Different and the Same: Classic Play for Digital Kids

David Kleeman

In many ways, it’s a Golden Age for children and play. There are more options – physical toys, games, digital devices and content – than ever before. There’s a downside to more play options though – too many choices make it harder to find high-quality toys ideally suited to a specific child’s needs, interests, and abilities.

While child development milestones haven’t changed, the context in which children grow, play, and learn has … radically. Kids go through the same physical, intellectual, and social/emotional stages as previous generations, but ubiquitous technology is still evolving. Moreover, it’s “additive:” balls, dolls, board games, and books didn’t disappear when digital devices arrived.

When I first began exploring this topic, my mind drifted to something I owned as a child – a toy telephone. Mine – in the sixties – was a rectangular box with a handset and rotary dial. In the 1970s, the toy got an updated touch-tone keypad. In the nineties kids played with plastic flip phones. A decade ago, the toy smartphone arrived, and today you can get a pretend smartwatch. Over 50 years, even with constant change of context, the toy’s timeless developmental function remained – to enable a child to imitate the adults in his or her life.

Even in a digital world, our research has found that it’s important to draw on classic play patterns that children have enjoyed for decades. These play patterns are innate and essential, so applying them – even to digital toys – results in products that are easy for children to understand and use.

Joan Almon, founder of the Alliance for Childhood, said that “the best toys are 90 percent child and 10 percent toy.” That’s a great guide when choosing a new plaything. What is the child’s contribution vs. the value that the toy (physical or digital) adds?

Here are some ways to look for classic play experiences when considering which digital toy or game to choose for your child:

  • Does equipping a doll with technology change the way your child can play with it? Can the doll still be coddled, fed, and bathed? If the doll uses artificial intelligence to “communicate” with children, does the AI guide or restrict the conversation so much that it’s no longer spontaneous or imaginative?
  • Does adding tech to a ball make it difficult to roll, throw or kick? If so, is it in fact still a ball?
  • Does a digital board game make all the decisions so that the players are left watching the computer play?
  • Is a screen-based construction app like a bottomless box of pieces with which the child can freely envision and create, or is building limited to a few pre-programmed models?

This article was published initially by the Toy Association as part of its Genius of Play campaign.

David Kleeman is senior vice president of global trends for Dubit, a research and strategy consultancy and digital studio devoted to children and families. David has worked in children’s media for 35 years.

Other Articles