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Vanessa Van Petten on The Future of Play

As toy and game inventors, we spend our days brainstorming ways to create the next big thing in the toy biz ... or at least one that’ll make a ripple. Enter the digital playspace and the kids who play in it – The Future of Play. A real game changer for toy and game inventors, it’s a space that demands our attention, technologically savvy creativity, and the know-how to develop innovative and interactive toys, games and brands that will translate into awesome fun. We need to create to integrate.

Vanessa Van Petten is a “Youthologist” who provides the perfect prescription for the Future of Play. She started her award-winning website, at age 16 as a way to give parenting advice from a kid’s perspective. Today at age 25, Vanessa and over 150 teen contributors help thousands of parents build and maintain healthy relationships with their kids. A regular CNN columnist, and quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Teen Vogue, MSN Money and many others, Vanessa has been featured on The Dr. Drew Show, CBS News, Fox News, The Doctors, The Real Housewives of Orange County and more for her unique, qualified insights on today’s youth.

Here’s what Vanessa has to say about The Future of Play:

Doesn’t it seem that as kids get older, play seems to become less important? As grades become more important, standardized tests become more abundant and college admissions get more competitive, playing seems to fall by the wayside. Kids as young as six and seven now come home to hours of homework, bed time, recitals and tutors so they no longer have time to play. As I prepared for my presentation at the Sandbox Summit at MIT in late April on how play has changed, I was able to speak to many parents and kids about play in their own home. See the video of my presentation here:

My research for the presentation as well as my preparation to speak on a panel at the Read, Write, Web Conference this June, has led me to write a post about where play is going. Hopefully this will encourage us to gather together as a community of teachers, parents, game developers and brands to make sure that play moves in a positive direction for our children, not a negative one. Before I take a look at where we hope play is going and what it is like now, let’s take a look at the history of play.

Play In the Olden Days:


Many parents reminisced to me about the ‘olden days’ where they spent hours in the backyard or running around their neighborhood with sand filling their shoes and scrapes on their knees. Play outside, except on rainy days, was almost always preferable to indoor play—by both parents and kids alike.


There was very little ability to play ‘online’ back in the day. You couldn’t really ‘play’ with the TV or radio, so TV or electronic time and play time was separate.


Games like Hide and Seek and Tag almost always required many kids from the neighborhood or family. When neighborhoods were safer, families lived closer and many siblings was more prevalent play was almost always group oriented.


Parents often speak about the lack of toys in the home during their childhood compared to the abundant amount of toys in kid’s rooms today. This forced them to come up with their own imaginary games, obstacle courses and characters.

Play Today:


Children often integrate their online devices into their offline world. For example, kids will have a playdate with a friend via Skype playing with legos…both offline play through a device. Or kids will watch videos and mimic them off screen.


Play has turned very individualistic with the advent of cell phone games, personal gaming devices and iPads. Kids go into their ‘play bubble’ as parents call it when it is them and their screen for games.


I actually rarely hear kids say that they are bored. Play has become instant with the amount of technology and devices that are readily available at all times.


In recent years many parents have put a huge emphasis on making games educational. There has been a surge of games and apps released that teach reading skills, math techniques and are ‘brain builders.’

Play of the Future: (Hopefully)


I hope that we can integrate technology with offline life. Instead of having kids glued to their devices, lets involve technology and real life play. A great example is geo-caching. This is when you can do a real life scavenger hunt using gps coordinates on your phone or GPS device.


Instead of having mind-numbing or purely skill building games, I hope that we are moving towards games that encourage creativity and problem solving. These kinds of games are more interactive and great for kids.


We have to teach kids how to savor their play. Instead of hopping from one game to the next, more games are emphasizing mastery and skill building on a deeper level. This teaches kids that the harder they work, the greater the reward and achievement feels.


With the advent of the Wii, I believe family play is going to become much more popular. Devices, games and technology is going to be less for individual play and more oriented towards group fun.

I think as a society play has become less important as even kindergarteners begin to think about their resumes and skill building. I hope we can begin to emphasize play and shift it to more positive forms of creative, family oriented, savor-able play time.

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