I was delighted to speak today at the Children’s Media Conference on the Connected Toy Story panel. My focus in the talk was on whether connected toys add value for children and how they affect their play behaviours. Here is a summary from CMC on the talk: http://www.thechildrensmediaconference.com/blog/2016/07/07/report-connected-toy-story/

My slides and summary of my talk are included below:

What is a Connected Toy?

A Connected Toy is one with both a physical and digital element to it. In most connected toys either the screen is acting as the controller/remote control (coding toys, robotics, virtual pets like Furby) or the toy is acting as the controller with the screen providing information/responses etc (like Tiggly or Osmo who also spoke on the panel). Sometimes you can have a bit of both. In an ideal world both the physical toy and digital screen are involved in adding value to the play experience in some way.  However, in many examples play transitions from off-screen to on-screen (or potentially vice versa) which the other form of play falling away – for example, with something like Skylanders focusing on NFC. Whilst these may be referred to as Connected Toys (or Toys to Life) I don’t really consider this to be connected play.

Do they add value?

Educational

As with many emerging areas, connected toys are appearing partly due to the technology push. It is not so much that children having been asking for these toys than that the technology has now made them feasible. Commercially they are seen as of potential interest too as they may be able to drive recurring revenues via digital, unlike one-off toy sales. However, getting the right proposition for children is proving difficult and seems to be pushing children towards yet more screen time – a genuine concerns.

Are they promoting more of this?

Or more of this?

What I believe, however, is that the right connected toys could help overcome the downsides of screen time and create products that are incredibly fun, engaging and educational.

The following videos from my research of Tiggly (as an Associate of Fundamentally Children) show a 3 year old playing Tiggly Maths and a (almost) 5 year old playing Tiggly Words. Notice how they refer to the physical toys. They are constantly looking between the screen and the physical products and selecting the right one, forcing them to involve physical, auditory and visual skills to support all learning styles.

When tested for Fundamentally Children, the parents (and our experts) were convinced that the children were learning from these products (see the quotes within my slides). Whilst the apps can be played without the physical toys, the physicality definitely appeared to add learning benefit.

Why? Because some people learn best with their hands. I know Tiggly themselves have done a lot of research into this and the importance of learning with your hands. There are 3 different learning styles and all of us have different dominance. Most screen based products support visual and auditory learners but leave the kinaesthetic learners behind. Connected EdTech products do not.

This isn’t the only way in which connected toys can support learning – e.g. simply being fun and allowing group play (unlike the 1-to-1 experience of a tablet)  can be really important, particularly in a classroom, to bring learning to life.

Encouraging other forms of play

Research shows most children play on tablets alone, sitting in one position for a reasonable length of time and that the total amount of time children are spending on screens is getting worryingly high. To combat excessive screen time it is important to promote a balanced play diet and get children from the tablet towards physical, imaginative, construction, and social play. Whilst some would argue that the screen element of connected toys pulls children from these activities towards the screen, I would instead encourage those of us within the industry to do all we can to ensure the push is the other way. If children are being increasingly drawn to screens, lets make toys that incorporate and so promote offline play, physical, imaginative, construction and social play. 

How to Connected Toy Affect Play Behaviours?

Firstly, it’s important to remember that this category of toy is in its infancy. Whilst tablets are now common in home, most children don’t have access to connected toys. It will take a while before the long term affects on play behaviour are fully understood.

Based on a range of small qualitative studies and product reviews for the Good Toy Guide / Good App Guide however we can provide some insights.

  • Children make less distinction between physical and digital play than adults do: while observing children playing a connected toy, I asked them what they think about it combining their iPad and the toy their answered show that this came pretty naturally. Comments like: “Well it wouldn’t work otherwise would it” and “it’s more fun than just doing it on the screen” show that this for them is an accepted mode of play. Success depends on whether the experience is any good, the fact that it combines physical and digital is not, in itself, a factor.
  • Good UX is key: another product tested during development underlined the important of UX. The product required a physical button to be press to open an on-screen menu and children simply couldn’t figure this out. Once this interaction was replaced with an on-screen button the entire product became more playable. The experience is one of many I’ve witnessed and it isn’t just about on-screen usability either. The whole experience end-to-end is critical, from getting it out of the box and understanding how it works/onboarding through to day-to-day play and even how/where the product is stored. The only way to get this right is through a user-centred design process with plenty of user testing.
  • Part of Screen time or not?: A major barrier to connected toys in some homes are the time limits set on screen time. Children can be reluctant to use up precious time on something on screen at the experience of their favourite game meaning it has to compete not just with their favourite toy but their favourite app/game too.
  • Can “turn off” imagination and thinking: beware of digital experiences that act as a series of instructions if you are hoping to encourage imaginative play/thinking/learning. Following instructions is hard in itself for children. Contrary to what you might expect, it encourages them to do what they are told and get it right rather than to think-outside-the-box or understand what they are really doing. Meaning it quickly turns off their imagination and thinking.

How to encourage longevity of play?

Connected Toys are often criticised for being gimmicks that fall quickly out of favour. Here are by quick tips to avoid this:

Design the physical toy to have a ‘home’ amongst other regularly used toys

In many homes connected toys don’t fit well with other toys, they are different and so struggle to find a place to ‘live’. They can be strange shapes and often aren’t sufficiently like other toys to be grouped with them. This means after the initial appeal where off they are often stuck at the back of a cupboard on their own so children don’t come across them and think of playing with them. Toys like Furby that were cuddly friends in their own right avoid this, or LEGO dimensions that fit nicely with the other LEGO.

Play led from the toy in my experience works better than the other way around for long term play. Children don’t tend to turn on the tablet, see an app associated with a physical toy then go get the toy – they take the easier route of a single tap to another game.

Effectively integrate physical and digital experiences

This could be the subject of a talk all on its own so I won’t dwell on it here. As I mentioned at the start, for a Connected Toy to be really successful as a Connected Toy both the physical and digital parts must add value. If one or other mode of play dominates it may still be an enjoyed toy but, in my view, it is not a success from a connected perspective. Play must transition the child naturally from digital to physical repeatedly with the child confident that both parts of the toy are vital to why it is enjoyed.

Ensure the toy is designed to be played long term with no end point

Connected Toys often suffer from having a ‘route’ to play that at some stage ends. For them to be successful play must have ‘high ceilings’, i.e. have scope for long term play and should grow with the player providing increasing opportunities as players become masters. Longevity can also be encouraged through launching a family of products with a consistent IP, encouraging collectability and an ongoing relationship with the brand. This can also help to fuel a child’s imagination, adding more enjoyment to their play through additional characters and features.

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