JOUL, a playful approach to sustainability education
–A playful approach to sustainability education –
Current generations of kids are born into an increasingly digitized and consumer driven world. They are surrounded by disposable products and electronic devices, with power always at their disposal. Knowing about the current climate crisis, parents feel the urgency to teach their kids sustainable thinking, yet often feel overwhelmed with the complexity of the topic.
Joul was created out of the belief that we have to start small and focus on the origins: our planet's resources. It is a set of modules for young kids to playfully explore the concept of energy in an explorative, tangible way.
It breaks down the energy cycle into three stages: generation, storage and usage. These are embodied in the three different types of modules. The generator blocks help understand where energy comes from and how much effort it takes to create different types of power, be it through sun, wind, kinetic energy, water – you name it! The storage blocks make it possible to save, transport and use energy. And lastly the output blocks establish the connection to the power we use in our everyday lives through fun interactions with light, motion, vibration etc.
While it is focused on the kid's exploration and playfulness, it serves as a conversation starter for parents to help them introduce sustainable thinking in a more tangible and explorative way.
Joul is the result of a two week course at Umeå Institute of Design in the north of Sweden. It was done in a multidisciplinary team of three, combining the skills of product design and interaction design.
Our team started out with the broad topic of teaching kids about sustainability. We felt the need to approach this topic from a design point of view and challenge the way we educate future generations.
To understand the scope of the topic we started out with a brain writing session, reflecting on our personal associations with sustainability and the problems, solutions and habits that are connected to it.
We realized that it is not primarily about conveying habits like recycling or saving power but that we have to start at an earlier point, giving them a bigger picture of our planet's resources.
Searching for insights about early childhood learning and how parents approach teaching sustainability, we conducted interviews with a young mother, a father and a museum curator (leader of the kids education programme at an art museum).
1) There is a different sense of urgency between different generations of parents.
2) Younger parents feel a stronger urgency to teach sustainable thinking.
3) Parents struggle to explain abstract concepts to their children.
4) Abstraction in shapes is very important to give kids creative freedom.
5) In kids education it is important to ask open-ended questions that don't have yes or no answers.
With this in mind we decided to focus on the topic of energy, since it is a resource that is hard to grasp and easily taken for granted. We set our focus on the kids exploration and playfulness, instead of teaching with a top down approach. Thereby leaving it up to the parent to utilize it as a conversation starter.
Early on in the process rudimentary foam mockups and magnets helped to visualize the different types of modules and to test interactions. A user journey map helped us understand the ideal use case from the kids point of view.
Joul consists of three types of modules – for generation, storage and usage of energy – are not only different in shape but also in their different colour coding. They can be mixed and matched as the kid likes, while the three little lights on the battery blocks help the kid to keep an overview of their charging status.
The generators can charge batteries, but can also be directly attached to e.g. a light! This way the kid can directly see the effect of the generated power.
The blocks are assisted by a mobile interface, which shows the status of how much energy was created. It makes a visual analogy of what other activities and devices can be powered with the amount of charged energy. This helps children understand the amount of energy they produced and compare it with other activities that require electric energy, like making a lamp light up or using electronic devices. While younger kids can simply use Joul for play, it can grow with the child as it gets older and help parents dive deeper into the topic, by reviewing the outcomes and energy sources together with the child.
The physical models of the blocks allowed for a real life test of the concept and the interaction sounds.
Joul incorporates sound as an interaction factor to make the process more playful and easily comprehensible. Early on in the process foam mockups were used to film a simple video sketch to test sound-effects for different actions. Specially designed sounds help the children link different sounds to the energy sources. The sound concept focuses on playful, wooden sounds, which go hand in hand with the natural material of the wooden blocks. Tones from the marimba characterize the connection between different blocks. The act of adding more energy by stacking the storage blocks onto each other is described by different tones adding up and creating harmonies. The sounds of the different generators are created through a combination of sounds that are inspired by the operational sound of the individual generator type and fitting instruments. Wind energy is aurally described through a flute sound that is created through air, while solar energy has a ray sound-effect utilizing guitar strings.
Joul allows children to explore the energy cycle in a broader context and helps them understand the general concept of sustainability from an early age on. By using what they produced themselves, children build the foundations for sustainable thinking indirectly through play.