One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood is sneaking through a fence with my mother in Sweden, and finding some hollow straws of grass that contained a white foamy material. We scooped that stuff out with our nails and produced what looked like half a bowl of rice. I was five years old and euphoric! It looked so much like real rice to me.
The next time we passed that fence I prompted my mother to go in again to make ‘rice’, but each time I was told we were in too much of a hurry. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t want to go in! Here was our chance to do it all over again! What could be more important? Dinner? No way!
I just couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t want to play this wonderful game at every chance! When one day she finally agreed to go through the hole in the fence again, it just wasn’t as fun. We made our foamy ‘rice’, but something about my mother seemed different: she seemed to be thinking of something else. She was there, but distracted – and that’s the problem. As adults, 9 times out of 10, our mind is on what’s important from our own perspective rather than from our children’s, whether we mean to or not.
My mother was probably pondering something important that was going on at her work or an impending visit from relatives, but if you are going to have a healthy relationship with anyone, you have to have some sort of a balance between each others’ perspectives. Sometimes we look at things my way, sometimes your way.
There are important things that make children and adults different, that sometimes makes it hard for us to understand each other: kids can easily and wholeheartedly embrace the now, whilst adults (understandably) are often preoccupied with things in the future or the past. Play is perhaps the most obvious place where this difference can be seen. Children implicitly understand the value and joy of play, but often as adults we forget that we, too, once felt like this.
Even I, with a professional title that is Play Designer at Toca Boca, am sometimes baffled by some of my daughters’ games! How can it be more fun to pretend to eat than to eat for real? My girls will act out a meal with wooden food props, fully engaged, then come to a beautifully set table with their favourite food, have dinner without much of a word, just to rush back to an animated pretend version of the meal.
It is this fundamental difference in perspective that inspires all of our design choices at Toca Boca: we make digital toys for kids, not for their parents. We’ve lost count of the number of times mums and dads have admitted they are slightly clueless as to why their children love our apps – and it’s because they have forgotten what it is to truly play. Children are involved in our testing process right from the beginning: there’s no point making a toy from a purely adult perspective – after all, what kid would want to play with it?
Kids spend a lot of time already doing things adults want them to do: getting up, eating up, cleaning up, hurrying up, buckling up, walking up, sitting down, reading, shutting up, studying, calming down, washing up. That’s why it’s an excellent idea to get down there with them, and do something that they want to do for a change – and that something is very likely to be playing with you.
But out of all the things you could do together, why should you play? To children the value of play is self-evident. For me, as an adult it is only possible to fully understand the value of play intellectually. Here’s how I grasp it: play is nature’s way of ensuring that children learn to survive. In play, children go over hypothetical situations over and over. (Hypothetical to them at least… Dragon slaying anyone?)
Open-ended play and creativity are at the heart of all Toca Boca’s digital toys. Through play, children practice all sorts of skills: physical, social, esthetic, creative, manual… Play is to learning what hunger is to eating, really. The urge to play is your body telling you that you are ready to learn something. It has ensured the survival of mammals for millions of years. It’s that primitive, but that is also what makes it so powerful. As humans we have to learn because we are born knowing nothing. Play is the fuel we need to be able to power up learning.
So yes! This Christmas holidays you should build a house from sticks and leaves for the plastic ponies, or build a fort in Minecraft to hide from Creepers, or watch that old Harry Potter DVD again, because by doing so you are showing your child that you are making an effort to understand what she cares about.
And maybe, just maybe, next time you ask her to care about something you find important, such as eating up, cleaning up or washing up, she will be more willing to see things from your perspective. Because she will remember you took the time to turn off your adult concerns, get down and see the world from her view.
By Jens Peter
Jens Peter de Pedro is a play designer at Toca Boca, the kids game studio devoted to changing the role of play on digital platforms by creating fun, high-quality digital toys that spark imagination and creativity. Their current release Toca Kitchen 2, which brings open-ended creative play to the kitchen, is available from the App Store App Store.