USC Annenberg Innovation Lab explores the future of play at Sandbox Summit

Sandbox Summit has spent the last five years creating a new type of playground for children by redefining traditional play patterns, as the lines between digital and physical play continue to blur. Sandbox Summit’s annual conference has brought industry leaders, educators and parents together to create a forum to create ways for children to incorporate technology into their play and become active innovators.

Sponsored by USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, Sandbox West was forged to bring the interdisciplinary Sandbox strategy to the West Coast. It took place from Oct. 12-13, 2015 at the California Science Center, just South of campus. The partnership is part of the school’s mission to be thought leaders in identifying and responding to the changes in how people communicate and engage with media, especially with how new technologies continue to reshape our world.  

“New issues about parenting continue to evolve as technology becomes embedded into their families' everyday lives,” said professor Erin Reilly, managing director and research fellow at USC Annenberg Innovation Lab. “We need to be ready to equip our children with the core cultural competencies and social skills needed in this rich media landscape and USC Annenberg is on the forefront of identifying these needs and responding with action.”

Moderated by Chris Denson, director of Ignition Factory at Omnicom Media Group USA, a panel of toy innovators delved into the new ways that children play and how the ways they learn will change too at “Playing with the Future.”

As an expert on the impact of changing play patterns and platforms, Reilly spoke on the panel and discussed how toys are not being replaced, but reenvisioned. She said that children still want the same things as they did before: to be creative and resourceful, to have prolonged interactions with their toys and have open-ended play where they can be imaginative.

Aslan Appleman, senior director of advanced concepts at Mattel, agreed with Reilly and said that since analog toys are not going anywhere, it is about using technology to augment play to be a more enjoyable and immersive experience.

“It’s not really just, ‘let’s jam technology down onto traditional play patterns,’” Appleman said. “It’s about how do we improve or deliver something new as the kid gets older, because they’re so enthralled with and immersed in technology in their lives.”

When Denson posed the question of how much is too much screen time for children, Reilly said, citing a recent report published by the American Pediatric Association, that the issue of determining the appropriate amount of screen time is not the right conversation to be having.

“It’s not about too much screen time, no matter what the age,” Reilly said. “It’s about what they’re actually doing with that technology. Is it affording play? Is it affording learning? It’s not that it’s an evil anymore, which we saw in media literacy 30 years ago.”

Instead of blaming technology for providing what is just another way to educate and engage us in play, Reilly said that we should ask questions like: “Are the parents engaged in the experience or if they are leaving the children to their own devices?” and “Are parents having conversations with their children about what they are playing with, how they are playing and why they are motivated to play with those things?”

While parents may be nervous that their children are interacting with technology at such a young age, Reilly urges parents to first and foremost give themselves permission to play. She pointed out that parents do not necessarily need to be the experts in the room, but can let their children guide the experience to foster collective intelligence in the home.

Dan Judkins, vice president of design and development of iPlay and mobile at Hasbro, commented on the relationship between parents and play.

“What we do see is that a lot of kids will engage their parents in what they’re doing,” Judkins said. “What we can do is design for co-play, for ways for parents to get involved.”

Judkins has even experienced this in his personal life. He told an anecdote of how his wife got stuck playing a My Little Pony iPad game because their daughter needed in-game currency to show the connection that play can foster between children and parents.

To hold on to the child-like wonder and curiosity, Anki’s Chief Creative Officer Joby Otero said that he believes in having a mentality of “fun first.” He said that we find certain things to be fun even if we do not understand why, so he lets evolution guide him in finding a balance between education and play.

“We try to find the fun that is most universal,” Otero said. “Then, we can bring the parents and educators and everybody else along, especially if you then give them the tools via an SDK to figure out how they can tune your new brand of fun for their particular context.”

For adults, Judkins encouraged creating a work environment where play is not frowned upon and is part of the work. He said that play helps people in any industry feel inspired to continue striving toward innovation.

The panel concluded with Otero’s comment that a meaningful play experience should lead you to ask new questions and Reilly’s last words of advice to be curious and ask any question, no matter how dumb or smart.