The average eight-year-old in the U.S. spends about eight hours a day staring at a screen, and is probably more interested in texting with friends than actually meeting them at a park. The same is true in Taiwan, where a team of design students went so far as to create a digital seesaw intended to convince gadget-obsessed kids that playing outside can actually be fun.
While visiting a local playground, the designers witnessed digital addiction firsthand. “A parent brought their child to play on a seesaw, and after only a few moments, the child yelled to the parents, ‘I don’t want to play this anymore! It’s boring! I want my iPad,'” says Hui-Chuan Ma, who worked on the new design with a team of students from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology.
In response, the new solar-powered RockingPad combines digital play with traditional playground equipment: Instead of just rocking back and forth, kids compete in balance games, play pinball together, pretend to be racecar drivers, or load a set of other games, all of which force them to move and interact while still providing a little extra entertainment.
“RockingPad integrates reality and virtuality to develop a new way to play,” says Ma. “It’s not only bringing children to the reality world and interacting with others, but also making them exercise outdoor while playing. It breaks the boundaries and guides children to discover the world outside.”
In theory, though the new toys would lose some of the obvious benefits of building imagination, they could actually help kids practice other skills. “Integrating technology is not necessarily a bad thing,” Ma says.
In a time when even toddlers know how to use smartphones and expect constant stimulation, the designers argue that without some changes, playgrounds might eventually be completely abandoned.
“Children in the future may forget the time of slides, swings, or seesaws,” Ma says. “We feel that the best way to solve the issue may be increasing the technology in the amusement park equipment but keeping the way it plays. Perhaps it would be able to bring children outside to play.”
Though the design is just a concept, the students hope that it can eventually be produced. “The Rocking Pad doesn’t involve advanced technology and what we’ve designed is tech that has already been used popularly,” says Ma. “Lacking funding for the cost of the production is the biggest challenge that we have to overcome.”
It’s an interesting idea, and if someone’s going to stare at a gadget, staring at it outside with friends while exercising is clearly better than staring at it while lying in bed. But is it really so impossible to have fun in real life without a digital device?