Gary Pope
The Modern Child: Biology, Culture and Society - and Play
15 mins

In my previous post, I lamented that in our well-intentioned drive to make the next generation the best that they can be, sometimes we neglect to let them just, well, be. How can we ensure that the content we create for children enhances their development, rather than put limits on them?


Much is made of the digital / physical crossover in the toy industry, especially around app-enabled toys. Some of it is warranted. But, sadly, a lot of this trumpeting is only to ensure the quarterly numbers don’t spook investors. And apps are often little more than children dressing an avatar to explore a pre-determined world through a sometimes poorly designed UX.

An experience that does little to enhance development.


So, let’s put development into context. Children are protected by their immediate caregivers - and these caregivers serve as their primary developmental influencers. A second set of influencers include the wider family, the educational setting, and the child’s experience within their community.

However, in a global context, it is the wider drivers of development that are most important. To make the best possible content for the modern child, a thorough understanding of both biology and the intertwined areas of culture and society is necessary to inform content creation for children – you could call it consumer insight.

Biology itself doesn’t change. It’s a constant – at least until the next meteor smashes into the planet. If we know the biology, we’ve got a steady baseline. We know what the brain can do, we know how the hand and the eye co-ordinate and we’re pretty clear on the fine motor skills. Culture and society, meanwhile, are ever shifting. By understanding exactly what’s going on in the wider world of the modern child, right now, we’ve got the best chance of being able to support them through the content we make. That’s all well and good - but how does the child engage with and assimilate these environmental drivers?


All mammals play - as do many other categories of animal. But of all the mammalian species, it’s the human that has the longest period of play. The bigger the brain, the more play is required. Children play because they are practicing for their life ahead: as Maria Montessori suggested, “play is a child’s work”.

The question is, are they being enabled to play enough? Sure, there’s lots of playtime. But this doesn’t mean that they are experiencing the necessary play to explore their potential – and that is a fundamental right of all children. 


The physical, immersive experience of dressing up and pretending to be – whatever you want to be is, in my mind, the most powerful play pattern. Today you can be a ninja and tomorrow a doctor. Or you could even be a ninja doctor. Imaginative role-play helps us form our understanding of others and the dynamics of society. Perhaps the most interesting thing about when children pretend-play with archetypes is that it has a significant role in the development of our personality. Successful play as a nurturing doctor will certainly impact on the child’s sense of self, and so contribute to their development.

As St. Thomas Aquinas said: “Give me the child to the age of seven and I will show you the man”. Not the most politically correct of statements, but this was 800 years ago. The thing is though, what he said then is true today – the tender years until the age of seven are what I think of as real childhood. If we don’t give our children opportunities for real play, how will they grow to be the best that they can be?

A child’s engagement in a well-designed digital experience can be profoundly beneficial. But the reality is that unless a digital play experience is open-ended and self-directed, the child can only ever experience what a UX designer wants them to. ­­­

We should inspire children to play in the real world and from time to time use the digital experience as stimulus, rather than the end goal.

This is where the real crossover is going to happen. Not in “app-enabled toys”.

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