The Power of Making: A Model for Intercultural Competence and Play

Reposted from a guest blog post for Makey Makey.

In 2015, images of three year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, washed up on the beaches of Bodrum, Turkey stirred an international outcry and galvanized communities across the world to advocate for the rights of refugees and migrants. Only a year later, protests have been held in France, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and other European countries by citizens draped in their national flags, to prevent their reception. Regardless of the countless tragedies covered by the media, there is a serious empathy deficit and disconnect between refugee and host communities. International organizations have agreed that this a critical time to ensure that refugees and migrants are able to rebuild their lives and successfully integrate into their countries of final destination. However, this requires an integration process which values the cultures and rights of refugees and migrants, rather than champion’s assimilation. Part of what’s contributing to this struggle is the lack of quality education initiatives which support intercultural dialogue and competence. There are few actors in the humanitarian aid space who are facilitating this dialogue between refugee and host communities in playful, productive and meaningful ways. The Nairobi Play Project attempts to address this issue through the art of making, and specifically making games. “Making” is a powerful process which not only gives youth agency to express themselves and solve problems, but build unlikely bridges between themselves and others.


I’m passionate about this model because I believe it has the power to transform and diversify the way practitioners in the humanitarian aid and global development fields build bridges between communities in conflict. “Making” is a strong foundation for creating community, and it’s the foundation of the Nairobi Play Project. So how does this model facilitate intercultural dialogue? Through a scaffolded process which touches on four different areas: 21st century skill development, design-based learning, computational thinking and social activism.

21st Century Skill development is critical to this model and a core focus. If our youth aren’t building skills around communication, collaboration and empathy, then we’re not preparing them for the complex and diverse environments we’re advocating for them to work, live and participate in. Moreover, to successfully develop intercultural competence, youth must be provided with opportunities to engage in constructive dialogue with individuals from other cultures. The Nairobi Play Project is built upon intercultural settings which support knowledge exchange, foster empathy and break down assumptions and barriers to developing relationships. Makey Makey and 21 Toys have been fantastic tools for designing hands-on and interactive experiences for these environments.


Within the framework of design-based learning, games-based learning is ideal because of how critical narrative is to games and to intercultural dialogue. To jump start the process, the Nairobi Play Project provides youth with challenges like remixing Mancala, an ancient East African game. When remixing Mancala, youth are guided through an iterative design process which helps them learn the value of brainstorming, creating, testing and changing a game. They apply this same process to the final collaborative games they create addressing issues in Kenya which have a great impact on their lives, such as gender equality, health, quality education, corruption and youth unemployment. Similar to sports, the game design process incorporates values such as teamwork and individual and collective responsibilities, which can help youth to develop the values and skills necessary to prevent and resolve conflict in their lives. What’s unique about the game design process to the Nairobi Play Project is that it’s not just a shared experience like a sports game, but it results in an artifact which young people create together, an artifact that communicates a narrative, which everyone contributes to through dialogue and debate. In the first iteration of the program, participants who were hesitant or even skeptical on day one, were empowered by the diversity in the room by day five.

To make their games, youth are engaged in a number of computational thinking concepts, practices and perspectives, which are also significant in strengthening their intercultural competence. While working with Scratch and Makey Makey, they practice experimenting and iterating, testing and debugging, reusing and remixing throughout the program. These are valuable practices than can be applied to a number of fields like architecture, interior design, teaching and engineering. Coding is only one expression of computational thinking and practice.


Most important to the Nairobi Play Project is the computational perspective of connecting: recognizing the power of creating with others and valuing them. Youth who participate in the program are not only proud of the games they make, but the relationships they develop throughout the process. Their gratitude, appreciation and respect for each other are the building blocks of a world which can truly represent and serve everyone.