The Virtual-Physical Playground

Fairies, Leprechauns, talking animals, and other imaginary creatures have been the foundation of children’s stories for eons. While unseen, they are devoutly believed in by children and far too many adults.

That something invisible can nonetheless be real is the world of childhood. For example, did you know that things, even people and pets, have names? You can’t see them, but those names are very real to everyone around the child.

In the 1950s, Children’s Fairyland was created at the Oakland, CA zoo. It was a huge hit and copied in many locations. Walt Disney toured Fairyland and was so impressed he was inspired to create Disneyland, and hired the director to lead youth programs in his first park.

The core concept of Fairyland and later Disneyland was to make the virtual world of children’s stories into concrete reality. Literally concrete.

Disney, of course, realized that he was already making children’s stories real through the magic of animation, so it was not unexpected that he would want to physically embody his characters so children could interact with them.

This trend continues today. Angry Birds has a hugely popular virtual playground game as well as several activity parks. KOMPAN recently introduced a play series based on the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Indeed, most playground companies have several “theme” products that relate to children’s stories.

Today’s children are fed a constant diet of fantasy reinforced with toys, board games, costumes, animated movies, and physical environments. While most kids can tell what is and what’s not real, this constant blurring of the line between the unseen and the physical sets up an opportunity to develop counterfactual reasoning in children between 6 and 12.

It is believed that humans tend to think of counterfactual ideas when there were exceptional circumstances that led to an event, and thus could have been avoided in the first place. We also tend to create counterfactual ideas when we feel guilty about a situation and wish to exert more control.” – Wikipedia

We can’t do a deep dive into counterfactual thinking here. However, that work needs to be done if the notion of a Virtual-Physical Playground is to be actualized and address the technology’s ethical issues.

What are the possible benefits and challenges of a Virtual-Physical Playground?

Since homo sapiens evolved, the child’s world has been filled with an ambient soup of words heard but not seen or touched yet connected to real things. The huge change for today’s children is being surrounded by an ambient soup of unseen digital connectivity. Consider the child’s experience. How does unlocking the front door turn on the house lights? How does talking to the TV change the channels? For our children, this is not the magic it is to us. Rather, it just is.

Like the beloved Labrador is Ruff, there is no magic the dog has a name, and since it is an unseen fact, it is hard for a child to imagine Ruff with a different name. Such matured counterfactual thinking is why so many children change their name at 6 to 12 years. By this age, they realize that the names of things are a just community convention arbitrarily applied, and names can be changed to better reflect the person she is becoming. What is reality now could have been different in the past and can be different going forward.

Engaging in augmented reality (AR) offers the possibility of learning through trial and error without the threat of injury. Indeed, AR is a rapidly developing area in risk management and training. Creating a virtual-physical reality platform in which children merge their digital playground with an actual playground allows children to explore both environments in fascinating and safe ways.

Or, at least, this seems intuitively true. But that’s why we need a proof-of-concept test.

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