

Midway through the feedback form, it occurred to me to ask them to rank the workshops rather than simply tick their favourite. This has led to some skewed data, but all in the name of iterating, yes? It’s still interesting, though, because out of the eight who did respond to this change (not counting one who ranked everything 1), three ranked the first workshop “3”, one ranked it “2” and one ranked it “1” (the other three didn’t come to the workshop). This was the one I worked “hardest” on – spending a lot of time translating ideas into Sinhala, preparing materials, etc, so it was a bit tragicomic, but it would have been worse, I think, if everyone thought the subsequent workshops were worse. The second workshop was not a very original idea on my part, but it responded to the children’s feedback from the day before that they liked clay. Two ranked the second workshop 1, four ranked it 2, and 2 ranked it 3. The third workshop responded to my concern that the children weren’t being challenged enough (in a fun way) to be original in their thinking. Five ranked the third workshop 1, and 3 ranked it two (nobody ranked it three). I think it was the best blend of challenging and fun and well-timed of the three, and it seems like they do too.

Continuing challenges: I was admittedly very disappointed when I went to meet the principal this morning, and he vetoed the idea of holiday workshops despite the fact that the kids are really excited about having them. It’s really not a student issue after all, but one of keeping the school open, and of the added responsibility for children when none of the teachers could actually be present. He did say that after-school workshops, and Saturday workshops during the term, were viable options – but I am a bit frustrated, as I always am, that my time in SL is so short that I can’t actually carry out any workshops myself until next summer. I’m going to see if any of the others in the BB team can work with the school over the next year to keep up momentum. Meanwhile, I’m going to try to organize holiday workshops next year in another independent community space like our church, which already runs some community events for children during the year. I’m sorry I can’t continue to iterate on what I’ve learned so far here, but grateful for what I’ve learned in the workshops I was able to conduct. And this gives me more time to prepare for our nine days up north!

Questions I wish I had been able to explore, but now cannot, are: How many children would show up consistently over a week during the holidays? Is their enthusiasm momentary or would they have taken the trouble to come? What effect does a quieter environment have on the children’s concentration? School was really loud during all three workshops, and I’d hoped that the silence of the holidays would have made for better engagement. What effect does an outdoor game at the start and/or end have on the children? I always do this up north, but am curious as to whether it would dissipate or ramp up disruptive energy here. And, naturally, now that I feel I’ve gauged their level of interest and ability, I wanted to see how much more I could challenge them in the next week. Sadly, this will have to wait.


I have to say, I could not possibly have adapted quite so quickly if I’d done the workshop series in Mattakkuliya. I could wake up at 6am, turn my musings and thinkings from the previous evening into a lesson plan, get my materials in order, write out a new test feedback form, and send Lalith to get photocopies as well as any missing materials, which he actually delivered to the school today when the principal asked that I come earlier than usual today. I could dash back home and round up extra supplies when it turned out I would have 36 participants instead of 20, and because my travel time was so short, I could focus entirely on the workshops. It was still exhausting, and I couldn’t sleep for thinking about design thinking 24 hours a day, but it was so much less so than if I was travelling for an hour each way. Appropriately for a design thinking stint, it was the perfect setting (for me) to quickly prototype and try out new ideas, responding quickly to feedback and my own observations. Also, my Sinhala is coming back, so there’s that. Working in the north is rewarding in many ways, but for quick testing of ideas, it’s easier and cheaper to work with the Uyana Kanishta School.

On a very personal note, as well, I was feeling a bit out of sorts earlier this summer. I’d just spent five months away from MIT, in Palo Alto. I had a really lovely term away, but in many ways it’s even more removed from Lunawa than Boston was (also, I’d lived in Somerville, so there was something kind of homely and familiar about it).  Palo Alto a very different kind of environment, and I’d had an incredibly idyllic time there, with a wonderfully spacious cottage and lovely house-mates (including my partner), and a fabulous landlord in the house out front. We had deer grazing in the garden in the mornings. Sri Lanka always feels grittier when I return from the US, but I’ve always liked the grittiness. This time, it wasn’t so much that I didn’t like the grittiness than that I felt somehow estranged – that I’d lived such a life of privilege for so many months that I’d somehow passed a point of no return. And that made me feel sad and out of sorts.

I grew up in Lunawa. Sure, I went to school in Colombo, but I’d played in that yard for most of my school years and gone to the church down the road and saw the Esala Perahera every year. My great-grandfather’s house is down the road. For this reason, too, I’m incredibly grateful to have had this chance to feel, more than ever, that I truly live in Lunawa, and that I’m from here. It’s a funny thing to say, I know, especially given that I’ve spent large chunks of my life not in Lunawa, and how ordinary Sri Lankan people are able, very quickly, to gauge that there is something ‘foreign’ about me, even before I open my mouth (so it’s not my Sinhala or my clothes, I promise). It used to bother me, but it doesn’t anymore. I like having many lives, and many places to feel at home in. What I didn’t like was somehow feeling that my experiences had become so different that I couldn’t come back and slip into the routine of things with ease (and it’s odd, perhaps, that I should feel this way after five months in Palo Alto, and not after having met Queen Elizabeth last year!). For this reason, too, the three workshops felt like some kind of reset button. Perhaps more than just reset, too, because this is the first year I’m actually going to know the children taking part in the perahera! I’m really looking forward to that.

A bit of a jumbled post, I know, but a happy and hopeful one.

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