NO ADULTS ALLOWED (except you)

REACT's Managing Producer Jo Lansdowne reflects on the joy of our most recent Play Sandbox workshop

At our last Play Sandbox workshop, in December, we had a fairly open brief. The Young Coaches joined us for some testing after school but we had decided against any speakers or structured sessions for the rest of the day. As a producer on Play Sandbox, I have the pleasure of working with all of the teams between the workshops and always come away from those conversations motivated and with new insights that I am excited by. We wanted the teams to have that feeling too, at this tricky halfway point in the project, and to feel the presence of the most valuable resource a Sandbox has to offer – each other. So we asked people to come with an offer to the group; a reading list, a provocation, a great video or some lessons from previous projects. And it was so great.

The project formerly known as Flatpack Cinema now Teleportation Tent (yes please!) have, appropriately, been thinking about transformative journeys in recent weeks. About how a carefully crafted experience can guide you through your own narrative rather than tell you a story, and what the framework for this might be in a hybrid product like theirs. Amy and May of Anagram are masters of gently changing people’s state of mind, of being, as they demonstrated through performing the opening of their work Door into the Dark for us. Crucially, it begins before the audience thinks that the piece has started, and Amy encouraged the group to consider the moments before and beyond direct engagement with their product carefully: ‘if you can get into their minds without them realising, then you can do real mischief’.

In the activities that this team have run with children, an important moment has demonstrably been when they first claim a den. Helping out on one of these sessions I was repeatedly told that ‘NO ADULTS ’ were allowed in their mock up tent. This sense of territory is important and something that the team are eager to cultivate.  It has also come up for Curio Keepsake, a product very much motivated by the need for children to have ownership over their stuff and its stories. A recurrent theme in their design activities with the Young Coaches has been the secret compartment, be it a concealed door or a CCTV rigged tardis, a protected space where others can’t follow. This is something that the team plan to build in to the final box because, as Chloe discussed with us at the workshop, our emotional response to our objects is absolutely key to their longevity. In her talk about sustainable design, she showed us some beautiful products in terms of materials but also posited that every discarded but functional electronic item is a sign of a failed relationship. Given their market, that relationship in these projects is clearly far from straightforward. When one of the Young Coaches returned his prototype Curio Keepsake in the afternoon he quickly told me that his parents had not allowed him to use the camera (provided for him to record how he used it) and so his dad had taken all of the pictures.

The notion of ‘gatekeepers’, which refers to this exact issue, was explained at the workshop by Jill of the Mice of Mischief team. This is an important concept when considering the availability and accesibility of any product, but particularly those for children. Recognising this, the team have been actively talking to parents about what they think makes ‘rewarding play’ and observing what the children themselves appear to find rewarding. These might, but might not, be the same things. While the team want their app to support the development of Mathematical skills in its users, they do not want it to feel like a lesson - it should be inherently fun. This balance has also been at the heart of discussions in the Mighty Minis team. They have moved away from the idea of a ‘collectible fitness toy’  to something which encourages, and incentivises, ‘good’ activity. For example, you may get particular attributes for your character by tidying your room – but is the aim to get the child to this useful job, to make a chore they have to do anyway feel more fun or to respond to their own sense that tidying their room is a healthy thing to do? And if you want to make a case for your product being beneficial to children, how do you promote the outcomes to parents while maintaining the sense of play.

The notion of ‘play’ and ‘player’ that run throughout our projects, was examined by Esther at our workshop. There is no one definition that explains or codifies the behaviours of players absolutely and interestingly Esther asked the group to consider whether an object might be a player itself. Can a computer play? Does a ball play? The STRAX team are certainly carefully considering the inherent qualities of their blocks for play. The game has become about world creation and, in watching the Young Coaches test it, it is clear that even as they play each other, they are also playing against the game itself – trying to understand, stretch, master and trick something that sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t another character (player?) in the room.  Similarly, Connected Play are exploring the idea of play object as character, swings in their case, and perhaps as one which helps you to make some sense of the world. For them, designing for play means responding to its intuitive nature. Tine spoke to us about how people, and indeed animals, have physical signals that invite others to join them playing and how in previous work she used light to reflect this in a simple interaction that played with the audience.

There were three talks at the workshop which I haven’t referred to and which together, I think, sum up something of Play Sandbox. Silas gave a hugely informative talk on funding structures for hardware start ups which had people furiously scribbling notes. And Tarim reminded the group that however much they research, test and design a product at some point they will have to set it free - it will then belong to the children who use it (in all kinds of unanticipated ways). Both of these contributions spoke to the future, to a point when the teams have made things that can live in the world, which is very much the ambition that Sandbox has for them. For now however, we are still in the process. Cara’s talk was a comparison between the poetry of the middle ages, Piers Plowman, and the computer game The Legend of Zelda. It was fascinating in its own right as a study of imagery and symbolism but for me it was also a lovely example of what REACT can do. Cara wanted this to be the subject of her Masters dissertation but was discouraged; it was too ambiguous, nobody would understand it and the tutors didn’t have any scholarly interest in the subject. The fact that she felt the permission to share her thoughts with the group, had confidence that it would be of interest and that people would respond (even though it was a bit of a curve ball!) was a very lovely end to Play Sandbox 2014.  

Read all abour our Play Sandbox Projects at our Play Sandbox Microsite