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

Imagine printing your own toys. Or watching your child video chat with her favorite TV character. These are just a few of the exciting ways technology is changing playtime.

Girl playing with toy
Photo: 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.

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"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.

Robot toy
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

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.

Toys will adapt and respond to kids' individual interests and abilities.

While the tools kids use for play may have changed rapidly in the last decade (just watch a toddler comfortably swipe a tablet), children themselves are the same curious beings they've always been. "Play patterns aren't changing, but the context and opportunities around them are," says David Kleeman, senior vice president at PlayCollective, a research group that focuses on kids, families, and play. Kleeman points to Toywheel as an example that's opening parents up to those multiple play possibilities, based on specific factors such as kids' interests and age.

For instance, on the site a parent may select a playtime of 30 minutes, choose "outdoors," and seek ideas for children between ages 3 and 6, with a focus on movement. The resulting suggestions might include making a kite, a paper airplane, and cornstarch slime. (Note the key word: "outdoors!")

What's more, a growing trend toward tailored play can benefit kids by helping them strengthen some skills while targeting weaker ones. Rob Whent, founder and CEO of Thriver, was seeking such guidance for his son when he decided to explore how children might become better learners through more personalized games and play.

So with the help of British pediatric neuropsychologist Jonathan Reed, D.Clin.Psych., Whent determined 44 cognitive skills humans have and used them as a foundation for creating a child's unique cognitive profile; with their parents' guidance, children can play recommended games on Thriver's website that exercise their strengths and weaknesses.

Says Whent: "Once we have a cognitive profile, the digital world can change to meet our needs. Technology will adapt to us and not the other way around." As toys with electronic components get "smarter," they'll be able to automatically switch the content to match your kid's age or skill set. In the future, Angry Birds may change colors to accommodate vision deficiencies or account for slower reflexes—and then help strengthen them.

Parents will evaluate toys based on a "nutrition label."

What if, just as when you're shopping for food, you could look at the packaging on a toy and read a facts label that gives a rundown of everything from its ability to boost your child's language or strengthen fine motor skills? You might spot such labels on toys within a couple of years.

Claire Green, president of the Parents' Choice Foundation, the nation's oldest guide to quality children's media and toys, says that in her position she frequently sees packaging that claims a toy improves motor skills or other abilities. "While well-intentioned, there is no consistency and parents are left confused," says Green. Her answer to this uncertainty is to give parents a tool, akin to a nutrition label, to evaluate toys before they buy: a "Playability Scale," a consistent method for assessing toys and games, physical or digital.

The Playability Scale will standardize the measurement of skill-building properties, including fine and gross motor, cognitive, and creative. This scale is currently being tested, then hundreds of toys will be evaluated—and not just by Green's team. "Our goal is to create a grassroots army of trained educators and health-care providers to help us assess and label toys and games," says Green.

Boy playing with toy
Thayer Allyson Gowdy

Kids' favorite characters will interact with them.

One day I saw my friend Kate's 4-year-old son, Charlie, sitting inside an orange tent beside a computer. He was staring at a smiling woman on the screen. "Who is that?" I asked Kate. She replied, "Oh, that's my mother. Charlie takes her into the tent several times a week to play, thanks to Skype. I've tried to explain to him the difference between real Grandma and virtual Grandma, but I don't think he cares. To him, she's just Grandma."

This same insight, that children see technology differently than adults do, led to the creation of ToyTalk, a company co-founded by CEO Oren Jacob. "I had just gotten off my cell phone with my mother, and my daughter came over and asked, 'Daddy, can I talk to my toys now?' " says Jacob. "And, I thought about it. What if she could? Or if kids could Skype with Bugs Bunny? Even better, what if kids could author their own character and create a conversation? It would fundamentally change how we look at storytelling and media."

The company's first toy is an iPad application called The Winston Show, created by some former Pixar animators, available with 12 hours of free content on iTunes. Children are guests on the show, and Winston engages them in conversation. While behind the scenes this took three years and an army of animators to account for all the variability in natural language, children love Winston, a friendly yellow blob, because he converses. This effect on children can be quite profound. "Once kids have a conversation with a character, they wonder why other characters don't talk back. The others start to seem broken," says Jacob.

"Screen time" could become a thing of the past.

Every toy, or tool, a child has is power in his hands, and the more flexible the tool, the more children are the makers and designers of their experience. To wit: I recently bought my daughter a glue gun. She spent three solid days making a "puffle village" of pom-poms and ice-pop sticks. That simple glue gun opened up a world of possibility, straight from her imagination. Other tools in her arsenal include a digital camera, a sewing machine, scissors, an iPad, a microscope, and a computer. It's likely that today's kids who are "digital natives"—meaning they've grown up with technology front and center in their life—will make fewer distinctions between physical and digital toys, and see them equally.

"In the future, we will see technology and toys as children do—they are both simply tools for creativity and play," said Björn Jeffery, a founder of Toca Boca, the digital-toy maker. He added, "My co-founder, Emil, watched his son create a very elaborate movie theater out of Legos. Little Lego people were in rows of chairs all facing forward. Then his son pulled out an iPhone, placed it in the front of the make-believe theater and pushed play. There they sat, he and his Lego friends, watching the movie. Frankly, the versatility of what you can do with technology is astounding and lumping it into one category is too limiting. One day, we will look back at the notion of 'screen time' and laugh.

"It's not about where play is taking place," adds Jeffery. "It's what you are doing during play." There's a difference between being in command and being a captive audience, he notes: "If we're creating, perhaps we shouldn't be thinking about screen time at all."

As designers continue to explore the possibilities, kids may use technology to nurture their relationship with nature. Imagine a day when your child dumps dirt onto her tablet screen and her device can tell her the soil's chemical makeup. Someday, she may bring her iPad outdoors to see the way a bee does: A flower in her line of view will change on her screen from, say, yellow, to white with a red center, mimicking ultraviolet light and revealing how bees find pollen.

With such possibilities within our children's reach, the future for play—and our kids—is very bright indeed.

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