No More Time Outs: An Exploration of Playful Parenting

How Playful Parenting Is Reinventing the Parent-Child Relationship

Parenting styles have always varied. Strict or lenient, hovering or independent – regardless of which way a parent bends, by integrating elements of play into their approach, they can step up their parenting game and make the menial seem more meaningful. The future of parenting may lie in the balance of providing structure, nurture, and multi-dimensional play.

Applying the same design principles that make toys, games, and entertainment fun and engaging can also shift the paradigm of parenting. Parenting today is challenged by an inundation of media, technology, and general over-stimulation. Family members are often sucked into their own device-driven worlds. Children are exposed to technology far earlier than prior generations, leaving parents uncertain about how to redirect their young digital natives to other forms of engagement. There is no precedent to this dilemma.

While it’s easy to bemoan a childhood tethered to technology, as a parent, the ultimate goal is to create a healthy, happy, educated (or “good”) person. But how is this goal possible in a fragmented world characterized by short attention spans? Just as parents ensure their children brush their teeth and eat balanced meals, so too is integrating play into their everyday lives an essential goal of parenting.

Here, we outline several design principles that we leverage in our professional lives as designers and storytellers and show how they can be applied to everyday parenting.

Design Principle #1: Engagement Through Story

In their daily interactions and activities, parents strive to create connections and share ideas with their children. This type of connection can be facilitated through a well-crafted story. Stories that bridge the child-parent gap are ever-present in theme park rides, like the endearing “It’s a Small World” at various Disney parks or the fully immersive 3D experience, “Transformers: the Ride,” at Universal Studios. Through these rides, parents and children experience a shared story, one which surprises, delights, and connects them.

The use of storytelling as a tool is also ever-present in board games as simple as Candyland, where child and parent imagine themselves as characters in a sugary world, or Clue, where through role-playing, players become key actors in solving a problem. The common ground shared by the games is narrative, which establishes the path that players walk together. Together, parents and children carry these experiential stories forward and share them for years.

At LEGO, story and role-playing are at the forefront of the development process; story ignites the imagination, while most products involve role-playing experiences as part of the play pattern. The products inspire children to become space explorers or trainers of mythical creatures, for example, or to immerse themselves in other fantastical dreams. Sparking the imagination through play is also a tool one can use to innovate. Play gives you the license to free your thinking and open your mind to discovery.

Play through storytelling need not be complex. Often times, storytelling can be employed to tackle boredom. Consider how children express their boredom while on long car trips. An everyday trick for tackling this boredom and inactivity while en route is to play the “…and then” game. This is a game that requires nothing more than imagination. Parents can start the game with a sentence that begins a story. Once the parent finishes the opening thought, puts forth a character, and shares the problem or challenge this character is facing, they pass the next part of the story to the child with “…and then.” Multiple children can play, and the story rapidly becomes silly, absurd, or even scary and thrilling. The story ends anytime the person currently speaking decides to end it. If the whole family is engaged, no one will be asking for an iPad, an Xbox, or if “we’re there yet.”

Design Principle #2: Inject Layers of Gamification

Gamification is the concept of applying game elements into non-game experiences to drive motivation and engagement. Most parents have probably applied gamification to parenting before, even if they didn’t know it. If you’ve ever tried to get multiple children out the door, you’ve probably resorted to blurting out something like this: “Last one to the car is a rotten egg!” You know what happened next: The kids instantly shifted from dawdling to a dead-sprint as they raced to the car (there may even have been a bit of shoving involved). If you’ve ever done that, congratulations! You’ve unlocked the Level 1 Parenting Gamification badge!

Since the rise of mobile devices, the number and types of gamers have increased dramatically. Nearly half of the global online population comprises active gamers – there are over 150 million gamers in the US alone. The distribution is virtually equal across genders and spans all age categories.

It can often be challenging for parents to get a child to do something they don’t want to do. This can include everything from doing chores and homework to eating their vegetables and maintaining wellness. At times, the only solution may seem to be yelling or scolding for that short-term win, but studies have shown that this creates a negative long-term impact that can result in anxiety, decreased self-esteem, and increased aggression. Applying elements of gamification to make certain tasks fun can help parents with these moments.

When social competition is leveraged, challenges are established, and valuable rewards for completed actions are provided, children may actually want to do what their parents ask of them. There are also some tools that can help parents gamify family tasks. For example, Habitica and ChoreMonster are apps that provide incentive for kids to do the tasks their parents want them to do by offering them points that can be exchanged for real-life rewards.

Design Principle #3: Connected Activities

As everyone becomes immersed in their devices and activities, families can become fragmented. Think, for example, of a family sitting down for dinner when everyone is on their own smartphones. Sure, they may be sharing some internet-induced laughs, but are they really present and enjoying quality family time? Connecting the dots between multiple activities and family members can lead to a singular and more immersive experience, but for parents, getting children to buy into “structured” play can be challenging. Still, quality family time is essential to overall wellbeing and connection. By making an event out of the every day, scheduling weekly or monthly activities, and even embracing the unexpected, parents can connect their family through play.

Consider, for example, the organization of a family talent show. Even the preparation for this event could incorporate play. Parents and children alike would use their arts and crafts skills to build stage props or design costumes for the event. In the evening, the family could practice a dance together, memorize their favorite Disney song, or even come up with jokes for a standup act. Later, they could build trophies out of LEGO bricks. And of course, the house would need a thorough cleaning to prepare for the big show – the kids might be excited to clean this time! All these little activities would come together for the talent show finale, during which the entire family would sing, dance, perform, and laugh together. Using structured, connected play, parents can create greater meaning and engagement for individual activities while encouraging quality family moments – and maybe even new family traditions.

Design Principle #4: Empowerment and Meaning

Throughout the day, kids are often told what to do – so, naturally, they hunger for greater control and ownership of their own behavior. Returning the power to the child can help them create meaning in a way that stimulates their creative growth and independence.

The best example of this concept is the Montessori practice of learning, where children are given structure and direction, but also the freedom to make their own choices. When children can move freely through the classroom and discover their own interests – all while being given tasks and responsibilities – they develop a better awareness and understanding of their school, their fellow students, and their environment.

Minecraft takes this empowerment a step further. It provides children with their own endless world to explore and build whatever they can imagine. There is no objective, no right or wrong way of playing. The player is not only ruler of their world, but of their entire play experience. They have full control over how they choose to play. With over 100 million registered users and 74 million monthly active users, Minecraft demonstrates that there is clearly a market for activities that create empowerment and meaning.

When children are “in charge,” they can productively put their sense of power and meaning to use. Having a child keep a record of their allowance money in a specific notebook, for example, empowers them. Another method may be assigning the care of a specific plant to them. By allowing the child to care for this plant until it flowers, and encouraging them to write down the changes week by week, parents can teach the child to appreciate the effort it takes to care for a living thing while also giving them a sense of self-satisfaction. Even presenting a child with choices for their lunchbox and allowing them to choose from those options can be empowering. For children, owning their decisions – even if the choices have already been curated by the parent – is a moment of growth and ownership that fulfills their need for autonomy.

Congratulations: You’re Ready For Playful Parenting

Motivating children to engage in daily activities can improve their creative development while bringing the whole family together. Playful parenting is not simply about unplugging for quality time with the family, but intentionally including play to create shared experiences in everyday living.

In summary, the following key ideas used in creative play and toy design can be applied to parenting:

/ Engaging through story is easily achieved by introducing a narrative. Whether they are on their way to school or walking the dog, when a child is engaged in role play, they can build a shared story that will spark their imagination throughout the day and provide them memories to treasure.

/ Gamification isn’t anything new, but it’s time to level-up. There are already apps made to incentivize children to complete mundane tasks, but parents can level it up by raising the stakes through social competition that establishes challenges and provides rewards for completed actions.

/ Connected play is a series of smaller activities that results in an overall ongoing experience. Activities that build up to weekly, monthly, and annual events as a family can organically inject everyday play as each family member contributes to the bigger event. Family talent shows, shopping and preparing meals, and planning an annual trip or party are opportunities for moments of connection through play.

/ Empowerment and meaning in play can be achieved by giving a child control to make everyday choices, even if the parent designs them. Electronic devices are so addictive because children have the power to customize their experience. Personalizing a child’s journey can not only enhance the parent-child relationship, but also spark independence and creativity.

Play will always evolve, but thoughtfully applying its principles every day can lead to a more connected and satisfying “happier when unplugged” family life. No matter how much the world around them may change, children will always thrive through purposeful – and fun – play.

the author

Loie Maxwell

Loie Maxwell is principal at Loie Maxwell Consulting and a former creative executive at Cartoon Network, Mattel, Target, and Starbucks.

the author

Dan Winger

Dan Winger is a senior innovation designer at The LEGO Group.