When Nintendo first launched Labo, its line of DIY cardboard accessories for the Switch, many hailed the product’s potential for education. By building Labo kits, kids were able to learn new problem-solving techniques, understand how different technologies worked, and even start to grasp basic programming concepts. Now that potential is being put to use, as Nintendo has partnered with New York-based nonprofit the Institute of Play to bring Labo to actual classrooms. “We want this to be as turn-key as possible, to reach as many potential educators and as many potential students as possible,” explains Reggie Fils-Aimé, president and COO of Nintendo of America.
As part of the partnership, Nintendo will be bringing Labo kits to around 100 schools in the United States, with the goal of reaching around 2,000 students during the 2018-19 school year. The Institute of Play, meanwhile, is creating a guide to help teachers integrate Labo into their lesson plans. (In Canada, Nintendo has partnered with an education company called Actua for a similar project.)
“What we’re not doing is writing a lock-step curriculum,” explains Arana Shapiro, co-executive director of the Institute of Play. “We’re really thinking of this as a teacher’s guide, so what we’re trying to do is create something that has enough examples so that teachers can feel like they can immediately do something in the classroom with Labo. But we also are trying to give enough support and structure so that teachers can be inventive with the ways they want to integrate Labo into their own classrooms.”
The project is currently undergoing a pilot phase, and has been integrated in 11 schools in the New York area. According to Shapiro, things have gone well so far. “Immediately kids are excited and engaged and ready to go,” she says. “And the thing that I think is very special about Labo is the willingness to try things. You see kids fostering a kind of grit, where they keep going and going until they get it.” She adds that “the kids are all-in at the beginning, but the adults have a healthy amount of skepticism, and by the end they’re really excited about what they can do when we’re not there anymore.”
Each of the Labo kits — there are three available to date, most recently the vehicle kit — follow a similar structure, which Nintendo has dubbed “make, play, discover.” You start by building the cardboard accessories by following a series of playful on-screen instructions, then you play with them on the Switch, using your new fishing rod or piano to play games powered by the tablet. After that, there’s a freeform mode called “toy-con garage,” where players can create new uses for the accessories or create their own accessories. With enough work you can build a cardboard guitar and play a song with it. Shapiro says that the teacher’s guide will have a similar structure, with enough room left so that educators have the freedom to tweak things to better fit their own lesson plans.
The program will open up to around 100 schools following the New York pilot, and Nintendo will be providing Switch and Labo hardware for those selected. (Those who are interested can apply here.) Shapiro says that for the first wave of schools, the Institute of Play is looking to reach a range of different students and educators. “We’re trying to create a really diverse group,” she says. “Geographically diverse, socioeconomically diverse, we’re trying to do a mix of public and private schools. We’re trying to account for that diversity that we really want.” For those that aren’t selected, the teacher’s guide will be available for free to everyone later this fall.
The idea of using video games in school isn’t new. There are special editions of Minecraft and Civilization built specifically for classrooms, and last year Ubisoft created a violence-free mode for Assassin’s Creed Origins, where players could explore a digital re-creation of Ancient Egypt. Meanwhile, Labo wasn’t actually created with learning in mind. “We didn’t plan on it turning out to be educational at all,” Kouichi Kawamoto, a producer on Labo, told The Verge back in April. But after receiving feedback from players, in particular educators who were interested in how they could utilize Labo, Nintendo decided to explore the idea of bringing its DIY line to classrooms.
Fils-Aimé believes that the tactile, creative nature of Labo makes it uniquely suited for teaching STEAM concepts — an acronym for the fields of science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics — to a younger audience. “We think it’s important for kids to get exposure to STEAM, and especially the ‘arts’ part of STEAM,” he says. “Many educators across the country are talking about STEM, STEM clearly is important. The arts aspect, the hands-on aspect, is something that’s important to us.”
This is somewhat new territory for Nintendo, though it does follow a much smaller initiative from 2016, where the company partnered with the San Francisco Public Library to offer Super Mario Maker-powered game design classes. Fils-Aimé says there’s no “broad plan” when it comes to Nintendo and education; instead, the company takes things on a case-by-case basis. “We’re certainly interested in making sure the youth of today have 21st century skills, that they are exposed to STEAM principles, that they are thoughtful in terms of critical thinking and creativity and collaboration and problem solving,” says Fils-Aimé. “Those things are important to us.”