Mapping the future of play

A Q+A with Dr. Jody Sherman LeVos, Mattel’s Director of Child Development and Learning

Looking around, one could be forgiven for thinking that the future of play begins and ends on a screen of some sort. But ubiquitous screens—and new technology in general—are just part of the story.

For Dr. Jody Sherman LeVos, the Director of Child Development and Learning at Mattel, play in all its forms is more important than ever, and its prospects are brighter than a Retina display.

In her academic career, LeVos focused on, among other subjects, how children develop mathematical concepts. At Mattel, she heads efforts to build a foundational curriculum called the Child Development and Learning Framework—a resource that maps a set of global, sequenced skills for children from birth through age 12.

Here, LeVos shares her perspective on why it’s essential to understand how play affects child development and what the future of play looks like, from the venerable playroom doll chest to new children’s learning centers in China.

Q: Why is making sure kids have rich play experiences so important?

A: First, we know that play is a very powerful mechanism through which children can learn the skills that they need to succeed in the 21st century. So when we lose playtime, we’re essentially cutting off time for kids to rehearse those skills.

Second, I think there’s a sense of urgency as parents are thinking about how busy their working weeks have become, along with their kids’ structured play, from sports activities to music lessons and whatever else. Then there are reports of recesses being cut at school—not as much time now for free play or art or other things. There is a fear that kids are losing this opportunity in their lives to play, and that’s one reason why it’s really important to talk about play today.

Q: What are some of the key skills and traits that kids develop from play?

A: During play, children identify a problem or a theme. They experiment with ways to address that problem or theme. They observe the results of their attempts and then modify or fix their solutions to optimize that experience. It’s almost like a dress rehearsal for solving some of the world’s biggest problems or coming up with the next hot idea.

Play is often the process of design thinking in action. Even if the kids don’t realize what they’re doing, they’re often acting like a designer or an engineer.

Q: What do you see as the potential for play right now?

A: Ultimately, the potential for play is reached when people (I’m looking at all of us adults) stop viewing it as the opposite of work and learning; when parents, educators and policymakers truly understand and value [play’s] place in homes, schools and the community; when there are safe spaces in which children can play, and they have access to natural play spaces and access to developmentally appropriate toys; and when parents and educators can receive meaningful insights about children’s play, development and learning through the play experiences. We will be much richer when we realize that play is synonymous with learning, particularly for very young children.

Q: What have you been learning about play in your work helping Mattel build learning centers in China?

A: In some parts of the world, like in China, parents are beginning to discover and appreciate the benefits of play. [There]…the focus for a long time has been on academic success and memorization, and now millennial parents are telling us that they wish to raise their children differently from how they were raised, and they want their children to have time to play….In many cases, they’ve told us that they don’t know how to play (and this, by the way, isn’t unique to just Chinese parents). They don’t know how children should play or how to measure what is healthy play, so they’re looking for information about play. To help empower parents to support their child’s healthy development through play, we’ve launched a parenting tool with our partner Babytree. Through this tool, parents can learn more about the developmental milestones they can expect at different ages and stages, as well as receive personalized play tips to support those milestones.

I’ve learned a lot about local variations and nuances through my work in China and other emerging markets. For example, as part of a mommy-and-me lesson plan for infants, we wanted to introduce moms to a few new baby signs (simple hand gestures to communicate ideas including “more,” “all done” and “milk”) that they could use with their babies. When we tested this in the U.S., this part of the lesson was very well received, and the moms seemed familiar with the benefits of teaching a handful of simple signs to their infants to foster positive communication early on. In China, however, we were met with unexpected questions and serious concerns. The moms we worked with were unfamiliar with the concept of signs for babies and worried that teaching [signs] would delay oral language development. This was an important learning moment for us, and we realized the importance not only of truly understanding our audience, but also of the need to gather background research and articulate the results in a way that parents could easily understand.

Q: How does new technology fit into the future of play?

A: I definitely think the direction we’re heading is the integration between physical and digital. I hope that in 20 years, we’re not really talking about screen time versus no screen time. Instead, the conversation should be around whether children have sufficient access to safe, engaging and developmentally appropriate play experiences and toys.

Those play experiences themselves, I believe, are going to continue to include advances in technology that will make them more engaging, more personalized and adaptable for every kid, and therefore, hopefully more inclusive. So I think technology is going to help us take down some of the barriers to play that exist today.

What I’m particularly excited about is the opportunity for new playgrounds. I don’t mean necessarily literal playgrounds but play spaces and play experiences. Especially the opportunity to include meaningful insights for parents. By marrying play insights with our knowledge of child development and learning, we have an opportunity to help parents understand the ways in which their children like to play and learn, offer information about the types of skills being supported through those play patterns, and provide powerful play tips and activity ideas to extend the learning and play back into the home and community. Future playgrounds will be connected to other experiences in children and families’ lives, and play can be brought in as a much more connected experience.

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