At the turn of the century, I began approaching playground manufactures with the notion of using digital technology on the playground. While most of this work was proprietary, I was able to publish some of the research.
The late, and much missed Bernie De Koven advanced the notion in The Well-Played Game, that games increase in fun and engagement when the players are equally matched. I used this idea to design a challenge course in which smart obstacles recorded performance. The score the player received was based strictly on player’s past achievements. The game, Personal Best, allowed the creation of teams without regard to player’s ability. To achieve a high score, all a team had to do is better than they did before. Because the tech at that time was so flakey, we tested the idea with old-fashioned coaching and found that it is very powerful. I must confess that I teared up seeing a team yell and cheer for an overweight student that did one more pull-up that his previous record of five. An article on this project appeared in Playground Professionals Magazine in 2014.
It is well established that digital games are the most powerful way to engage kids. Unfortunately, this all too often results in isolation.
To explore the possibility of using tech to get kids outside, more active, and playing together, in concert with Mike Lanza, the author of Playborhood, we explored using IoT in combination with Geocaching. While this was an interesting adventure, it was blown out of the water by Pokémon GO. The only concrete result of this research was yet another article in 2016, Pokémon GO, Play and Parks.
What have we learned?
There are two big take-aways from two decades of research. The first insight comes in part from watching the lackluster adoption of current interactive playground systems. This was been reinforced by testing of various options as detailed above. What we have learned is that using the systems that use power of smart devices and the ability to connect to IoT will beat any attempt to create smart play apparatus.
The second insight, is that playground equipment producers are not well positioned to develop the tech for Smart Toy Boxes. If not the playground industry, then who?
How about the tech companies?
I have shied away from approaching Silicon Valley outfits because, while they love innovation and gamification, at the corporate level they are difficult to connect with. After all, Smart Play Boxes don’t need anything cutting edge. Rather, we want cheap, reliable and off the shelf.
Wait! Cheap, reliable and off the shelf. That sounds like the tech for cashier-free retail that is being rolled at scale. Hey, if its good enough for Amazon, who am I to disagree? https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/amazons-cashierless-checkout-technology-is-coming-to-its-new-supermarkets.html