Frog Design: The Four Secrets of Playtime That Foster Creative Kids

Our world is increasingly filled with play that makes kids passive consumers instead of active creators. Here’s how we can change that.


This is the second post in a new series, produced by Frog Design, drawn from their publication, Design Mind. The theme of the current issue — from which this essay is drawn — is “And Now the Good News.” It presents ideas flowing from the most recent TED Global conference.


I still remember an early job interview I had at Trilogy in 1998. Back then, the software maker was dubbed “Insanity Inc.” by Fast Company because of its late work nights and legendary retreats to Vegas. Trilogy was hiring like mad to keep up with demand and was looking for ‘young, talented overachievers with entrepreneurial ambition and chutzpah.’ During my interview I was asked to write a line of programming code on a whiteboard in front of five people. Then I was directed to “Brainstorm all the possible things you can do with bubble wrap.” Bubble wrap? TEDGlobal 2009 speaker Daniel Pink would later call this using a “whole new mind.” For me, it was an exhilarating reminder of the relevance of open-ended play and the continuing need for workplace creativity.

There is a myth, common in American culture, that work and play are entirely separate activities. I believe they are more entwined than ever before. As the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.” A playful mind thrives on ambiguity, complexity, and improvisation?the very things needed to innovate and come up with creative solutions to the massive global challenges in economics, the environment, education, and more.

So, my question is, “Are our children getting the play they need to thrive in the 21st century?” According to reports from sources such as Harvard University, Time magazine, Newsweek, and The Futurist, the answer is no.


In 2007, Howard Chudacoff, a professor of History at Brown University, wrote a book called Children at Play: An American History, in which he identified a disturbing trend suggesting that play is changing dramatically from a world invented by children to a world prescribed by parents and other adults. He discovered that “the resourcefulness of children’s culture has eroded, as children have become less skilled at transforming everyday objects into playthings.” Plato once said, ‘Necessity is the mother of invention.’ What do our children really need to invent for themselves in such a manufactured, overly structured world? While an African child might be monetarily poor compared with his European counterpart, I would argue that he is richer in play because he must invent the very ball he tosses or kicks around. Children in the US simply go to Walmart. From education to play consumption, we have unknowingly created a society of more game players rather than game designers ?and that’s an important distinction.

How can we get our youngest to embrace being designers rather than just players?

Jane McGonigal, a futurist, game designer, and TED speaker, recently said, “[Game players] are people who believe they are individually capable of changing the world. ‘ The only problem is they believe they are capable of changing virtual worlds and not the real world.’ In a recent magazine interview, a reporter asked Eric Zimmerman, a game designer and the author of Rules of Play, ?What do you like best about being a game player?” He responded, “A game player” Wow. I have to say that I think I like being a designer more than a player. Maybe that’s because as a designer, you’re also playing.? Essentially, while players may feel empowered in the game; designers are empowered by making the game?and that has huge ramifications for society. The former works well when rules and boundaries are important to follow (as in an industrial economy). The latter is better suited for a complex future that constantly redefines reality (as in the creative economy). How then can we get our youngest generation to embrace the role of designer rather than player? Fundamentally, it starts by letting children be the inventors of play.

Consider a simple example: John De Matteo, a teacher at Manhattan Academy of Technology (MAT) is considered one of the most innovative instructors in the New York educational system. When he joined MAT, there was no after-school sports program. Within in six years, the school went from having zero activities to supporting 20 sports and 32 teams. How did he accomplish this amazing feat? He credits the program’s success to the students, who invented their own games. Some of the games, like Capture the Farm Animal (which involves rubber chickens, balls and lots of running), are so creative that he has added them to his curriculum and teaches them to others around the country. In a recent interview De Matteo said, “I don’t want [my students] to be limited by what is already out there. I want them to think completely different than what is traditional. It doesn’t stop with school. They learn to become agents of change wherever they go. I may be creating an army of kids that feel like they can change the world, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”


There is an American myth that work and play are entirely separate activities.

Like De Matteo, all adults ultimately need to re-imagine how we can enable and support these future “change agents.” The answer may lie in four foundational pillars of play: open environments, flexible tools, modifiable rules, and superpowers.

Open Environments

An open environment is not the same as an enriched one: being open does not mean providing more stimuli. Rather, open environments are those in which the child gets to be the author and the medium is open to interpretation.

Very good examples of open environments might be the Adventure Playgrounds in Europe or the new Imagination Playgrounds in New York. These playscapes are, according to reviews, “designed to encourage child-directed, unstructured free play.” The most egregious example of closed play is a toy like the electronic version of Simon Says, which is modeled after the timeless verbal game in which one player calls out directives to the others in the game. With the battery-operated version, what children might make up in the moment has been reduced to them merely repeating color patterns chosen by an electronic device.

Open and closed environments can be applied to our digital worlds as well. But many virtual creations only allow us to be empowered in a game defined by someone else. Take Webkinz World, a virtual universe in which your stuffed animal has its own online avatar. Game players can earn credits to spend on decorating their virtual pet’s rooms. In this model, being a player, and not a creator, is rewarded and reinforced.


Thankfully, there are more open environments on the horizon. Games like Ridemakerz and Xtractaurs are trying to bridge the physical-digital divide, while also enabling creators to design some aspects of their play. Shidonni, Spore, and Scribblenauts are truly embracing the open and digital potential. With them, the play is so unlimited no one cares that someone else wrote the rules. Kids get to design their own games in real time with Scratch, Kodu, Kerpoof, and Alice. LEGO Mindstorms, Pleo, and the Spy Tracker System from Wild Planet enable authors to write their own software applications for physical products.

Whether physical or digital, there is a reason kids spend hours in a sandbox but only minutes on a Moon Sand Construction Theme kit. Even they know the difference between an open environment and a manufactured one.

Flexible Tools

Part of being open is being flexible. Technology has given us a whole new set of tools, though they’re being used in ways not necessarily planned for. Phone cameras, for example, have created an army of roaming reporters who upload news as it happens. The fact that people can find different ways of using technology?and that the technology is flexible enough to allow for this exploration?is the key for innovation and invention. I would say the same should be true for physical materials in a child’s play environment. A crayon can be used for drawing anything, but it can also be melted and re-sculpted into something completely different. Consider the electronic Simon game mentioned previously: It is completely rigid, with a prescribed way to play. A simple modification that would allow a child to record his or her own directives would invite invention, ideation, and exploration.


Modifiable Rules

Being open and flexible within parameters is necessary and even helpful, but what happens when the parameters themselves no longer fit our needs? Should our kids be able to change the rules? Don’t get me wrong, rules can be necessary. My mother was a teacher for twenty years, so I fully appreciate the fine balance between learning and discipline that is required in any classroom. Yet I grow concerned when the daily folder my child brings home focuses on rewarding the following behaviors: walk quietly, keep hands to self, raise hand before speaking, and sit still in chair. Instead, I’d like to see a second folder promoting things like: had an original idea, created a new game on the playground, made up a story, solved a problem for a friend, or invented something uncommon from a common object. De Matteo would agree. “Classroom management is important,” he says. “But it’s not more important than raising a student body who can do things for themselves and think freely. If [students] see a school that has all this opportunity laid out for them, they realize the possibilities are endless. As long as we are constantly forcing them to do activities, even though they learn, when they get out on their own they aren’t going to be able to think for themselves.”

Our children have gotten really good at following rules, but where will they learn that sometimes it’s best to break them? I would argue that it’s our responsibility to show them how and praise them when they do it.

We aren’t born with playful minds, we create them.



Using the analogy of kids as game designers, we can consider the environments, tools, and rules as pieces or parts of the game to manipulate. But what a child does with those inputs is largely determined by the strategies, skills, and powers he or she wields. In the book To Play or Not to Play: Is It Really a Question?, author Doris Bergen suggests that play sculpts the brain and that clinical indications will soon become valid for the science of play behavior. It’s crucial to understand that we aren’t born with playful minds, we create them.

Ask a group of kindergarteners if they have superpowers. Half might say, “none,” and the other half would wonder. I feel sure at least one would say, “I can fly.” By fifth grade the very question would probably be met with scorn. And who could blame them? Most parents and teachers wouldn’t even think to suggest such a thing could be possible. Our culture reinforces this message of improbability with perfectly packaged cinematic characters that are larger than life. Yet, children yearn for something more.

Children don’t want to live vicariously through a character?they want to be the real-life superhero. I recently sat down with the CEO of a US-based toy company, and he agreed with me. When his firm conducted research on the packaging for a line of spy gear, children were asked who they most wanted to be. Spy Kids? James Bond? The resounding feedback was that the children wanted to be the spies themselves, not the character. So the company introduced its spy gear with packaging that depicts real kids being super sleuths.

Children also want to develop powers of their own. Of course, I?m not talking about having laser eyes or sprouting wings, but in a world that teaches them rules for the first 18 years, it’s no wonder they might want power. Often that opportunity comes too late. Our kids are thrust out into a world with a limited understanding of what empowerment might really mean.

Superpowers, by my definition, are the physical and mental skills that we develop to adapt and thrive in a complex world while exploring the creative opportunities made possible by global progress. (See “Our FUN-damental Superpowers,” at left.) Superpowers offer an easily articulated medium for children, parents, and teachers that is both playful and purposeful. Fundamentally, they are skills reframed as a type of power within the realm of human possibility and reach. Superpowers are the catalysts that maximize the benefits of the other three foundational pillars. Simply stated, they are the pivotal piece in turning a game player into a game designer.


When 85 percent of today’s companies searching for creative talent can’t find it, will more focus on standardized curriculum, testing, and memorization provide the skills an emergent workforce needs? Not likely. Play is our greatest natural resource. In the end, it comes down to playing with our capacity for human potential. Why would we ever want to limit it? In the future, economies won’t just be driven by financial capital, but by play capital as well. And the greatest game to be played, won’t be played at all?we’ll be too busy designing the next one.

[Images from top by, D Sharon Pruitt, Ishamil Orendain, and Oskay]