Gary Pope
Developmentally-focused product design
8 mins

There’s so much chatter about digital play at the moment, I felt compelled to write. So much of it is frankly rubbish, so I am going to look at how we can ensure that children have the best possible experience. 

The future of play is not about app-enabled toys, no matter how much money gets raised for the next daft gizmo in Silicon Valley. The future of play is about giving the children what they need. Not what we think they might possibly want.

But apps do absolutely have a role to play in the varied play experiences necessary for healthy development. So, if app-enabled toys aren’t the answer, where do we start with designing a great play experience for the modern, screen-addicted, child?

Well, how about where all product development should start: with understanding what this special audience actually needs. Our work always begins with four need states that are intrinsically linked to an individual’s development: Power and Control, Effective Socialisation, Dependent Exploration, and Knowledge and Learning. We use them as the building blocks for all product development - physical, digital and anywhere in between. 

I wonder how many app experiences actually deliver on these? While a handful do, many are successful purely because they have the weight of a corporation or the glamour of a “hot” brand behind them. These apps become the default digital play diet rather than a nutritious one, purely because it’s simplest for the consumer to do as they are told. 

The problem about creating what you think children want - rather than understanding what they need - is that you end up with a very prescriptive product. And a child can only ever make of a prescriptive product what you, as a designer, allow them to. This worries me a bit.

In the last 50 years we have shifted rapidly from empowering our children to explore and define their intrinsic goals, to imposing extrinsic goals upon them. And that’s not good. It’s bad. Let me explain:

Intrinsic goals are concerned with one’s own development as a person, such as becoming competent in a particular area of interest or developing your own philosophy of life. For example, if my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from progress toward the intrinsic goals that are important to me, then I can control my emotional well-being.

Extrinsic goals, on the other hand, are those that are driven by material rewards and assessed based on other people’s judgements. So, if my emotional sense of satisfaction comes from others' judgments and rewards, then I have much, much less control over my emotional state.

Here’s where it gets serious.

Children’s mental health has been in steady decline worldwide since the 1930s. Fact. There’s records that prove it and everything. In the United States, rates of depression and anxiety in children have increased eightfold since 1951. And we can see this in almost every modern society. The effects of extrinsic goals becoming more important than intrinsic ones have had many effects on how children spend their time, though for now I want to share just two.

Firstly, there’s the ever-increasing weighting given to schooling. As a teacher in the 1990’s, I saw this happen. I watched league tables take precedence over individual needs. (And people wonder why home-schooling has gone through the roof.) 

Secondly, the massive rise in parents packing their children’s days and evenings full of activities that masquerade as personal development. Tiger, competitive, helicopter, whatever-you-want-to-call-it parenting is controlling how children develop. 

Education is commodified and parenting is a competition, both driven by the changes we have all experienced in society. We tell ourselves that they are for the better – but are they? Children, whether at school or at home, are not being afforded enough time to just be children.

Now, wrap this into the tablet addiction that seems to be engulfing modern childhood, and all of a sudden we’ve got the perfect storm. Children’s only free time is 60 minutes on the tablet, playing games that have been designed to take them on a specific path. There’s no time for the intrinsic goals and open-endedness that is necessary for a child’s healthy play diet. 

But by depriving children of opportunities to play, we are depriving them of opportunities to learn how to take control and to explore. Too often, the corporations providing for our children place shareholder value over need state fulfillment. And I reckon this is the wrong way around.

There’s an irony here of course, because you don’t even need to take the tablet away. By creating better, open-ended experiences that allow children to explore and discover on their own terms, we make for deeper, more memorable connections.

And guess what? That will ultimately sell more stuff.

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