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From ‘Car Crashing’ to Columbia, a Love of Learning Born from Play

Growing up, my favorite games were the ones my brother, Arash, and I designed ourselves.

One game, “World Traveler,” was about travelling from a letter of one country’s name to a letter from another country’s name. The countries had to be from different continents, and whoever chose the country with the longest name would win that round. If I chose Mexico, and Arash chose Afghanistan, Arash would win the round.

The key to winning the game was to make a mental list of countries with the longest names on each continent. Being obsessed with the globe, Arash always beat me in that game. To this date, his geography is much better than mine!

“Car crashing” was another fun game that our parents were especially fond of! They used to buy small plastic cars for us to play with, and we would race them against one another before crashing them at the end. The winner was the car that inflicted the most damage to the other car.

The game was a crash course (pardon the pun) in physics — whether we realized it or not, we surely experienced Newton’s third law of motion and the momentum conservation principle in our beloved game. Looking back on it, I can’t help but wonder whether that game instilled our curiosity in physics. Today, Arash is an electro-mechanic engineer, and my background is in systems engineering.

Chess and backgammon were our family’s favorite games. I remember playing backgammon with my dad and how hard I tried to beat him and earn the distinction of “champion” for that day. I probably learned my first math lessons playing backgammon. From those early days came my love of math, which remains a passion of mine to this day.

As we grew older and technology entered the world of play, I remember moving into the world of Atari and Pac-Man. I remember diving into my Nintendo DS and the hours of competition we spent on Super Mario.

And I remember my parents worrying, for the first time, about us playing! They set screen time rules… that didn’t go over well. We demanded an explanation as to why backgammon was fine to play but Pac-Man was only allowed on weekends. In response, our parents changed the rules. The new rule applied to all games: digital or non-digital. The new rule affected my parents, too, so we mutually agreed to devise a new arrangement: as long as Arash and I were doing well at school we were allowed to play as many games as we wanted. That taught me some useful time management skills. Even today as a co-founder at Tiggly and Adjunct Assistant Professor at Columbia University, I get this a lot from my friends and my husband: “How do you do all these things you’re doing?!”

Games were always a big part of my life. I role-played my teachers throughout my school years when I was studying. Standing in front of the mirror, I pretended I was the teacher and “taught” myself the lessons. The first time I played that game with one of my students in a one-on-one tutoring class at BrainBoost, he was shocked! I gave him a marker and told him he was the teacher, “teach me how to add, and don’t forget to give me homework!” Of course, he had to grade my homework and find all the mistakes I made. He loved the game!

Games were always a big part of my life, but I never thought of myself as a game designer— until I took a game design class with Jessica Hammer as part of my graduate coursework at Teachers College. I started to study games, research about them, and think about them as a medium with many affordances, yet to be realized. At the same time, I was keen to learn more about human cognition: how do we learn new things? How do we think and solve problems? How do we conceptualize abstract phenomena? I was especially interested about early childhood math education and spatial cognition.

I watched hundreds of children playing math games, asked them questions, and followed their way of thinking. I took the role of lead researcher for preschool math activities for the MathemAntics software under the supervision of Professor Herb Ginsburg, designed and developed at Teachers College, Columbia University, and studied those activities systematically. I downloaded hundreds of apps, played them, analyzed them, and recommended some to teachers and parents.

And, I did experiential cognitive research with Professor Barbara Tversky, focused on the effects of gesturing on thinking and learning. As adults, does seeing different forms of gesture change the way we think about time? Do we gesture when we are alone in a room, learning new things, or solving problems? As children, do we adopt new strategies based on new forms of gesture we observe? Do we learn more effectively if we gesture in a certain way? Do we use our hands to think and learn? (If you’re interested, The New York Times recently published an article on gesticulating — it’s worth a read!)

In an interview published in Teachers College’s Inside magazine, I tried to summarize my ambitions: “What I’m trying to bring together from all these projects is spatial thinking, embodied learning and math education. And I think I can use games to bring these together.” It’s a big project, I admitted, “but it will make sense.” I laughed. ”Eventually.”

When I joined Tiggly, it all made sense! Tiggly designs connected toys for tablets, bringing together our ongoing research on early childhood development, embodied learning, and math education. We are no longer talking about digital versus non-digital, games vs. toys, or digital play vs. physical play.

As a company, we value the affordances of software as much as we realize the importance of physical play for learning and development. We value open-ended tactile explorations as much as we value guided design and gestural interactions on tablets.

We imagine kids learning to count by sorting and pointing to real counting beans, and then putting those beans on a tablet to receive feedback and scaffolding to guide them through the activity. We imagine kids drawing a circle around the group of beans (with a grouping gesture on their tablets) to emphasize the idea of sets and allowing them to compare sets based on their cardinality. We imagine children interacting with real geometric shapes, rotating them, flipping them, moving them around, and composing complex objects from their basic shape while being guided by software.

I am excited to share the latest research findings in the field of early childhood development and education, and would love to hear about your concerns, your questions, your findings about your child as a parent, or your latest publications as a researcher. Let the conversation begin!

Azi Jamalian