The Future of Play: How Technology Is Changing the Way Kids Play

Imagine printing your own toys at home. Or watching your child have a one-on-one chat with her favorite TV character. These are just a few of the exciting changes that could be in your family's future.
Girl playing with toy

Thayer Allyson Gowdy

My 65-year-old mother and my 9-year-old daughter, Grayce, were sitting on the floor surrounded by stuffed animals -- cats to be precise -- with an iPad between them. From the kitchen, I heard Grayce explain to her grandmother how to move the cake on the iPad's screen to her virtual plate. Well, not exactly her plate, since the cats were the ones having the picnic.

"Watch -- this is my favorite part!" Grayce exclaimed, as she proceeded to knock down the pretend pot and spill "tea" all over the virtual blanket by merely touching the iPad.

"Now how did you do that?" my mother asked.

"I didn't do it," Grayce said, laughing. "The naughty cat did."

Apparently, cats like cake. Tea? Not so much.

In the last decade, we've seen a whole new world of play emerge, one in which even the old-fashioned tea party has been touched by technology. As both a mother and an industry insider -- I'm a designer who's helped create toys and apps for many Fortune 500 companies -- I'm always looking for the next big ideas in play. In quickly changing times, though, one theme is constant: The future favors flexibility. And children who are empowered through play, whose natural abilities are amplified, who see potential and possibilities, will face the world ahead of them with confidence.

What else can we expect from the future? I turned to forward-thinking leaders in play, who shared these exciting predictions:

Opportunities to play will exist everywhere.

Today, many parents take their kids to the playground for fun. But imagine a world in which mini play areas are practically everywhere, even on a walk to the market. That may be a reality in the not-too-distant future. "Every kid has access to sidewalks and bus stops, but those are not conducive to play -- yet," reported a yearlong study sponsored by Mattel and KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping communities build playgrounds. "We learned that kids see every place as a playspace," says Darell Hammond, founder and CEO of KaBOOM! One day, for example, there could be dispensers with free chalk lining neighborhood sidewalks.

Some communities are beginning to build more such opportunities for children to play within easy reach. For instance, Pierre, South Dakota, a city where nearly two thirds of children are overweight or obese, recently installed pocket parks, also called "play pods," onto local trails to coax more families -- not just lone joggers and cyclists -- onto its 50 miles of hiking and biking paths. "When kids get on the trails, they have a different kind of play experience, one that combines physical activity with resilience and creativity," says Hammond, citing the play pods' nature-centered theme and the program's goal to create a curriculum for teachers so students can enjoy an outdoor learning experience. Hammond also envisions a future where community play areas are designed to be both more social and multigenerational -- for example, not just a single swing but one that can fit multiple children and even parents.

Kids will create their own toys at home.

Picture a future where, rather than making a trip to the local big-box store for a toy, your child could create toys for herself. It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie, but theoretically, kids can make their own creations today using a 3-D printer -- if only these devices weren't still prohibitively expensive for most families. But as with computers and flat-screen TVs, the price of 3-D printers will eventually go down as the tech becomes more widely available. In a couple of years, your child and her friends could be printing their own dollhouse furniture, animal critters, and little planes and cars -- right from the family room. McDonald's recently drew attention when its IT director in Britain floated the idea of bringing 3-D printers into its restaurants someday. Imagine this: Instead of telling your preschooler that the chain had run out of a coveted Happy Meal toy, a server could print one on the spot.

Parents -- not just big-name companies -- will have more say in which toys get made.

While children will enjoy the freedom of making their own toys from a printer at home, parents will have more power too: specifically, to move a great toy idea forward to production. You've probably heard of online sites, such as Kickstarter and IndieGogo, that enable people to raise money for their projects. While movie and CD campaigns get the most press attention, crowdfunding is also lending a hand to toy start-ups that have big ideas and little to no money. Thanks to public donations, innovative playthings that might not have seen the light of day otherwise will be revolutionizing toy stores and kids' playspaces.

Digital Devices and Children
Digital Devices and Children

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