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Consider play patterns when designing toys for the future

When I first started the Toy Pioneers Club, I wanted to provide a platform to help the dreamers, forward-thinkers, and innovators of the world succeed in making toys which benefit the children of the future. This vision, along with the arrival of World Play Day, a much-needed yearly event celebrating the benefits of play, got me thinking: how do you set about the arduous task of designing toys which teach future concepts ranging from computational thinking to cultural communication? It’s a searching question, and to begin tackling it I wanted to dig a little deeper into the importance of play as the foundation of any good learning experience, a notion I touched upon in last month’s blog post.

Photograph of a girls hands playing with Cubetto

Designing toys for the 21st century naturally implies that you are creating something ‘new’ and never before seen, which can be a scary undertaking. From experience, the best place to start is with deconstructing the concept you are trying to teach. In other words, breaking it down into its most simplistic form in order to later identify which ‘play patterns’ would be best to pair the concept with. Using Cubetto as an example, before the team was able to design a solution to teach the principles of computational thinking (CT), it was first key for us to understand the fundamentals of CT as broken down into four parts:

1. Decomposition

Breaking down a complex problem or system into smaller, more manageable parts

2. Pattern Recognition

Looking for similarities among and within problems

3. Abstraction

Focusing on the important information only, ignoring irrelevant detail

4. Alogorithms

Developing a step-by-step solution to the problem, or the rules to follow to solve the problem

Photograph of Cubettos being assembled in a Chinese factory

The four fundamentals of CT provided a base which underpinned the ensuing interactions of the Cubetto ecosystem, from the blocks and board to storyline, booklet exercises and educational lesson plans. Understanding these parts allowed us as a team to develop play patterns which facilitated a broader scope of play, catering to child users at different stages of development. On the flipside, a more superficial understanding of CT would have limited our ability to identify useful play patterns, and would have resulted in the decreased usability and impact of Cubetto’s ecosystem.

Once you have deconstructed the parts forming each concept, how then do you go about identifying the relevant play patterns? This is an exercise specific to each toy, but I have outlined three future-facing play patterns worth considering below, and ones that were fundamental to Cubetto:

1. Cause & Effect

This describes the causal relationship between two things, where the action of one results in the other or others occuring. Understanding the relationship between cause and effect is a vital critical thinking skill used in all aspects of life. In our attempt to make sense of the world, natural phenomena, and human behavior, we often turn to cause and effect.

2. Suprise Factor

Delivering the unexpected or, otherwise termed, the ‘wow’ factor. The element of surprise will keep a child coming back to play again and again. However, it also holds a deeper purpose. When a child is in the exploratory phase of surprise, it can help them to adopt a stance of curiosity, asking the questions of ‘how’ and ‘why’ instead of seeking an immediate answer. This encourages a more critical approach to problem-solving, in turn leaving children more open to worldview shifts.

3. Matching & Sorting

Matching and sorting activities help children to develop a range of thinking skills. They also build the foundations for later concepts. The visual memory and discrimination involved and the identification of similarities, differences, patterns and relationships help children to learn about early representation and problem-solving. Matching and sorting activities can also be good for developing fine motor skills.

I would be keen to hear your ideas on which concepts and play patterns work best together or, alternatively, how you would go about implementing the above!


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