The Playful Side of Apps

Parker Barry

As a part of the App Friday Campaign with Moms with Apps, I wrote a blog post about how apps can stimulate and facilitate different types of play. It comes from the Moms with Apps blog, but I thought I’d share it with you here too. And don’t miss the App Friday deal – Helicopter Taxi is FREE and Toca Tea Party is only $0.99. One day only – Friday the 15th of April!

I’d like to share some of the research that went into creating our new game studio: Toca Boca. Since we come from a Research & Development background, we spent quite some time making sure we were prepared for the challenge of the competitive app market for kids. We discovered some interesting things.

To begin, we mapped the existing kids apps and categories we saw on the App Store. To generalize a little, it turned out to be a lot of flashcards, ABCs, book adaptions, and a surprising amount of cupcake apps. Some very ambitious, others not so much. There was definitely space for more serious studios. More importantly, we tried to look beyond the app category to see what needs that they tried to address for kids, to better understand where our product could differentiate and stand out from the general trends.

In her book “The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8” (published by the NAEYC), Martha B. Bronson talks about five different ways of playing. Kids progress through all of them depending on ages, stages, gender, cultural context, personal preference and many other factors.

The types of play are:

  • Active Play – physical activity, sports, playing outside
  • Make-Believe Play – playing with dolls, different types of role-play
  • Manipulative Play – construction and puzzles
  • Creative Play – playing music, drawing and painting, crafting
  • Learning Play – reading books, playing games, developing certain skills

So if these are the ways that kids love playing – are the apps in the App Store facilitating all types? Not necessarily. Many are in the “Learning” category, with a few in the “Creative” category. But where are the apps that encourage kids to be active? Or to actively use their imagination? So that is where we started to develop.

At Toca Boca, we believe that apps can stimulate and facilitate all types of play. It requires thinking beyond the screen and regarding the device not as a phone but as an object that is an integral part of different ways of playing. The best way to explain what I mean is to shortly describe the two apps that we will feature this week for App Friday:

Helicopter Taxi is a digital toy that uses the camera to create the effect that the helicopter is in the room with you. Unlike most kids apps, it doesn’t require kids to look at the screen the whole time and instead acts as a toy that encourages kids to move in a room and be creative with their imagination. To use the terminology above, it stimulates “Active Play”.

Toca Tea Party is a digital toy that turns the iPad into a coffee table for kids. The iPad is just a part of the fun but the toys and dolls that are sitting around it are just as important. The features of the toy helps facilitate the process through asking for more cookies and cakes, or spilling out tea that needs to be cleaned up. But kids play with it in whatever way they want to – because it is free and open ended. It is an example of encouraging “Make-Believe Play”.

Going forward, I hope to see a wider range of toys and games that take on all types of behavior and fun for kids. There are so many ways of playing that could benefit from a digital facilitator in some way. Think beyond the screen and get creative!