The digital revolution has affected not only the way we work and communicate but also the ways we play. Children once played with clay and blocks; now they’re playing with tablets and apps. On Thursday, December 8, KPCC In Person and ArtCenter College of Design presented “Fast Forward: Future of Play,” the third and final program in the “Fast Forward: Designing the Future” series. KPCC early childhood development correspondent Deepa Fernandes moderated a discussion with Johanna Stein, director of Global Foresights and Co-Creation Tools at Mattel; Kurtis Shureman, lead interaction designer at Disney Interactive Labs; and Krystina Castella, author of “Kidmania: 50 Things Every Designer Should Know about Kids.”
The evening’s discussion revolved largely around the dramatic shift from physical to digital play: how it’s happening and what it means for today’s children and society at large. The panelists said they were largely optimistic: Though play may look different now, its fundamental patterns and purposes remain unchanged. Moreover, the group discussed the many ways in which digital mediums of play may expand and improve its role in our world.
Johanna Stein, who monitors play’s changing consumer landscape for Mattel, started the conversation with a presentation on the drivers of change and the evolution of play in the 21st century. “In the past six years, tablets have gone from 0 percent use to 95 percent penetration among kids 3 to 12 in the U.S.,” Stein said. While that scale of technological change is changing the ways we interact with play, she said, it is not changing the fundamental patterns that define it, like competition, imagination, problem solving or creation. Neither is the fact that more people today seek experiences over items, Stein said; companies that design play are now challenged to create experiences that complement their products. “Play is magic...It’s timeless,” she said.
Krystina Castella, an ArtCenter professor who studies and writes about the psychological, cultural and cognitive considerations in designing play for children, agreed: The impulse to create and to encourage creation, particularly in the world of education, is still strong. Castella pointed to the introduction of the STEAM curriculum, which integrates arts into traditional STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning. Makers fairs, she said, are still incredibly popular. The panelists said their favorite elements of play as children were creative: Castella enjoyed knitting and making things, Kurtis Schureman of Disney Interactive enjoyed drawing (and skateboarding), and Stein enjoyed creating stories for her figurines.
The panelists described digital distribution as more of a solution than a problem. The potential for distributing educational content through apps and online is great, Castella said, adding the quality of creation is a separate factor. Castella also spoke to the potential for digital play to increase global access to information and communication. Children will be able to talk with and ask questions of people in far-off countries and continents, she said. When a Mandarin-speaking audience member asked about the potential for her child to have digital games that allow her to practice Mandarin and English, Castella predicted companies like Mattel and Disney would expand to new, foreign markets and adapt products for new cultures, they will begin to bring authentic products and ideas from other cultures back to the United States.
Asked about the impact on the digitization of play on the development of motor skills, moderator Deepa Fernandez noted that her reporting on the issue surprised her: tablets, and the fine motor movements they require, can also be useful in developing these same skills.
Kurtis Schureman, who develops next-generation products for Dinner Interactive Labs, said that the challenge and opportunity for digital companies now lies in bridging the gap between the physical and digital. In his current work, for example, Schureman works on using Disney stories and characters to help bring families together in their day-to-day activities.
No one spoke definitively on the issue of the environmental sustainability of traditional toys versus digital play. While interactive spaces may help to reduce waste (an app defect can be corrected and distributed quite easily, Schureman said) and online ordering can decrease packaging, Castella pointed out that the environmental impact of tablet and smartphone battery power is not insignificant.