Toca Boca and the importance of play

Toca Boca is a suite of applications that provides spaces within which to explore and play.


I often hear teachers complain that all students do on tablets is play games. This is supposedly in lieu of supposed ‘real work’. Although I would not consider myself as being a part of the anti-gamer community, I think that there are some which are more prone to consuming our attention, rather than creativity and critical thinking. (See the recent discussion associated with Coolmaths and Chromebooks) A company trying to counter this focus on consumption is Toca Boca. Started in 2010 in Sweden, Toca Boca create digital environments. The purpose is not to complete games or progress through levels, but instead work within the parameters set to participate in imaginative, open-ended play. As the Björn Jeffery explains:

I don’t think we are going to digitize all play, and it wasn’t our goal, either. It’s just a new way to play, so it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Obvious benefits are that it’s portable, so we do very well on airplanes or dinners, for that matter — situations where parents need to occupy their children. Kids get super-bored after fifteen minutes at a restaurant, whereas parents want to sit for another two hours. Bringing your Lego kit to the restaurant is a little tricky, and so maybe an iPad is more convenient. But, of course, there is also a time and a place.

Some of the different applications that I have explored with my daughters include:

  • House: Users move around a house to complete numerous chores and activities,
  • Town: Users move between a shop, police station, a house and a park. Each space includes different characters and objects to engage with.
  • Kitchen: Working between the fridge, a bench space and a cooking area, users prepare various meals. Through this process they are able to learn about how different produce changes when it is cooked, chopped and blended.
  • Car: Given a small car, users drive around within an environment that has various objects and obstacles jump over or avoid.
  • Band: There is a stage with three tiers, each with their own intensity. Each character plays a different instrument, which users can drag around the stage or they can placed on the top pedestal which allows users to control the particular instrument.
  • Hair Salon: Using a range of tools and products, including scissors, dryer, coloured spray and magic liquid which makes hair grow, users are able to create their own hair styles. Once complete, they can then create their own hairdos.
  • Fairy Tales and Tailor: Users choose clothes, apply various patterns and then accessories in the development of their own characters. They can also capture a snapshot of their finished creation.
  • Lab: Users are provided with a virtual laboratory within which to explore the elements of nature in a fun and playful way. Through a range of virtual experiments, users heat, boil, spin and cool various objects to see what happens.
  • Birthday Party & Tea Party: These apps allow users to lay out a table cloth for a party involving cake and drinks. This can be either played collaboratively or individually. Once someone has eaten or drank what have, you can then give them more. In addition to this, every so often something will spill which you need to clean up before doing anything else.
  • Builders Lab: Something of a take on Minecraft, users are given a blank space on which to build upon. There are a range of robots to help you, each offering a particular skill, whether it be creating a block, moving a block or painting the space.
  • Nature: Similar to Sim City, you are given a plot of land which you can add vegetation too, create mountains and dig out waterways. Once this is done, you can zoom in and go in search of the various flora and fauna that inhabits this created space. There is a range of objects you can collect and then feed the various animals. When you find something there is the option then to take a picture of your discovery.

In many respects these apps are about learning, they have been described as ‘digital toys for children’. This is not learning in the way that Mathletics helps with Maths, but rather applications capturing the different forms of play:

  • Active play, which is like chasing each other, playing sport, running around.
  • Make-believe play, which is imagination and role play.
  • Manipulative play, which is puzzles, construction, building, Lego, making, creating.
  • Creative play, which is arts, crafts, drawing, music.
  • Learning play, which is games and books — they are defined as learning because they are linear. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This collection is continuing to grow and evolve. So what about you? Are there any open-ended applications that you or your students use? As always, comments welcome.


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Every maker of video games knows something that the makers of curriculum don't seem to understand. You'll never see a video game being advertised as being easy. Kids who do not like school will tell you it's not because it's too hard. It's because it's--boring - Seymour Papert

On a recent episode of 2 Regular Teachers, Rick Kaylor-Thomson and Adam Lavars raised the question of computer games in school. The game in question was in fact Clash of the Clans, an online multiplayer, which encourages players to work together in the creation of clans. A few students had raised the possibility of running a lunchtime club that focused on the game. Rick and Adam posed a range of questions, such as appropriateness and responsibility. Here then are a few of my thoughts and reflections to continue the conversation:

  • 13+: An interesting topic is the 13+ requirement, especially in Primary school. However, what is not often discussed is why so many applications are restricted to 13+. This relates to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (or COPPA), a United States federal law. The purpose is to restrict the data that can be collected on children without consent, it is for this reason that sites, like Edmodo, require parent approval. The issue with the COPPA law is that sites and companies are not required to verify the age of those signing up, this is what allows many children to use sites, such as Instagram and Facebook. One potential solution for schools is that accounts are managed by a teacher to bypass the 13+ issue.
  • Teachable Moment: One of the interesting points that was made again and again throughout the podcast was that the game was not ‘educational’. Common Sense Media suggests that the game offers the possibility to engage with others, to learn from experience and learn in a supported environment, especially in the beginning. These lessons are also clearly reiterated by Donelle Batty in her reflection on the game.  Personally though, I feel this only the tip of the iceberg, that everything can be educational and provides the potential for teachable moments. Some excellent examples of games in learning include: Festival of Gaming by Mel Cashen, Should Video Games Be Used to Help Use Learning in High School? by Bianca Hewes, Digital Sandpit by Ben Gallagher and Minecraft Across the Curriculum by Lee Hewes.
  • Violence: Some questions were raised about the inherent violence within the game. Common Sense Media describes it as follows, “The games is more about attacking non-player character such as goblins or the villiagers of other players.” This always makes me wonder if we critique traditional media the same way we critique games and so forth. The reality is that violence is a part of our world and within our literature. Do we teach colonisation to Primary students and deny that there was any conflict? I admit there are always limits, however I don’t think denial ever worked for anyone.
  • What Kind of Parent Are You?: Through discussion, there was mention made of parents and how they might see the problem. I was reminded here is Alexandra Samuel’s study into digital parenting. Samuel suggests that when it comes to parents, there are three clear types: limiters, enablers and mentors. Limiters keep their children away from the internet meaning that they are kept out of the digital world. Enablers trust their kids online, but leave them to their own accord. Mentors on the other hand, walk hand in hand guiding producing. I think that the reality is that each of these parents is going to have a different perspective on their children playing the game.

So what about you? What have been your experiences of games inside the classroom and out? I recommend going to the 2 Regular Teachers blog and leaving a comment to continue the conversation.


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