Toca Life Series: Storytelling Fun with Toca Boca

I remember a friend telling me a method she used when working at an elder-care home. They had trouble getting a particular resident to go to bed. This resident would always think she was on a ship, going on a journey, and “bed” didn’t fit into the story. One night my friend decided to just play along. After a while she remarked how choppy it was at sea, and perhaps they should pull in to port — i.e. the bedroom. Her playmate amicably agreed.

Now while there is an underlying motive to my friend’s method, in giving up her own version of reality in order to play and join in on another’s, she learned to see things from the resident’s point of view. She learned empathy.

Storytelling and role-play is a great way of building empathy and trust. We frequently used it at IDEO to put ourselves in the shoes of those we were designing for. Some of my favorite Toca Boca apps are the ones in the Toca Life series. These apps are great storytelling tools for kids. If you play them as an adult you usually don’t get it. But when you watch a child play, it suddenly all becomes clear. Stories are being built in the child’s mind.

So because kids are amazing storytellers when given the right tools and cast, here are three tips for engaging in playful storytelling with your kids:

  • 1. Let them direct. Kids have enough direction from adults in their everyday lives. This is their chance to be the director, so let them be so.

city view

  • 2. Get into role. If the director wants you to be the princess, and you have a beard, be the magical bearded princess. Think about how that princess would act and behave so that her, not your, personality comes through in the play.


  • 3. Improvise. Don’t just follow orders, but improvise on the spot. A good actor is prepared for any situation. This tip also goes for life in general.

toca life: vacation elevator farter

Thanks for tuning in and hit us back with the stories you make together with your kids.




A Mother’s Day Reflection from Play Designer Willow Mellbratt

“I am always trying to catch up with my daughter.”

As a new parent of a toddler, this comment can be taken literally. But I refer to it in another way. Skye wants to climb up the big kids’ ladder at the playground. She can’t! … Oh but wait, she can! Where did she learn that? Skye wants to scale a very steep rock. No … You can’t do that, Skye … What! She can!!

I feel that I need to restrain myself from telling her what she cannot do, as it is only holding her back. The truth is she can do a whole load of things that I cannot. I am limited in my own judgment of what is possible and my own capabilities, or lack of.

The truth is she can do a whole load of things that I cannot.

While I don’t see myself as a particularly conventional person, having a kid has made me realize just how conventional my view of the world is compared to my daughter’s. Where she sees possibilities and exploration, I can sometimes see potential conflict and dirty washing. And this is what I’m trying to change in myself. To open up my mind so that I can see things more the way she sees thing. Because let’s face it, life is so much more fun that way. And I have so much to learn.


Willow and Skye.

Kids in hunter gatherer communities are never told “No.” They explore, they are curious, and they find things out for themselves. OK, sometimes this might come at some cost, but humans are generally exceptionally good at self-preservation. Otherwise we would have died out a long time ago. In our modern society I read posts about parents who have “Yes” days with their kids. They are always surprised by how responsible their kids decide to design their day.

As parents, our desire to keep our children from risk is very difficult to ignore. I blame our evolution. If we didn’t have such giant brains, we wouldn’t need to be born so prematurely early in our development. Because of this, parents’ first introduction to their child is an extremely vulnerable bundle that needs us to do everything for it.

As parents, our desire to keep our children from risk is very difficult to ignore.

This sort of sets our expectations and relationship with our child, and it’s very difficult to get out of this pattern. Of course, it is also a designed event to make sure we nurture and care for our children, but in our modern society filled with fear of risk and parental judgment, it seems to have twisted a little.  Every day I try to untwist that a little so I can support my child to trust her own judgment rather than mine. Because that is one of the best skills she can have in life.