Media as a Prompt for Play

Recently, I gave a talk at the World Congress of Play in San Francisco. I chose the topic “Media as a Prompt for Play” for a number of reasons:head_shoulders-300x225

First, from the earliest days of children’s TV, screens have brought young people ideas for playful games and activities, whether through direct instruction or simply modeling. I began my talk with a classic clip from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” in which Fred Rogers is trying hard to learn a “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” movement game from folksinger and story-teller Ella Jenkins.

Also, while some are concerned that mobile devices—tablets and phones—suck children’s attention into the screen and away from the world and people around them, I believe the next generation of mobile media will, instead, become a gateway out to the world. Emerging apps will help children explore on their own or with friends and family, using built-in cameras, data, connectivity, GPS, crowdsourcing, communication, augmented reality, and more.

Finally, when the full spectrum of play experts comes together, there’s always discussion of whether screens are replacing toys in children’s lives. I wanted to talk about the opportunities for screen media and toys to work in concert, whether through a direct technological connection between the physical and the digital, or simply by suggesting ways to play.

As I explored examples for the talk, I found that most fell onto a grid, on which the X-axis ranges from structured play to unstructured. At the structured end of the spectrum are media options that need to be played in a particular way—the screen either details the rules or controls the play. Unstructured play leaves more space for the child to improvise around a set of resources, characters, or stories.

The Y-axis on my grid spans “device required” to “device inspired.” With the former, the play can’t go on unless the technology is in use; this might include an augmented-reality hide-and-seek game, new types of video game that interact with plugged-in toys, or a movement monitor that tracks physical activity to be uploaded later and tracked toward fitness goals. “Device inspired” play might be learned through the screen, or might draw upon a database of games to suggest something for the age of the children, the location, the amount of time available, and even the mood of the players.

We can suggest and inspire, but ultimately, media makers would be wise to step back and allow kids’rsquo; fantasies and fancies free range.

Some of my favorites:

  • Sneak – an app with which children play a kind of game of “tag,” as a virtual character on the iPad senses their approach via the camera and microphone.
  • Unboxed – a project of the Chicago Children’s Museum where what looked like a store that sold cardboard boxes actually sold maker projects revealed when you held the different boxes up to an augmented reality screen.
  • Lego, Life of George – a Lego set that can be used either for free play or, with augmented reality, to guide construction of a specific project.

But, here’s the interesting thing: As I laid out my examples on the grid, I found a big open space on the right side—there were far fewer examples of media as a prompt for unstructured play, especially play that is just inspired by the technology.

That brought me back to thinking about Fred Rogers. It seemed to me that Fred’s entire body of work was a message that this end of the graph is the magical, perhaps even sacred, space where children’s imaginations live. We can suggest and inspire, but ultimately, media makers would be wise to step back and allow kids’ fantasies and fancies free range. In children’s diverse lives, there’s still plenty of room for us to play together with them.

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