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ThinkeringSpace Project Aims to Provide a New Way to Play in the 21st Century
Posted On July 28, 2008
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ThinkeringSpace is one of those projects you’ll want to keep an eye on, because it just might have a big affect on the future of libraries. ThinkeringSpace is a creative design project based at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. The concept is not exactly easy to explain. The website ( refers to it as "An experiment in exploratory learning funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation." The homepage itself says, "ThinkeringSpace is a system, made of both physical and virtual environments, that aims to promote creative and critical thinking skills for the 21st century." My own best explanation is that it’s a high-tech, mobile, collaborative space for play that’s being designed to be set up in libraries for various purposes and programs.

Still clear as mud? Part of the reason is that ThinkeringSpace hasn’t even really been built yet. Let’s go back to the project’s beginnings and explain it from the ground up.

To achieve a real understanding, I spoke to the two men in charge. Dale Fahnstrom is a professor at (and former director of) IIT’s Institute of Design, where he has been on the faculty since 1966. Greg Prygrocki is an associate professor at (and former associate director of) the Institute of Design; he currently leads the Communication Design track. The two are also the principal researchers on the Thinkering project, which began in 2006.

According to Fahnstrom and Prygrocki, three components were combined and presented as a design challenge. One was the concept of "digital kids," with lots of research on how they’re growing up today. The second was the idea of tinkering as an alternate way of learning. The final idea was looking for a new place, other than schools, where learning could happen. After studying the environment, the team settled on using libraries as that place, in part because they’re already established in communities nearly everywhere. The idea is to design a place where young people can "tinker" and "think" at the same time, learning things outside of school while playing outside the box.

As one introductory presentation slide explains, "ThinkeringSpace will stimulate and facilitate hands-on, heads-on, exploratory learning experiences for children. …" The grant calls for Thinkering to serve kids ages 8 to 12, but later the spaces could also serve many other ages.

The challenge became building something that would fulfill this goal. The space also has to conform to several other parameters: It has to be physically easy to manage, sustainable, flexible for different types of learning, and mobile. This led to a "kit of parts" line of thinking. The team that Fahnstrom and Prygrocki are leading began to design an area that can change in size and shape to be "highly adaptable" because libraries themselves have so many different situations.

The physical design is still in flux. One scheme calls for a "post and beam" set-up (like a portable floor and ceiling); another uses a "topographic floor" system (where the topography is all attached to the floor). The accompanying sketches show both ideas.

Very few people have seen the earliest example, which Prygrocki described as a "meta-prototype." In June the designers took it to ALA’s Chicago offices to get some input. One of the staff members who tinkered with it was Jenny Levine, and she blogged extensively about it, explaining what it was like ( She also posted a number of pictures on her Flickr page (, and I found that seeing them really helped me to understand where ThinkeringSpace is headed.

This early set-up has lots of display screens, many of which take their input from a "collaborative drawing table" that works with multiple-mouse (or multiple-keyboard) input. Several kids, each with his or her own mouse, can stand around this circular table and do things together or alone. One very simple example is that each of four mouse devices can control one of the spectrum’s main colors (blue, red, yellow, and black). Users can draw individually, or the red mouse and the blue mouse can collaborate to draw in purple. (See this photo of Jenny’s: ( Collaborating themselves on an explanatory quote, the design professors said it’s about changing perspectives "to promote and create unexpected opportunities." There are also dolls that are implanted with RFID chips so that as children move them around, their activities can be represented electronically on a screen to build a story together. Fascinating stuff!

One way the team sees these ThinkeringSpaces eventually working in libraries has to do with─believe it or not─books and reading. Once books are digitized and are therefore available in different ways, they can become new focal points for kids. Another high-tech aspect of these spaces will be the ability to connect to libraries’ collections via wireless, and then kids will be able to tie their play into books, databases, etc., interacting with them to make their favorite stories come alive. As Prygrocki put it, the idea is "not to make the book obsolete, but to give it life." As such, the designers see Thinkering as an eventual promotional opportunity for libraries, helping them to stay relevant and also to lead people from print formats to digital ones.

The demo at ALA was an early part of the third of four phases in this long-term work. Phase Three, scheduled to be completed in spring 2009, will involve lots of testing with children to see which physical spaces will work well so the team can write guidelines and recommendations for actually building the mobile systems (which will be Phase Four). It’s hard to say when these ThinkeringSpaces will actually become available, partly because the IIT designers will have to get buy-in from organizations that will fund and build them. (What bodes well is that they’re currently being designed with off-the-shelf components, standard code, and open source software.) And while they’re still "a long way from a business plan," Fahnstrom bravely ventured a guess that, once the system has been completely defined and builders and investors are on board, live systems might be built "within a year or two."

I, for one, will be waiting for my chance to play around with them at a library near me. And since my local ThinkeringSpace will have been designed to connect to others at your local libraries, maybe we’ll be able to play together.

Kathy Dempsey’s work focuses on marketing and communication in libraries. She is the editor of Marketing Library Services and a MarCom consultant at Libraries Are Essential. Her email address is

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