Welcome to Toca Life: Pets! Watch the Gameplay Trailer Here

Toca_Life_Pets_icon_512x512_shadowWhat’s your favorite pet like? Furry and fast? Wet and wiggly? A little bit creepy? With more than 120 animals, Toca Life: Pets has every kind of pet you can imagine. Meet 23 new characters and explore five locations:

  • Pet park. Enjoy the great outdoors with the pets! Take a dip in the rver, have a picnic on the grass, play a game or discover a hidden cave. Or build an agility course to train your pets and test their skills.
  • Pet hotel. Sometimes families go on trips without their pets, but thanks to the pet hotel, pets get a vacation of their own! With lots of cozy spaces, an aquarium and outdoor space, every pet will find a nice spot to play or relax — dog or cat, bird or sloth-bat!


  • Veterinary. The vet can help sick pets feel better and help healthy pets stay that way! You’ll find pills, drops and the instruments needed to operate on sick or injured pets. Pets can play outdoors or wait on the cozy beds until the vet is ready to see them.
  • Pet shop. Find everything you need for to groom, feed, play with and care for your pets at the pet shop. After shopping, grab a bite to eat at the pet shop cafe, where pets get a table too!
  • Breeder’s bungalow. Here’s where the pet breeder starts and ends their day. The bungalow is, of course, filled with pets — hiding in the greenhouse and playing in the yard and splashing in mud. Don’t worry, the giant bathtub gets everyone clean again!


Watch the trailer to see Toca Life: Pets in action.

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App Store, Google Play or Amazon Appstore.

Community Service Ideas for Kids and Families on MLK Day and Beyond

More than ever, many families feel they are living in a fast-paced, stressful and sometimes scary world with seemingly little time to connect with those we care about and with what’s happening around us. Understandably, we can lose sight of communities in need, as well as our ability for compassion and empathy. With Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service approaching on January 15, organizations around the country are planning volunteer activities and events for families and communities. Service projects can take as little as 15 minutes and benefit both the youth volunteer and the cause of their choice.

“The time is always right to do the right thing.”

— Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. lived his life serving others and taking action. 50 years after his death, millions of Americans follow his example on Martin Luther King Day. generationOn, the youth division of Points of Light, is one organization that celebrates the day in a big way. Wendy Rhein, the organization’s chief strategy and engagement officer, says, “MLK Day is a Day on, not a day off. There will be service projects all around the country.”

Year round, generationOn, and other organizations, support family volunteerism, as well as a strong service-learning curriculum in schools nationwide. Service learning (SL) is an experiential, interdisciplinary, research-based teaching and learning strategy that engages youth in service to meet learning objectives and address real-world issues. Rhein has observed a significant increase in SL requests from teachers (preschool through collegiate) about how to connect service with education. She describes SL as a style of teaching that is especially engaging for young kids, because it makes school subjects relatable to real life and encourages 21st-century skills of compassion, communication and leadership.

Amy Meuers, CEO for the National Youth Leadership Council, says, “Service-learning connects community and classroom, inspiring students to make positive contributions to the world. If society’s problems are ever to be solved, we must start understanding and respecting our differences and work together as one to make our nation and the world a better place for us, for our children and for generations to come.”

Service learning grows into national movement

Since the turn of the century, the spirit of SL has been explored by many educators and social change pioneers from John Dewey to Mahatma Gandhi. In 1969, following the peak of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the service-learning approach was introduced at a Peace Corp conference as a way to carry forth the student activism of the 1960s. In the nearly 50 years since it was coined, SL has grown into national movement, engaging between 4 million and 5 million students each year. The 1990s saw an increased commitment to SL, primarily due to the passage of the National Community Service Act of 1990, and in 2008, the National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) released research-based K-12 Service-Learning Standards.

A 2011 meta-analysis of 62 studies showed that students participating in SL programs demonstrated significant gains in attitudes toward self, school and learning, as well as increased social skills, academic performance and civic engagement. Additional benefits show improvements for the student, school and community. Kids are naturally altruistic, and SL motivates them even more.

Reflection is key

Reflection is a crucial component at the culmination of a service project and may be where children learn the most. Moreover, students see that their actions have made a meaningful community impact and that their voice and input are valuable, giving them a sense of agency. (generationOn, 2015). Rhein adds, “So often children are getting bombarded with difficult images and topics and don’t know what to do with their feelings or fears. Through service learning, we provide a controlled setting where students can talk about it with classmates and teachers, and then use their own age-appropriate skill set to address the social needs. Afterwards, they can process what they did, through journaling, drawing pictures, writing thank-you notes, etc.”

The reflection piece is unique to schools, but parents can use it as a way to fully integrate an experience. You’d be surprised at what your kids may be getting out of a simple hurricane relief bake sale. Fiona, a 10-year-old from Park Slope, Brooklyn, said that her synagogue made sandwiches and cards for homeless people, which made her feel proud. She also notes that although they’re raising money for recent hurricanes, people nearby are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy five years ago, so she’d like to help them too. Her mom, Melissa, says, “I am glad that she’s getting these values at an early age; it’s a part of being a global citizen.” Fiona advises, “If you’re giving something to someone and you’re only thinking about yourself, it won’t be as good. Think about what they need.”

Ways to give back on MLK Day and beyond

  • You can find family-friendly MLK Day events in every major city or create your own projects using these resources year round, to do with kids ages 5–18.
  • 15-minute project ideas:
    • Make “caring cards” to take to a local senior center or fire house.
    • Find all your old T-shirts and towels and bring them to an animal shelter.
    • Have your child pick out one item each time you go to the grocery store; when you’ve collected a bagful, bring it to a local food pantry.
    • Stuff new socks with water bottles and granola bars to give to homeless men and women you pass on the street.
    • Donate gently used books, DVDs or toys to a local children’s hospital.

Be sure to deliver items together so your kids can see their compassion in action. Remember to reflect — talk about what you did, how it felt, and what you learned. Right after, build on your child’s enthusiasm by choosing your next service project together.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

All photos courtesy of Points of Light.

Toca Life: Pets Secrets, Surprises and Helpful Tips

Have you discovered all the goodies in Toca Life: Pets? We’ll let you in on some of the secrets!

Turn muddy buddies into clean critters

Your pets get dirty if they play in the mud, but you can clean them up with sponges, other cleaning tools or just let them take a dip in the water.

Stack hats on pets and pets on hats

Pets can wear hats, and on top of most hats you can stack a pet … that in turn can wear a hat … and a pet! Pet-hat-stack!

Bag up that mess

Did your pet do its business? Bag up the poop in a poop bag!

Turn on the night lights

Give the pet hotel its special night lights by pressing the sun button next to the big red house.

Create extra-special (or extra-gross) meals

With loads of new pet foods you can make a very creative meal. Just add whatever food you want and create something extra special! Worm salad? Dog-food sandwich? The possibilities are endless!

Find fantastical creatures

Have you discovered the strange branch on the tree in the park? Press it to find eggs that hold a variety of fantastical creatures!

Dance under a disco ball

Under the radio in the park you can find a wood button popping out of the stem. Press it to bring down a disco ball and create an instant dance floor.

Uncover a secret hideout

Press the bushes on the little hill to reveal a hideout to reveal a hiding spot for objects and pets.

Reveal the secret of the mysterious mushrooms

When you press a little button to the left of the mountain, mushrooms pop up. What happens if you tap them?

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App Store, Google Play or Amazon Appstore.

Your Kid Wants a Pet, But the Answer Is “No.” Here’s What to Do Instead.

If your circumstances don’t allow for a “forever” family pet, your kids can still experience connections with animals that produce beneficial effects.

  • Digital pets. Virtual or robotic pets require regular attention (feeding, petting, playing) for survival. Although they know digi-pets aren’t living things, kids still attribute feelings and thoughts to them. Research shows that the lines are increasingly blurring between how kids relate to virtual vs. real animals.
  • Fostering. Temporarily caring for an animal gives kids an opportunity to experience the responsibilities of pet ownership. Contact your local animal shelter or rescue group (sometimes located at pet shops). Kids may also play a rotating role in caring for a classroom pet. Kids can symbolically adopt animals at many animal sanctuaries, as well.
  • Volunteering. Supporting elderly, busy or vacationing neighbors by feeding their pets or walking a dog can really help. It’s something you and your kid can do together and provides many teachable moments. It also give kids a sense of what it might be like to care for a pet on a daily basis. Depending on the child’s age and abilities, there may be other settings (like those below) that allow for light volunteering.
  • Visiting. Seeing environments where animals are being cared for allows your child to learn about nurturing, as well as human-animal relationships. Parents can encourage gentle touch as well as awareness of body language and nonverbal communication for relatedness, respect and safety.

Here are a few places to visit and care for animals (both domestic and wild):

  • Cat cafes. Established in Taiwan and popularized in Japan where most apartments don’t allow cats, cat cafes have popped up around the world with locations in most major U.S. cities.
  • Dog parks. Whether at a dog run or just spotting Spot out and about, it’s important to ask the dog’s owner if it’s OK to pet their pup. Kids also need to be taught how to do it gently and carefully. Also, if the leash has a yellow ribbon, don’t approach — that dog needs space because he’s sick, scared or aggressive.
  • Shelters. Kids can visit an animal shelter to donate old blankets, toys or treats, and say hello to the dogs and cats, but it might be tough telling the kids, “We’re just visiting, not bringing one home.’”
  • Petting zoos. Children can care for animals at fairs, farms and zoos by brushing and feeding them.
  • Animal sanctuaries. Sanctuaries, including some zoos and aquariums, are committed to providing safe and healthy refuge for abused, injured or abandoned wildlife in environments specifically designed for the unique animals they support. Many centers provide educational programs and camps where kids can learn about animal welfare.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

Kids with Pets Experience Endless Benefits — Here Are a Few to Discover

My nephew Oliver has pet loving parents, so animals have always been a big part of their family. From a young age, Ollie learned how to properly play with his pets and read their signals (scratch or bark = too rough!) As he has grown he has taken on the responsibility of feeding and walking their two dogs. Their cat, Kuni, also joins them for walks on their Hawaii hilltop. His mom, Jennifer, says that growing up in a household with pets has provided Oliver with strong social-emotional skills like empathy, care and mindfulness.

Kids who grow up with pets experience endless benefits ranging from lower blood pressure and fewer allergies to increased physical activity. Along with physiological perks, kids experience less anxiety and depression, improved learning outcomes and social-emotional effects. In a recent review of 22 studies, pet relationships were shown to reduce loneliness and increase self-esteem. Kids also engage in more social play, with greater social competence and larger social networks.

There is growing evidence that children with  special needs, particularly those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), can find a calm, friendly animal to be a compelling focal object. A skilled therapist can use animal interactions as a bridge to human social interaction, which can be challenging for children with ASD. Kids who experience anxiety, depression or histories of abuse can find a small furry animal, such as a guinea pig, comforting to touch and hold. Increasingly, schools, libraries and other settings use trained pet therapy animals to help motivate, calm, de-escalate and teach social-emotional learning (SEL).

Oliver used to get mad that Macky would sleep with me at night and not him,” says his mom, Jennifer. “I told him that he does sleep with him, but that once he is off dreaming Macky would come and sleep with me. Oliver did not believe me until I provided him with evidence.” Photo by Jennifer Veltri Kirsch

Pet relationships can help kids build trusting relationships

Some 75 percent of U.S. households have at least one domestic animal, and pets are seen in school settings, neighbors’ homes and other environments. Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship. Dr. Gail Melson, professor emerita at Purdue University, asked a group of 5-year-old pet owners what they did when they felt sad, angry, afraid or when they had a secret to share. More than 40 percent spontaneously mentioned turning to their pets. Kids know their pet pals don’t literally understand, but they feel understood. These relationships can help build trusting relationships with peers and family members.

Kids identify their pets as members of their family as well as loyal friends who provide acceptance, emotional comfort and companionship.

As young children see that their pets are there for them, they begin to learn how to care for their pets in return. To start with, they learn the basic responsibilities of pet ownership by being helpers. Parents can offer age-appropriate prompts to add a scoop of food, refill water, change puppy bedding, etc. Kids will always need supervision for their safety and the pet’s (to a kid, 10 shakes of fish food are better than one, but that can be most dangerous for the fish. Apologies to my cousin Joel for that time I overfed Freckles).

Kids can learn to read their pets’ signals and needs that may differ from their own, likely contributing to perspective-taking and empathy development (Daly & Morton, 2006). They can also practice turn taking and sharing through play scenarios. These are all great trial runs for sibling and peer interactions. Moreover, “Pets provide a good opportunity for children to practice nurturing, a building block for empathy,” says Dr. Melson. “Nurturance provides an important lesson in caregiving, especially for boys who might otherwise consider it to be ‘girl stuff.’” Because pets are dependent on human care for survival, play scenarios tend to focus on nurturing, just as frequently as playing fetch.

Kids’ social play with animals can be compared to human play patterns

Once safety needs are satisfied, children’s interactions with pets are generally more child-directed with little adult intervention. Kids construct and structure play routines with their pets, since most, with the exception of dogs, can’t fully participate. More than other species, dogs have co-evolved in human environments and can thus interpret human signals and offer them in return, for example, rolling over to get a belly rub. With other animals, children will generally play as a parent might scaffold an infant — petting a gerbil, pausing to observe his response, and saying “You like that, huh? Yes? OK, here’s another pet,” providing both sides of the conversation.

Very young children may use their pets as props in make-believe play (having a tea party with kitty or putting it in the baby carriage). The cat will only briefly allow this, but parental supervision is needed so that the animal doesn’t get too stressed out or injured from enthusiastic dress-up activities or tail pulling. Although they seem to anthropomorphize their stuffed animals or toys, children consider live animals to be like people and treat them as such. In fact, children’s social play with animals can be directly compared to play patterns between children and adults.

Types of social play between younger children and their pets:

  • Play with objects: playing catch or fetch with a ball or dangling a string for a kitten.
  • Animal conversation: kids greet, command and verbally confide in their pets, sometimes offering both sides of the dialogue.
  • Animal embodiment: pretending to be the pet and playing as if the child is a member of that animal’s species.
  • Animal pretend play: several kids pretend to be animals when none are present.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. 

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

Meet the “Superdogs”: Therapy, Service and Emotional-Support Dogs That Improve Life for Kids and Adults

Animals have helped human beings in many capacities throughout history. Livestock has provided us with food and clothing, horses have transported us from place to place and birds have delivered messages for us.

Perhaps of all the animals that have assisted humans, none are as ever-present in modern life as dogs. Our canine companions have performed jobs and services for humans in countless environments around the world. We consider them partners — assisting law enforcement in K-9 units; rescuers — unearthing survivors following natural disasters; and even supervisors — herding sheep and other livestock.

However, the vital role that dogs play in the lives of humans extends far beyond the practical. Dogs have also served as our loyal companions, our trusted confidantes and, some might say, even our beloved significant other. In the past decade, pet funerals and “aftercare” services available for pets, including dogs, have become a booming business.

Though we appreciate dogs for their intelligence, loyalty and trainability — as evidenced by the many services they perform for us each and every day — it is the more intangible, unquantifiable characteristics that we have come to value above all else. It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel. Dogs are good for us! Research has shown that dogs can positively influence our overall sense of well-being, improve our health and enhance mental strength.

It is not simply a matter of what dogs do for us, but it is how they make us feel.

Who are these superdogs? Let’s move beyond the traditional roles dogs have played and look at the softer side of canine careers.

  • Therapy Dogs. Therapy dogs can be found offering comfort and love in nursing homes, hospitals, therapy clinics, schools and many other facilities. They can be virtually any breed, but must be evaluated and receive training and typically work in teams with their owners. Reading dogs, in particular, have become more visible in schools. Because dogs are great listeners, both children and adults who struggle with reading find that reading to a dog is a pleasure. Dogs are nonjudgmental, empathic and loveable listeners. Grab a book, snuggle up and get reading!
  • Service Dogs. People recognize these dogs by the vests that they typically wear while on duty. Service dogs have been individually trained to perform a specific task for individuals who have physical, cognitive or hidden disabilities. They undergo rigorous training and are protected by laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act in all 50 states. They can be trained to open doors, alert owners when a seizure is imminent, pick up dropped objects, and other amazing tasks! Families who have children with autism and veterans diagnosed with PTSD are just two groups of people who have reported that their service dog has allowed them to live more independently. High-fives for Fido!
  • Emotional Support Dogs. Providing companionship and support to children and adults suffering from a variety of emotional and mental conditions are what these dogs do best. From dusk until dawn, their job is offering comfort and unconditional love to those with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and other disorders.

Jumah, a black lab, visits an elementary school in Brooklyn every day as part of the “Comfort Dog Pilot Program” in nearly 40 New York City public schools. Here, first-graders in read to Jumah. Special education teacher Christa Bee Wiggin says, “The dog doesn’t judge them; he doesn’t care if they make mistakes, so they feel more comfortable.” Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Speech therapist Mary Vitale uses Jumah to motivate kindergarteners with special needs. They practice using a strong voice to give commands and using direct eye contact with him. They also pet him while speaking, increasing the fluidity of their speech. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Teacher Christa Bee Wiggin uses Jumah to teach social-emotional learning (SEL) using the “Mutt-i-grees Curriculum,” created by North Shore Animal League. Today’s lesson was about identifying needs. He is also used for crisis de-escalation, behavior intervention and emotional support. Photo and caption by Marj Kleinman.

Cristen Carson Reat is the co-founder and program director of BridgingApps, a program of Easter Seals Greater Houston. Cristen holds a M.A. degree from the University of Texas at Austin, graduated from the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, and is certified through the Assistive Technology Applications Program at California State University. She is the mother of two sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Cristen is a founding member of Toca Boca’s diversity advisory board.

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

Kids Talk: Dog Thoughts, Costumes and Quirks

We visited the 19th Annual Great PUPkin Costume Contest  in Fort Greene Park, Brooklyn, just before Halloween to speak to kids, who were decking their dogs out in over-the-top outfits. We discovered some fun tidbits about how kids think about their pets! Do these kids and their pets remind you of any you know and love?

Wonder Pup

Maebel, age 7

Costume: Wonder Woman

Dog: Coquita

Costume: Wonder Pup

Why did you choose these costumes today? I had this costume and she had that one and we wanted to be twins.

We wanted to be twins.

Henry the Knight

Max, age 5

Costume: Thor, because he’s stronger than anybody!

Dog: Henry

Costume: a knight, because we couldn’t find a skeleton costume

What is your pet thinking? He’s feeling embarrassed, because we are talking about him.

He’s feeling embarrassed.


10-year-old friends presented “The New & Improved Alexander Hamilton” (which came in third place). Pepe the dog is Hamilton and jumps through a hole in the $10 bill.

Ava as Lafayette

Amelia as John Lawrence

Tallulah as Mulligan

Pepe the dog as Hamilton

What’s special about Pepe? This is Pepe’s third time in the contest; last year he dressed up as a disco ball — “Saturday Night Pepe.” He’s not a perfect dog. He’s really sweet, but he has his personality — like if he sees a squirrel he goes crazy, if he sees a cat he goes crazy; and then other times he’s just really sweet and mellow.

He’s not a perfect dog. He’s really sweet, but he has his personality.

Marj Kleinman is a Brooklyn based photographer and children’s media producer with a master’s in educational psychology. All photos by Marj Kleinman.

Get Toca Life: Pets on the App StoreGoogle Play or Amazon Appstore.

“I’m Not Giving Up on My Dream”: Kids Aspire to Help Others as Doctors

When 13-year-old Nina decided that she wanted to become a doctor, she narrowed her choices to neurosurgery or cardiothoracic surgery because, she explained, the brain and the heart are the most important organs in the body.

“If one of those goes down, you’re pretty much dead … and I like saving people,” said Nina, who has settled on neurosurgery.

Despite the many years of education and training ahead — and the fact that 95 percent of neurosurgeons are currently men — Nina is determined.

“This is definitely it, 100 percent,” she said. “I’m not giving up on my dream.”

For Nina, there’s no doubt about it. But for many kids, somewhere along the way their dreams of training for top jobs in health care get sidelined. Other kids may not even imagine those careers as possibilities.

This is definitely it, 100 percent. I’m not giving up on my dream.

Women are half the population but 19% of surgeons

Consider this: Even though women make up half the population, as of 2013 the U.S. had approximately 712,000 male physicians and about 333,000 female physicians. In the operating room, the disparity worsens. Only 19 percent of U.S. surgeons are women.

For many African-American and Latino kids, the road to medical school may end before it even begins. Indeed, fewer black students applied to and enrolled in medical school in 2014 than in 1978. At many schools, math and science classes offered to minority students begin to differ as early as third grade.

“Even if they make it to college, they may not have the preparation required to make them successful enough to meet the academic qualifications for admission to medical and graduate schools,” said Dr. Alma Littles, Senior Associate Dean for Medical Education and Academic Affairs at Florida State University.

FSU is home to a program called SSTRIDE (Science Students Together Reaching Instructional Diversity & Excellence), which supports middle- and high-school students interested in health, medicine, science, engineering and math careers.

Dr. Littles said a teacher’s supportive words made all the difference to her career choice as a young African-American girl.

“It was my second-grade teacher who first said to me, ‘Alma, I think you should be a doctor when you grow up.’ At the time, I don’t even remember if I’d ever seen a doctor, since most of my healthcare — immunizations, treatment for colds, stomachaches and toothaches — had been done by the school nurse. Her words stuck with me, and the fact that she believed in me enough to make the suggestion ultimately served as my motivation to pursue the dream.”

Girl pretending to be doctor at home

Only 15% of kids can solve the surgeon riddle

Beyond academic barriers, can kids’ perceptions of who works certain jobs affect their career aspirations? If your daughter sees only male surgeons on TV, does that impression remove surgery from her perceived career options? What if your son wants to become a nurse, but the only nurses he knows are women?

One revealing study asked 103 kids age 7 to 17 and 197 college students to solve this riddle: A father and son are in a horrible car crash that kills the dad. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate — that boy is my son!” Explain.

Only 15 percent of the kids and 14 percent of college students came up with the correct answer: The boy’s mom is the surgeon.

Boston University Professor Deborah Belle, a co-author of the study, said unconscious ideas called schemas create blind spots in adults and children. In the case of the riddle, the unconscious idea is that “a surgeon is probably a man.”

While schemas can be an important tool for the brain to quickly organize ideas, they can “lead to trivial or profound errors often,” Belle said.

The landscape is changing

But there’s hope. The landscape of a more accessible path to health-care careers at all levels of education is beginning to change. Kids have more:

  • Female role models. Because more women than men are now pediatricians, more kids’ first physician role model will be a woman. Out of 87,000 pediatricians in the U.S., more than 50,000 are women.
  • Media examples. From Doc McStuffins to Sid the Science Kid, there are more diverse, science-oriented characters than ever.
  • Career support. In addition to the SSTRIDE program, there are many school-based programs around the U.S. that introduce young people to medical careers, and even more that are available to support women and minorities in college, medical school and professional life.

What do kids say about their goals?

Kids provide us the most hope of all. Toca Magazine asked six future doctors, diverse in gender and ethnicity, why and how they want to achieve this goal. Read their inspiring answers:

  • Krish, 10: “I’ve wanted to be a neurosurgeon since I was 6 or 7, because I felt bad for kids who have brain tumors or brain cancer.”
  • Kaitlyn, 10: “I want to be able to do surgery, be the head person making my decisions … I want to be able to help people and change their lives.”
  • Aarnav, 9: “I just want to give health care to poor people in other countries and here in America.”
  • Gauri, 5: “I want to be a surgeon doctor. It’s not bad to go to the doctor because doctors take care of people.”
  • Azriel, 10: “My grandma showed me medicines and what they were used for and talked to me about being a doctor. She helped raise me while my mom was at work.”
  • Gabriella, 14: “I’ve had some people say ‘That’s a lot of school, it’s not really worth it.’” But she says, “Working hard and helping people will be worth it.”

7 Ways to Empower Kids to Explore the Future Without Limits

Of course, not every kid wants to grow up to be a doctor or work in health care. Yet all kids should feel empowered to explore and work toward any career that interests them.

Medicine is one example of a field that still has a long way to go to make sure every job and rank in every one of its specialties is open to all. Until then, parents and teachers can play important roles in helping kids keep their options open when it comes to all careers, including careers in medicine. Read these tips to find out how.

  • 1. Start early. “The earlier, the better,” said Dr. Alma Littles. “Parents can start the conversation and the process even earlier. Helping promote the habits of reading and exploring their curiosity will help create interest in developing analytical skills early. Introducing children to math and science concepts even before they start school will help nurture those interests, which means they will not be as intimidated by those subjects when they start school.”
  • 2. Choose toys carefully. “Girls who played with a Barbie doll — irrespective of whether it was dressed as a fashion model or a doctor — saw themselves in fewer occupations than are possible for boys,” according to a 2014 UC Santa Cruz/Oregon State study. “Girls who played with a Mrs. Potato Head reported nearly as many career options available for themselves as for boys.”
  • 3. Watch your language. “Children are always listening,” said Meredith Magee Donnelly, M.S., Ed., creator of the curriculum Exploring Gender Stereotypes with Children. “As adults I think it is incredibly important to take time to reflect on our own biases. We all have them! Do a self-audit of the language you use with children.
  • 4. Advocate academics. Ask what math and science classes are available at your kid’s school. Support your kid’s academic growth. Aspiring neurosurgeon Krish says he already studies every day in third grade and he’s ready for the tough years of academic study ahead.
  • 5. Change schemas. Give kids images and experiences that counter schemas based on gender or race. “Schemas over time are malleable,” Belle said. “We can change our own and affect others’.”
  • 6. Share stories. Kids are often inspired by stories of struggle and hope. Aarnav, who had a heart defect as a baby, wants to be a doctor in part because of the surgeon who saved his life. Gabriella’s science teacher is sharing his pancreatic cancer battle with his students. His positive attitude through treatment motives her even more to pursue studying to become a medical researcher to prevent or cure illnesses like his.
  • 7. Encourage experiences. Let your kid play with the idea of medical careers through apps like Toca: Life Hospital. Attend science-oriented camps. Look for support and exposure programs like SSTRIDE. “You should see the faces of these kids when they get the opportunity to come to the medical school and see medical students and faculty or take tours of hospital facilities and surgery centers,” said Dr. Littles.

Little girl is patient in emergency room with broken arm

Twin App Review: Two Kids, Two Different Ways to Play

My 10-year-old children may be fraternal twins, but they are extremely different from each other. My son, Quentin, has autism spectrum disorder and ADHD, and he plays very differently from my daughter, Fiona, who has no such diagnoses. As a result, their play styles are completely distinct. In general, Quentin prefers to play with toys by himself. Fiona, on the other hand, prefers to play socially, making characters interact.

Besides their actual birth in a hospital, neither one of my children has had to experience one before (knock wood) — as either a patient or a visitor. However, they are very familiar with their pediatrician’s office, and what doctors do. With this as their knowledge base, I decided to let Quentin and Fiona review Toca Life: Hospital, an open-ended app that allows kids to explore a hospital and the things that go on inside it. Because different apps appeal to different kids, I wanted to explore their differences of opinion.

I was excited to co-play along with them for this little experiment so I could explain some of the unfamiliar things that happen in a hospital. I am grateful that they get to play through the hospital space now, while they are healthy, so if we ever do wind up in a hospital, they’ll be more familiar with the kinds of things that are there.


Fiona’s review

First, I observed my daughter play the app. Fiona immediately loved it, and began making up stories to go with the characters. “This is really realistic,” she commented (as if she was already a hospital expert). “I think it’s a very creative game because there’s a lot of different levels, like… see? There’s an elevator!” I watched her go to different levels, and she explained the different places in the hospital as she got to them. She was very comfortable making up scenarios as she encountered them. Fiona liked exploring the features of the game, such as props and tools, and she almost always incorporated them into the character’s story. She could play like that for hours.

She was very comfortable making up scenarios as she encountered them.

Quentin’s review

Unlike Fiona, Quentin is not conversational. He does not think out loud his thoughts or tell me what he thinks. (Ever.) Which means that I had to base his review totally on observing him play. Quentin’s gameplay was completely different from his sister’s. He liked to touch everything and test everything out. For most of this play session, he played with one character, giving the character things to hold or eat. He was curious to try everything. At one point, he actually ended up pulling the fire alarm and then escaping in the elevator. Quentin liked to play by himself, explore everything once, and then leave. He played with an intensity, using two hands to control things and moving at a fast pace.

He is curious to try everything.

Different play styles, same level of enjoyment

My twins have always been different, but they do both really like playing with Toca Life: Hospital. It just so happens that their play styles are nothing alike. My daughter loves coming up with the story lines that explain what happens in the hospital. My son is more of an adventurer, looking to try things out without any plot or consequences. I love that Toca Life: Hospital, like all apps in the Toca Life series, allows for both styles of play.

I always learn a lot about my children when I observe or co-play with them. In this case, I learned that their digital play behaviors very much mirror their analog play behaviors. Toca Life: Hospital gives them the chance bring their play styles to an unfamiliar location, making it possible to experience a hospital before they’ll need one. I also learned that they don’t really want me to talk or guide them. They both enjoyed playing in their own styles, by themselves, without explanations from me. Do you know how your kids play with games? Take a seat next to them sometime and observe. I bet you’ll learn a lot about who they are.

Melissa Morgenlander, Ph.D., is a children’s media curriculum designer and researcher based in Brooklyn, NY. She has a blog about her experiences with autism and technology and media called The iQ Journals. You can learn more about Melissa from her website, or follow her on twitter @covertcoviewer.