Playing for a Living

Charlotte Fixler essays

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Remember that scene in Big where Tom Hanks and a room of toy executives are reviewing a robot that turns into a building? He raises his hand and says, “I don’t get it…what’s fun about that?”

While many DC-area jobs require key questions like, “How will this impact national security?” and “Will it reduce the debt?” this question about fun is of critical importance to everything I do and is asked in nearly every meeting I attend.

What do I do? I spend my days toiling over the monumental task of inspiring the next generation to be creative thinkers in a global economy and solve the problems of tomorrow.

So, (all together now), what’s fun about that?

Great question! Much like Mr. Hanks, my work takes place at a toy company. A former elementary school teacher, I’ve spent the last 6 years at ThinkFun, the maker of games like Rush Hour and Zingo!, working to stretch kids’ thinking through play.

As a teacher, I saw firsthand how powerful a learning tool play can be. As my students played games, I saw them persevere through difficulty, flex their creative muscles, and add new strategies to their mental tool kits. In joining ThinkFun, I brought expertise in classroom teaching and curriculum design, essentially the “Think” half. To my surprise, wrangling the “Fun” has proved far more challenging.

My first clue that I needed to up my Fun IQ came from serious experts, a group of six-year-olds. I’d spent weeks working on a game prototype to scaffold challenge progression and target developmental abilities. My bubbly little testers bounded in, eager to have been chosen for 30 minutes of play time. Five minutes later, games abandoned, they stood at the door asking to return to class. I’d created an educational goldmine of a game and sucked every ounce of fun out in the process. Lesson learned.

As I learned, no child will scratch the surface of a toy’s potential if they are not hooked and delighted by the inherent fun of it all. Just as beets may be a tough sell to a veggie-averse kiddo, puree them into brownies, and she’ll devour the good stuff. You can see us sneaking in nutrition value in much the same way in our newest game Laser Maze. This is a serious brain workout, requiring high level spatial thinking, sequencing, and strategy. Sounds great, right kid? Did I mention the game is played with a freakin’ laser beam? Sold!

I sometimes cringe when I hear our games described as “educational,” haunted by visions of flash cards dressed as board games and multiplication tables in domino form lurking on classroom “game” shelves. There is no convincing a child to give a seemingly un-fun game a chance. That’s where the challenge—and the FUN—of my job lie.

My years in Toyland have given me a huge respect for the power of play and for the expertise children can bring to our development process. How seriously do we take kids’ ideas? Our best-selling game Math Dice was invented by a 6th grader! If grown-ups impose “fun,” how can kids be expected to “get it,” much less benefit from the play experience?

At times it can be hard to convince others that all my playing is serious work—particularly when my desk is strewn with cars and plastic frogs—but I’ve got stresses like anyone else. Just the other week the CEO walked in and busted me playing online…the challenge I had to answer to? “So, did you beat my time?”

Think Fun is giving away a Laser Maze game (yes, Lasers = Fun) to one lucky Mamaloder!  To enter the giveaway, leave a comment on this page and tell us what your favorite family game is…

Winner will be picked by Wednesday, August 28th at 5pm EST. (applies to US residents only)

About the Author

Charlotte Fixler

Maria Montessori once said, “Play is the child’s work.” Fortunately, Charlotte never really grew up, and play continues to be her life’s work. A former elementary school teacher, Charlotte works as Director of Communications at ThinkFun developing games to equip the problem solvers of tomorrow. Tweet about play with @charlottefixler or connect with her !

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