The Playful Side of Apps

Our feature this week is written by Bjorn Jeffery of Toca Boca, a Swedish game studio that makes mobile apps with “Play” as the central theme. Bjorn reviews five different types of play, which is a reminder about how playful these little iToys can be.

I’d like to share some of the research that went into creating our new game studio: Toca Boca. Since we come from a Research & Development background, we spent quite some time making sure we were prepared for the challenge of the competitive app market for kids. We discovered some interesting things.

To begin, we mapped the existing kids apps and categories we saw on the App Store. To generalize a little, it turned out to be a lot of flashcards, ABCs, book adaptions, and a surprising amount of cupcake apps. Some very ambitious, others not so much. There was definitely space for more serious studios. More importantly, we tried to look beyond the app category to see what needs that they tried to address for kids, to better understand where our product could differentiate and stand out from the general trends.  

In her book “The Right Stuff for Children Birth to 8” (published by the NAEYC), Martha B. Bronson talks about five different ways of playing.  Kids progress through all of them depending on ages, stages, gender, cultural context, personal preference and many other factors.

The types of play are:

  • Active Play – physical activity, sports, playing outside
  • Make-Believe Play – playing with dolls, different types of role-play
  • Manipulative Play – construction and puzzles
  • Creative Play – playing music, drawing and painting, crafting
  • Learning Play – reading books, playing games, developing certain skills

So if these are the ways that kids love playing – are the apps in the App Store facilitating all types? Not necessarily. Many are in the “Learning” category, with a few in the “Creative” category. But where are the apps that encourage kids to be active? Or to actively use their imagination? So that is where we started to develop.

At Toca Boca, we believe that apps can stimulate and facilitate all types of play. It requires thinking beyond the screen and regarding the device not as a phone but as an object that is an integral part of different ways of playing. The best way to explain what I mean is to shortly describe the two apps that we will feature this week for App Friday:

Helicopter Taxi is a digital toy that uses the camera to create the effect that the helicopter is in the room with you. Unlike most kids apps, it doesn’t require kids to look at the screen the whole time and instead acts as a toy that encourages kids to move in a room and be creative with their imagination. To use the terminology above, it stimulates “Active Play”.

Toca Tea Party is a digital toy that turns the iPad into a coffee table for kids. The iPad is just a part of the fun but the toys and dolls that are sitting around it are just as important. The features of the toy helps facilitate the process through asking for more cookies and cakes, or spilling out tea that needs to be cleaned up. But kids play with it in whatever way they want to – because it is free and open ended. It is an example of encouraging “Make-Believe Play”.

Going forward, I hope to see a wider range of toys and games that take on all types of behavior and fun for kids. There are so many ways of playing that could benefit from a digital facilitator in some way. Think beyond the screen and get creative!

8 Replies to “The Playful Side of Apps”

  1. Thanks for publishing this informative article about play. It touches on what happens in a well-run educational program. Some of these apps make it easy to teach / practice concepts in game format. I look forward to using the helicopter app in my classroom.

  2. Verbs with Milo can be a great way to stimulate active play by having kids imitate the action each time! Great for working on gross motor imitation skills while learning verbs!

  3. In the interests of transparency, I have engaged with Bjorn’s team at Toca Boca. But, I am glad to see him sharing their approach and research, these five different ways of playing align with what children need to develop and we should be able to have apps that meet all of these domains. Indeed, I’d encourage you all to think more about how you can build apps that support “make believe play”…Toca Tea Party is one of the few that have attempted this and they do it very well.

    Congrats Bjorn. Thanks for sharing with the crowd.

  4. Bjorn, congrats on both of the games! I am so glad to see someone using augmented reality for a kids game! Helicopter taxi reminds me a bit about when I was younger and loved playing with Matchbox cars. I think your apps really push the envelope!

  5. Hi,
    I’d love to use the Helicopter Taxi for a social skill building with some of my younger clients; however I am having issues with the picture background? I have an iPad2, which has 2 cameras (front/back). Is anyone else able to use this app on their iPad2 and have the room show up?
    Thank you,

  6. Jenny – drop a line to and we’ll try to help you! We haven’t had the possibility to test it on an iPad 2 yet unfortunately.

    Ahmed – Thanks a lot!

    Daniel – Really appreciate the feedback!

    Toca Boca

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