October 16, 2018
Today, kids spend an average of six hours on a screen every day and get less than the one hour of recommended physical activity. The digital age has fundamentally changed play. New technology has unfortunately not been designed around the way humans already interact. Hunching over a smartphone or staring at a screen all day was not an anticipated behavior the inventors of these technologies. Who would have thought that 10 years later we would have smartphone-related neck pain or screen time effects on children’s mental health in the news? In the same way, we should design technology around existing play patterns instead of forming bad habits for kids around screen-time and solitary play. There are other factors contributing to the decrease in active play today. More families are living in cities, which often leads to less unstructured outdoor play with no yards to let kids run wild in. About 30% of kindergarteners today do not have recess at school because it is increasingly replaced by more structured, facilitated activities. I witnessed this trend through my years babysitting between 2003-2012 and have made it my mission to reclaim active play for the next generation of kids with Unruly Studios.
Technology needs to adapt to the best ways for kids to learn because active play is crucial for children’s development into adults. With so many efforts to create ways for girls to best learn STEM to be successful in the digital future, we cannot forget that being effective in these careers goes beyond technical skills. STEM requires key ingredients of resilience, social-emotional skills, and executive function (high-level problem solving), all of which are learned through play. These ingredients help children learn crucial skills to collaborate and innovate as adults in today’s work environment. Active play is social, interactive, and happens in the real world. The benefits of exercise on health are well-known. Kids who get physical activity are more focused and able to learn, and more mentally healthy. But the benefits of active play for girls goes far beyond that.
For young girls, active play can also help promote healthy risk-taking. Young girls are taught to be perfect, and that follows them their entire lives. Active play is naturally messy and open-ended: the ideal environment to learn to be okay with a first attempt and develop a growth mindset. Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, is quoted saying, “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” because jumping in and doing something new requires that you not expect perfection. This goes for active play as well as learning STEM skills like coding, which require an iterative approach.
Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st-century skills, such as problem-solving, collaboration, negotiation, and creativity, which are all critical for adult success. A childhood of active play, whether it be rollerblading around the house (not recommended) or making rules for games of tag in the backyard with my brothers, has prepared me as the founder of a technology company more than any specific technical skills. Being a founder requires resilience, and I learned that from meeting Debbie Sterling early in my entrepreneurial journey. She has been an incredible resource and cheerleader for me through the Unruly journey so far. At Unruly Studios, our mission is empowering children to learn critical STEM skills through active, social play. Our first product, Unruly Splats teaches kids to learn to code by playing recess-style games like tag, whack-a-mole, relay races, and more. While Splats are for both girls and boys, we hope that the social and active aspects of our gameplay create an experience that helps more girls learn to code than has before. While kids need to learn to create new technology, Splats empowers them to learn without losing the essence of being a kid: running, jumping, laughing, stomping, and most importantly, playing.
Bryanne Leeming is the founder of Unruly Studios, which created Unruly Splats to teach kids how to code through active recess-style play to prepare them to invent the future.