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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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FINE Newsletter, Volume VI, Issue 2
Issue Topic: Making it Real—Connected Learning in the Digital Age


Katie Salen Tekinbaş explores ways in which New York City public school Quest to Learn uses game design and play in the classroom to help parents understand the enriched learning experience of digital tools and other media. 

When we opened Quest to Learn in 2009, a New York City public school founded by Institute of Play  as a model for connected learning, our focus was on answering a set of questions around learning and youth. Would we be able to design a school organized around core principles of game design and play that truly engaged students in ways that ignited a passion for learning? Would we be able to provide the right kinds of technology tools, supports, and infrastructure to enable students to learn in ways that spanned in-school, afterschool, and home environments? Could we create a culture where the interests of young people were recognized as valuable and critical to the learning life of the community?

Embedded in all of these questions, of course, was work with teachers and schools leaders, and we spent lots of time talking to parents during the school creation process. However, it was only once the school launched that we began to fully recognize how important our parent audience was to the work at hand. Parents, it turned out, needed more guidance than the students did!

As a result, we focused our attention on activating structures within the school that would invite parent engagement, like our wellness curriculum, which has dedicated time for parent Q & A and information on the work that educators are doing with their children around digital citizenship. We integrated exhibition days, publishing parties, and other parent-facing events into the normal rhythm of the semester, giving families and other caregivers a chance to see student work that often took place in partnership with community-based organizations. We also put together a page of resources for parents  and held workshops designed to expose them to what learning looked and felt like in a classroom at play.

We used open houses and curriculum nights as additional opportunities to educate the adults in our community about how and why they might see youth engaging with digital tools and other media, and in what ways parents might provide supports. Sometimes these recommended supports took the form of encouragement and the curating of experiences for youth, helping to expose them to new resources and giving them the confidence to try them out; at other times, supports took the form of limits on time spent with media, even when that meant cutting homework time short. At a school where students might be using a digital game like Minecraft to show off their mathematical knowledge, getting students to stop doing their homework poses a novel challenge.

More recently, Quest launched a Parent Ambassador program, in collaboration with the PTA, as a means of creating a team of parents charged with helping to educate both current and prospective parents about the school’s unique curriculum and approach to digital media integration. The PTA, has from its inception, been an important channel for parent outreach, and it is common for monthly meetings to include sessions focused on various aspects of the school’s connected learning model. So while we may have overlooked parents in the beginning, they are now active players on our team.


Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a game designer, animator, and educator. She is a full professor in the DePaul University College of Computing and Digital Media. She is the founder of Institute of Play, a non-profit learning design studio that bases its work on the principles of games and play, and a current Fellow there. In 2009, she helped design and launch Quest to Learn (Q2L), a public school in Manhattan, New York City.

This resource is part of the April FINE Newsletter. The FINE Newsletter shares the newest and best family engagement research and resources from Harvard Family Research Project and other field leaders. To access the archives of past issues, please visit

© 2016 Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College
Published by Harvard Family Research Project