PlayScience: Media as a prompt for play


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Prepared for the First World Congress of Play, in San Francisco. September 2013.

In the never-ending battle over screen time, some say children's use of TV, computers, mobile media and game devices disrupts and discourages play. Increasingly, though, media are being used to prompt play away from the screen, often through the intersection of digital media and physical toys or products. Especially in the realm of unstructured or semi-structured play, media have powerful potential to inspire, inform and engage young people.

Presented by David Kleeman, SVP Insights Programs and PlayVangelist, PlayCollective (

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  • Good afternoon. I wanted to start this presentation with a reminder that media have long been a prompt for play. The TV – that ancient technology – was and is a window to the world, directly teaching children games and activities, or inspiring them to come up with ideas of their own to pursue away from the screen. I believe it was “Sesame Street” creator Joan Ganz Cooney who referred to the television as the only appliance that could be more valuable after it was turned off.
  • In fact, from the 70s to the 90s, the BBC had a series titled "Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?"  But beyond TV, today’s interactive digital devices have amazing potential to be integrated into existing play patterns, to support entirely new ways to play, and to unite the digital world of screen media with the physical world of toys and other playthings.  
  • I created this framework for my examples, focused on design and development of screen and play experiences. I wanted to show how media can inspire an idea that takes place away from the screen, or can be an integral part of the activity, as well as how screen media can support structured play or simply open the door for creativity. You’ll see that I’ve already placed Mister Rogers learning a game from Ella Jenkins on the scale – kids’ repetition of that structured game would be “device inspired” – it doesn’t require the screen to play again later. Keep in mind, also, that many of my examples can slide from side to side on the “structured to unstructured” scale, depending on the child’s ecosystem and interactions with parents, caregivers, siblings or friends. But, in truth, I proposed this talk because I felt it addressed big-picture issues simmering in our industries.The biggest, to my mind, is our need to shift the debate over the “screen time” in children’s lives. “Screen time” is a useless term, taking in everything from Candy Crush to Doc McStuffins to Skyping with Grandma to reading an eBook. Moreover, the question is usually framed as “what does time with media take time away from,” often with the monolithic answer that children who spend time with screens don’t play.
  • A 2011 report in Pediatrics equivocates: “Many studies have found that physical activity decreases as screen time increases, but many other studies have not.” There is evidence of correlation (not causality) between high media use and low activity level for certain children related to age, gender, race and economic status. This isn't surprising because the ability to “get out and play” depends on a range of factors. But, children’s lives are multi-faceted, with time for many different things, and while it’s perfectly legitimate to ask what screen time displaces, it’s equally important to respect what it provides some children that otherwise would be missing. Smart producers never made “passive” content, and current and emerging screen technologies – from gesture-activated consoles to mobile media to digital toys – have kids off the couch, playing and exploring. Let me show you three examples that link screen time and play time, sending kids out for activities in the real world.
  • Sneak blends hide-and-seek with tag, for the iPad. You have to sneak up and tap the screen before the monster “notices” you through the camera and microphone.
  • With cwist, kids and families use pre-set learning or activity challenges, or design their own, set rewards for completing them, then use the website to track progress.
  • Zamzee comes at the same challenge from a different direction – the technology is a movement sensor, so no matter how you get active, it records your progress toward goals you share with your family or friends.
  • Charted on my axes, these examples demonstrate the diversity of media’s role in play. For some, the technology is integral, and for some it’s just a tracking system. For Sneak, the activity is partially structured – you can get creative with how you approach the tablet; cwist can be as structured or unstructured as you like, since you choose or design the task, and Zamzee measures physical activity with no rules, but you do have to carry the device and upload the data.
  • The second big picture theme I want to consider is the idea that screens suck children in – that they become less social, less communicative, less creative because they are absorbed into their devices. To start, I find this amusing, because the same argument has been used with virtually every portable medium of the last 70 years – from transistor radios that put bad ideas straight into teens’ heads, to the Walkman that isolated young people from one another, to today’s immersive devices with both sound and image.With today’s mobile media, packing cameras, connectivity, GPS and more, we have the opportunity to turn that trope upside down. I truly believe that the next generation of content for the phone and tablet will flip the screen, turning children’s gaze from inward to outward. The device will no longer be the destination for play, but the gateway, using search, data, crowdsourcing, communication, GPS, Augmented Reality and more.  Here are three examples:
  • Toywheel is a data base of great adventures, maker projects and games. Families can seek inspiration for specific games, outings or projects, based on how old their children are, how much time they have, and what type of experience they want.
  • Tiny Games is similar, but more like play snacking. Rather than taking you out into the world for an adventure, it suggests quick games you can play then and there.
  • I love this innovative concept by the Chicago Children’s Museum last Christmas. They organized a pop-up store that, at first glance, appeared only to sell cardboard boxes. You can make anything you want from your box, but if you want some inspiration, you hold your box up to an augmented reality screen, and it reveals specific maker projects starting from the box you chose.
  • All three of these concepts fit into the “device inspired” section. That said, there do exist great “device required” apps that use the phone or tablet to explore and interact with the world in new ways, and there are add-on toys that let you transform a screen into a whole new device, like the Wikipad or LazerTag. That’s a good segue into my final big issue – one that’s been addressed often over the last two days. Can screen media (and mobile media in particular) and the toy business be friends? It feels to me that we’re seeing the rapid integration of digital media and physical toys or products, in ways that can benefit media makers, merchandise and toy companies and retailers.
  • We know fromother products where the digital and physical worlds butt up against one another thatdigital spending is additive to physical (and vice versa). These charts, drawn from NPD’s Kids and Entertainment Content study, show that in games, music and video, young people who buy both only physical or digital products spend less than those who buy both types.
  • Maybe no product better exemplifies that potential of digital and physical coming together than Disney Infinity. For me, what makes it truly exciting is the “toybox” mode, where kids can create adventures that cross stories and brands. That slides Infinity across from the highly-structured play it might have been, to a product that encouragesless-structured imagination.
  • Lego, Life of George is, to me, is a great blend of a number of things. It can be a free-play construction toy, but with the addition of the augmented reality element, it becomes a learning game where kids can build, assess, and build again.
  • Aside from Mister Rogers, this is my only television example. Maker Shack Agency is the newest pilot commissioned by Amazon Studios. Because the maker movement is all about engaging, not just watching, I’m very eager to see how they’ll extend beyond the linear medium to invite kids and parents to invent and create, too.
  • When you move toward integration of digital and physical, you slide up the Y-axis toward more “device required” concepts – something that is of value to the toy designers and retailers.
  • But, I want to close by noting that – at least in the range of examples I’ve chosen, which I believe to be representative, there’s a big open space on the graph, in unstructured play both inspired by technology and, to a large extent, requiring technology. I opened with Mister Rogers, and in closing, I believe Fred’s entire body of work was a message that thisend of the graph is the magical space where children’s imaginations live; we can suggest and inspire, but ultimately, we’d be wise to step back and allow kids’ fantasies and fancies free range. In children’s diverse lives, there’s still plenty of room for us to play together with them.
  • PlayScience: Media as a prompt for play

    1. 1. Promp&ng     Play   Through     Media  
    2. 2. Device   Required   Unstructured   Play   Device   Inspired   Structured  Play  
    3. 3. Sneak
    4. 4. cwist
    5. 5. Zamzee
    6. 6. Device   Required   Unstructured   Play   Device   Inspired   Structured  Play  
    7. 7. ToyWheel
    8. 8. You  tell  the  app   where  you  are,   who  you’re  with,   what’s  to  hand   and  how  you  feel,   and  it  supplies  a   game  to  fit.   Tiny Games
    9. 9. Unboxed
    10. 10. Device   Required   Unstructured   Play   Device   Inspired   Structured  Play  
    11. 11. Digital is additive to physical (and vice versa) Source: NPD Kids and Entertainment Content $0.21 of every entertainment dollar for kids is digital! (up from $0.15 a couple of years ago)!!
    12. 12. Disney Infinity
    13. 13. Lego: Life of George
    14. 14. Maker Shack Agency
    15. 15. Device   Required   Unstructured   Play   Device   Inspired   Structured  Play  
    16. 16. Device   Required   Unstructured   Play   Device   Inspired   Structured  Play  
    17. 17. Tag – You’re It!