Is there a digital solution to unstructured, creativity-enhancing play?

Can this be unstructured play?
Can this be unstructured play?
Image: Reuters/Michael Kooren
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Björn Jeffery, co-founder of Toca Boca children’s apps, is evangelical about the benefits of unstructured play. “It’s being treated as something that is not very important,” he tells Quartz. “It’s the thing you do to relax between Mandarin immersion classes.”

It’s an odd crusade for someone whose product puts kids in front of screens. But Jeffery believes that unstructured play can happen on a device if there are no goals, points, or wrong answers. “You can’t win, you can’t lose, there’s no explicit purpose to any of it,” he says.

His company’s 30 apps, including “Toca: Life City,” “Toca Blocks,” and “Toca Hair Salon: 2,” have been downloaded 100 million times, and on Christmas—a big day for app purchases—the company’s wares occupied all seven top slots for paid kids apps in Apple’s App Store.

The point of these apps is for kids to create things, from music to stories to hairstyles. The lack of a specific educational goal—increased literacy, improved math skills, and the like—is what makes the apps unique and, oddly, not intentionally educational.

“There is learning,” he tells Quartz. “But it is not educational. I would make a distinction, which is that education is a subset of learning.”

This is an unusual approach in a hyper-academic age in which many children’s apps make bold and dubious educational claims.

Who cares about play?

Watching kids play can be amusing, refreshing, and alarming. They make their own rules, establish their own hierarchies, and give meaning to things adults find pointless. A group of girls will spend hours pretending to be horses and riders with no apparent story line or purpose, or even any pretend riding. For the goal-oriented among us, the question is inevitably: where is this going?

For kids, there is often no point. “It is very hard to think like a child,” Jeffery says.

Advocates like Jeffery are quick to rattle off the benefits of play. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn: Why Releasing the Instinct to Lay will Make our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, writes:

Play is also the primary place where children develop their creative potentials. In play, children can experiment with new ways of thinking and acting, because they are free to fail; nobody is judging them except themselves.

Gray notes that when adults get involved, their inclination to judge or reward play changes its meaning. “Play, by definition, is activity that is self-chosen, self-directed, and conducted for no reward outside of itself,” he stresses.

On the decline

Multiple forces are conspiring to erode the time kids spend on unstructured play. Women work more, everyone works harder, and fears of danger abound. At the same time, increased competition for elite schools and high-paying jobs means parents apply intense focus on building academic skills, as well as honing their children’s credentials from a young age. Suzuki piano, soccer, Mandarin, and coding classes are more productive ways to spend an afternoon than making mud pies or building pillow forts.

Indeed, kids have lost 12 hours of free time per week since their parents were kids, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. And they are paying a price for their parents’ focus on academics and “productive” skills. Creativity is on the wane, says Kyung Hee Kim, a professor of education at the College of William and Mary. Her research shows a decline in US children’s creativity, at all grade levels, over the past 30 years. Other research shows kids who aren’t helicoptered from one activity to another show more agency, or “executive function.”

A digital playground?

But is an app really the best way to recapture free play?

Jeffery acknowledges that there are plenty of people who think screens are pacifying tools, putting kids in a trance-like state in which they stop interacting with others. To many, screens have replaced play in the zero-sum calculus of a kid’s day.

Not surprisingly, Jeffery disagrees. He sees the apps as giving kids powers that they would not otherwise use. “Toca Band” allows kids to make music. “Toca Life: City” allow kids to play in a dollhouse and record a narrative of what is happening in that dollhouse.

But aren’t these scenarios imposing order on what’s supposed to be unstructured play? Jeffery says the apps offer parameters for creativity—a kitchen, school, city, hair salon, or band—but it is up to kids to do something with them.

And if kids would prefer to go play outside, Jeffery is the first to acknowledge that they will drop their devices and do it without a second thought. “If they don’t like it, they leave to do something else.”