Sunday, April 14, 2013

Technologizing Childhood

Technologizing Childhood, when everyone seems to want it, is it wrong?

Time spent watching video content, playing all forms of gaming, searching the web for fun and information and virtualization of many parts of physical play are steadily invading childhood and replacing physical play and exploration time for our kids with captivating technological experiences.

Parents and even caregivers are equal parts excited and anxious about bringing technology and virtual experiences into their children’s lives starting practically at birth.

All kids are biological beings evolved to grow their brains and bodies through years worth of physical and conceptual explorative experiences. Just because we can change what they are largely spending their time doing during those important formative years, should we?

Because the kids themselves seem drawn to those experiences does it mean they are OK? There seems to be big business here so I should jump in and get tech and virtual experiences happening throughout my franchise plan, right?

Well yes and no. Yes, we need to move into the technological future briskly. No, this is far more than a competitive issue because our kid’s minds and bodies are at stake.

Since I am in the business of Meta-story creation, management and development, I see a lot of these questions and concern as they arise during the process of franchise creation and management. I also have a lot of experience developing entertainment and products for kids of all ages. I’d like to share with you some concepts and guiding principles that I believe help to bring understanding and insight into the discussions about technology and virtual experiences in kid’s franchises.

Listed below are my 5 guiding principles and 4 key concepts that help to talk about the what, how and why of this subject.

My guiding principles for kids and tech:
  • 1.    Technology changes, biology doesn’t
  • 2.    Listen to the kid experts. Everyone else might be rationalizing.
  • 3.    Kids are the future and Tech is the future, kids should play with APPROPRIATE tech, SUPERVISED!
  • 4.    Too much tech is bad. Encourage balance.
  • 5.    Remember to help Mom’s from the high road

Key concepts:
  • 1.    Playdar – Play’s job is to identify what’s important in a child’s world and play with it.
  • 2.    Tech Candy : Tasty tech fun for kids with little nutrition for brain development.
  • 3.    The Kid-tech gold rush – kidco’s rush to tech as antidote for solving change disruption.
  • 4.    Genius validation – Toddler’s ability to adapt to tech, triggers parent’s dreams of brilliance.

So let’s dive in and have a deeper discussion.

Technology changes, biology doesn’t (Principle #1). 
It’s a very simple concept that clears up a lot of conjecture, debate and misinterpreted observation. Human beings have been through countless millennia of evolution to finely tune our genetics and childhood development to use the physical world around us to properly grow our bodies and brains. There is a direct relationship between all the different kinds of physical movement, tactile experiences, environmental exploration and more that builds specifics parts of the brain at specific times during our first several years of life. What adults can and should do with their time is not analogous to what is good or healthy for our kids whose brains grow to over three times it’s birth size within the first few years and who’s bodies must learn to teach the brain about simple concepts that then build the increasingly complex understanding that eventually becomes the adult human mind and being. 

We have to build the road before we can drive on it.

“Tech Candy,” exciting and compelling tech experiences that draw us and our kids like moths to a flame but can starve the developing aspects of the child-mind, is perhaps one of the fastest growing elements in our play-purchase landscape today. I often see parents and play makers alike making decisions about what their children would like based on what they find interesting or compelling. Part of our adult play landscape is meant to relax and distract us for a while. It is the definition of Tech Candy and is just fine for us in reasonable amounts. It simply isn't all that great for our youngest kids and can become a problem in larger and repeated exposures.

Listen to the kid experts. Everyone else might be rationalizing (principle #2). 
If you search, you can piece together volumes of articles and questions about how to think about young children and technological experiences that can lead you to doubt that there is much of a problem to be concerned about. Kids like it so why not? We'll put it out there and let mom's decide. Because there is so much money at stake at the intersection of kids and technology and because there are so many companies moving into this business, many of whom are not versed in child development, a lot of partial truths and omission are creating headlines in the media. It is of paramount importance that those of us who are actually creating plan and product for the young children's industry are holding ourselves and what we do to a more rigorous standard. I can't recommend this highly enough:

Always consult the developmental experts!

They can help you to navigate what is appropriate and what is a possible issue for the developing children of the age you are making and distributing to. As more information from these experts becomes more and more public, and as the regulatory environment adopts and enforces doctrine based on this knowledge, you will want to land on the right side of these issues. If the decision has a possible impact on children's health, then it is no place to be too experimental with your plans.

Additionally, the entire kids entertainment and products industries are undergoing constant, seismic-level change. ( In an effort to find some stabilizing approach around which to plan and manage brands and business, as an industry we're susceptible to the “kid-tech gold rush” where companies are diving into product and distribution options that are tech driven as an antidote for the terrible change disruption everyone is experiencing.

 To be clear, I believe strongly that it is important to be “in the game” and to learn how to move much more quickly. It’s also equally important not to rush to tech without being darned sure of its impact on the children we are bringing our product to. Keep that voice in the room when the heated competitive discussions are happening.

There is a lot of research and practical work that has been done by some quite brilliant and caring experts in these areas and these folks have not been shy about telling us what transplanting tech into these free-form physical growth experiences may be doing to our children. Here’s just a few:

·      Gill Connell –Moving Smart

·      Dr. Madeline Levine -Teach Your Children Well

·      The American Academy of Pediatrics –No Screen Time Before Two

·      Dimitri Christakis – Media and children

Kids are the future and Tech is the future (Principle #3)
So kids should play with APPROPRIATE tech, SUPERVISED!

I’m telling you, my daughter is a genius! She’s only 18 months old and when I put an ipad in front of her she was swiping her finger and navigating around my games within a minute! She giggles and laughs and it’s just amazing. I let her play with it a lot now. This new generation is just growing up with this stuff and they’re gonna be so good at it!”

I’ve been on the receiving end of a number of exhortations just like this from parents about their seemingly technologically brilliant children several times in the past year. You tube is loaded with videos of this kind of “genius validation” of proud and amazed parents showing off their precocious children’s almost unbelievable acuity with operating mobile touch technology. Some have even become Internet sensations showing what seem to be toddlers with an understanding of the electronic ephemera of the digital world before they have mastered the mundane physical world.

What looks like genius is really what I like to call “Playdar” at work. It is a kid’s inborn targeting system for their curiosity, helping them to focus on what is important and useful in the world they see around them. It’s part of the mechanism that insures our children adapt generation after generation, to be successful wherever and whenever they are born. Watch a toddler when he or she is shown a set of plastic and rounded play-keys at the same time he or she is shown the real keys his mom keeps in her purse and uses to open and start things. The Toddler will unerringly keep going after the real keys. They want to understand them and play with them in every possible way. We’re actually wired at birth to find great pleasure in exploring and discovering THE REAL WORLD. That’s what play is, joyful exploration. Our minds won’t grasp certain concepts or build certain structures unless we PHYSICALLY experience the underlying elements first!
Because Playdar is always on, It should come as no surprise then that our children see us on our cell phones, tablets and computers and are equally drawn to those devices. It’s not because there is something genetically different about this latest generation. It’s because the environment is loaded with tech and we’re using it in critical and constant ways signaling to our kids that these things are important.

Playdar can sense what’s important in a child’s world…however, Playdar doesn’t know when or how much of something is good or not. That’s what parents are for.

You wouldn’t let a child play with a sharp knife at 5 months old even though it’s shiny and your child’s playdar sees you using it to prepare dinner. They just aren’t ready for it yet are they? Tech experiences don't cut you and they make us smile and laugh so we don't see them as inappropriate or doing any harm.

I believe it’s very important that we show the same responsibility about technology and our children as with everything else in their lives that needs monitoring and metering.

The very important reason why we must endeavor to make, sell and use toddler and preschool tech carefully is that for the first time in the history of human beings, we can create compelling and immersive experiences that children are drawn to, that can cause  deficits in the developing brain and body of our young children if they are allowed to access those experiences either too young or too frequently at certain ages!

Too much tech is bad. Encourage balance. (Principle #4)
Too much of anything is bad and for a young developing mind, this is critically true for tech. It starves a young mind and body of the multitudes of different kinds of physical, kinesthetic, personal and emotionally variable experiences they need to develop. Remember the Baby Einstein videos problem? Time spent watching those videos for babies subtracted from vocabulary development over time.

That doesn’t mean that some tech can’t be accessible to the child. We just need to make sure it’s in small increments with limited exposure and that the tech, whenever possible, encourages some real world interaction and is appropriate for the age of child (again, not below 2). Here are some simple goals to try and achieve as often as possible:

·      Avoid lots of mini-games or short but wildly kinetic activities or video cuts. Think more like Mister Rogers. Gentle transitions with clarity and purpose.

·      Cause and effect should be clear – Magical effects are attractive but don’t teach any real cause and effect. Simple things like cows going Moo and things behaving like the real world help.

·      Stop trying to drill for skill too young. At too young an age, this is pandering to parents desire for content to be “educational.”  There is good evidence that early childhood is really for experiencing, moving and exploring as much as possible and getting “exposed” to concepts and ideas. Mastery of math, letters and memorizing largely levels out once kids are in school so prepping them to be ahead doesn’t really work. In fact there is evidence that “free range kids” have a learning advantage when they get to school because their experiences have grown the right mind-body connections to maximize intelligence.

·      Engage Mom and Dad – Any kind of video or tech experience that can actively involve Mom, Dad or any other caregiver, is a much richer and healthier experience. Kids need to look at human faces and to have adults name things for them and discuss/play things with them. For every minute a passive tech experience can slow a child’s development, that same minute spent interacting with a caregiver can have twice the developmentally positive value. A little mom and dad goes a long way to balancing benefits.

·      Understand what your curriculum is – There are very knowledgeable child development experts that can be consulted to insure your technological experience, narrative and ergonomics are being done properly for the age of child you are creating for and for the benefit you are trying to achieve. Don’t oversell your tech to parents as being a magical solution. It can have it’s proper place.

Remember to help Mom’s from the high road (Principle #5)
There is so much contrary noise in the marketplace and media that parents are conflicted in terms of how to think and act about Tech for their kids. It’s important for business, but more importantly, for the future of our kids, that anyone working in the kids and family entertainment and product business take the high road when making and marketing to kids.
·      Consult the experts. Don’t think you know better and don’t think because you like it that it’s OK for kids.
·      Help educate parents and caregivers to do the right thing.
·      Make your entertainment or product a positive tool for use with clear guidelines.
·      Innovate on behalf of healthy child development

In summary:
Responsibility isn’t about keeping all tech away from kids but it is about when they use it and what they find when they get there.
Educate yourself about what kids need and then help to educate the parents.

Now let's go innovate, create, distribute and sell and move things into the future!

Friday, February 8, 2013

Toys, mobile and persistent experiences

Just yesterday I gave a talk at the NYC Kidscreen Conference for the Kids Entertainment and Play Industries. In my talk I spoke about Meta-story and how it is the evolution of the storytellers craft for a world full of many different forms and formats of narrative and play.

I also spoke to how the modern kids who we are creating for are:
"immersion natives" 
(An insight and phrase I exposed publicly at the conference and a subject of a post coming shortly). Hold that phrase in your head and let's momentarily leap over to a key observation about where play and gaming, digital and analog, are being mixed together, not so terribly well as of yet.

The entire world of toys and gaming is very busy trying to work out what the right combination of physical goods and electronic experience/gaming is to really deliver the next big thing for play. I'm sure by now, most of you are aware of the stunning success of Skylanders (from Activision).

This is a toy and game concept that has rapidly grown to a billion dollars in sales in a very short period of time. Clearly something here has worked and worked well. Equally of interest, the vast majority of connected toy, toy and pad, phone or platform concepts that have been fielded by some of the biggest companies in the play and game industries have failed and failed big. I've posted an article from the Wall Street Journal online at the end of this post and a link to the original article entitled "Toys and Apps are yet to play nice together!" This article lays out the facts and failures.

So what is it that Skylanders got right that most everyone else missed and why am I talking about this in a blog about Meta-story?

Allright, let's go racing back to that phrase "immersion natives" and make the connection here. Kids today are immersion natives because that's what they are seeking and shaping from the many different screens and fantasy/narrative formats now available to them. The entertainment and play industry tends to drive their behaviors with deep concern over distribution platforms, fragmenting viewership, constant release of disruptive technology and on and on. They tend to look at the audience, the kids as being in the same boat and the truth is exactly the opposite.

Human beings are not born Jack Rabbits! 

We don't move into childhood seeking to jump around rapidly from idea to idea, thing to thing, second by second. Our brains are in the business of growing a human being so it's busy organizing, finding patterns, making connections, defining who we are or might be and hanging on to those things to build our minds and psyches on them. Our brains, from the moment we are born, are organizing machines.

That means that kids are seeking the most "immersive" experiences to wrap themselves in because those experiences most closely match the business their brain is engaged in. How do you make something that works well for humans? Make it work like a human!!

Let's refine that understanding: Action figures have always been a form of experiential narrative.  Kids can put their hands on the figure and insert themselves into the fantasy to directly "experience" and try it on for themselves. It is a personal narrative that draws from the public narrative that inspired them. For years, it was the most compelling way for a child to do that. Along comes digital play and suddenly, immersion gets taken to a whole new level! Action figures start to decline (and continue to do so today) because they don't deliver the level of immersion in experiential narrative play that the electronics now do. Action figures won't ever go away completely but kids are smart and know when something else can do something better and now some of their dollars go to gaming to fulfill their need for immersion.

Let's introduce the second concept at play here:
This is exactly what Skylanders got right. persistence of narrative. When you place the figure onto the gaming platform, that figure enters the game. When you finish, everything that has happened to you goes with you via the figure to your friends, your bedroom, wherever you go. Start the game again and it's all there with that figure! The narrative and the experience are persistent!! This is a powerful thing to a young mind busy looking for immersion, constancy, inspiration, self-discovery, on and on!! It wraps it all in a figurine that can still deliver some of the experiential narrative exploration so both halves of the equation aren't fighting each other for your attention or splitting your play pattern in two.

Compare this to so many of the other turns up at bat. Toys as joy stick, toys as input device, pad as spinner in a physical game, toy as game reward...
Where's the persistence of experience? Where's the immersion? For the same reason that e-books full of mini-games actually hold the child/reader's attention less and result in less reading comprehension, discontinuous experiences shatter your internal narrative (and the one the product is trying to deliver) and make the experience less immersive rather than more.

I believe Skylanders is just the very teeny tiny tip of the iceberg of possibilities for increasingly immersive and persistent narratives and play. To be successful at this, I also believe the entertainment and play industries need to do some serious redefinition of what business they are in to focus on these insights and deliver what the audience wants. Are they in the toy business or in the business of delivering the experiential component of the narratives we grow our brains with? The answer leads to very different results.

I always like to keep in mind that we can effect culture but we don't get to change how the audience uses it, they change us.  

For me, the most exciting aspect of this discussion is that stories, human mythology, are even more important in terms of what is the thread that binds this convulsively altering media landscape together. Kids will continue to reward stories and products that give them inspiration and immersion, persistence and personalization. Meta-story is how you build that broader narrative.

BTW, Skylanders are moving to mobile now as well. Persistent play anytime anywhere? Smart! I hope it plays well and immersively.

Last year, trying to show how the toy industry could remain relevant in the tablet age,Hasbro Inc. unveiled an iPad-enhanced version of its classic Game of Life. Instead of spinning a wheel in the center of the board game to take a turn, players spun a wheel on the iPad.

The idea bombed.

And it wasn't alone. More than 90% of the so-called app toys that were trotted out last year sold poorly, estimates Jim Silver, editor in chief of, a consumer and trade website. Among the other flops, Mattel Inc. outfitted Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels cars with special conductors to control games on a tablet.

The burning question was why have a hybrid, combining some aspect of a tablet with an actual physical toy or game, when a tablet alone will do?

"Kids looked at these plastic toys used to run digital games and said, 'Why bother when I can just use my thumbs?'" says Mr. Silver.

Toy makers plan to keep trying, though. Experts predict the growing digital divide will be the talk of this year's International Toy Fair in New York next week, as toy company executives unveil their latest plans to win back the attention traditional toys are losing to gadget makers such as Apple Inc.
Jakks DreamPlay, shown above, is a combination of a tablet app that interacts with related plastic toys to generate animated video content.

Mattel will show off a Barbie vanity and iPad app that allows girls to try out hairstyles.

At last month's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Jakks Pacific Inc.,a Malibu, Calif., toy company known for its tech-powered Spy Net gadgets, displayed a line called DreamPlay. DreamPlay uses image-recognition software in a tablet app to link to related plastic toys—a toy piano or a drum set, for instance.

With DreamPlay, when a device's camera points at the drum set from Disney's "Little Mermaid," the crab Sebastian appears to sit at the drums on the tablet screen while banging out a rendition of "Under the Sea."

Sean McGowan, an analyst at Needham & Co., thinks it is a little too high-concept for kids.

"I don't think children play with toys and look at a screen at the same time," he said.

Stephen Berman, CEO of Jakks, said, "Those who have not seen the full Eco-system of this technology cannot fully grasp or appreciate how revolutionary the experience is," noting that Jakks has an exclusive licensing partnership with Walt Disney Co."Toys and technology have to change to the way kids play today."

A Mattel spokeswoman didn't dispute the estimate of the failure rate of last-years app toys. Hasbro didn't respond to requests to comment.

Overall toy sales including electronics have remained relatively steady at around $17 billion according to market researcher NPD Group. But traditional toys such as board games and baby dolls have lost market share in the U.S., where consumers are spending 30% less on them than they did in 1998 according to research firm Euromonitor International.

Meanwhile tablets and educational videogames from companies such as LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. have become some of the industry's biggest sellers, accounting for four of the top 10 toys sold last Christmas, NPD says.

Gerrick Johnson, a toy analyst at BMO Capital Markets, argued that companies need to make more innovative toys instead of trying to tack technology on existing ones. He said too many toy makers played it safe last year, rehashing old franchises such as Furby dolls instead of launching new ones.

That trend is expected to continue next week at the toy fair, where one of the new products being launched are re-imagined toys based on Jim Henson's 1980s live-action puppet series, "Fraggle Rock."

"If Furby and Ninja Turtles is the best they can come up, the industry is in trouble," Mr. Johnson said.

To be sure, some classic toys continue to sell well, notably Lego. Lego sales have surged after the closely held Danish company licensed hot properties such as "The Hobbit" and developed a line for girls called Lego Friends. The company said U.S. sales rose 26% last year and predicted it was on track to hit $4 billion in annual global sales, which would put it within striking distance of supplanting Hasbro as the world's second-largest toy maker.

In contrast, on Thursday, Hasbro reported 2012 sales dropped 4.6% globally, to $4.09 billion, pushing net income down 13% to $336 million. Mattel last week said full-year net income rose 1% to $777 million on a 2% rise in sales.

Child development experts are still studying how mobile devices affect children's cognitive and social skills. But most are in agreement that tech-focused play shouldn't come at the expense of physical activity, face-to-face social interaction and creative play.

The amount of time children spend consuming entertainment media via myriad screens has increased by almost 1 ½ hours a day since 2005—to about 7 ½ hours a day, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report.
Write to Ann Zimmerman at and John Kell
A version of this article appeared February 8, 2013, on page B6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Toys and Apps Are Yet to Play Nice Together.